On September 15, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee Office published a document titled Opinions Concerning Strengthening New Era United Front Work in the Private Economy (关于加强新时代民营经济统战工作的意见, Guanyu Jiaqiang Xinshidai Minying Jingji Tongzhan Gongzuo de Yijian) (hereafter “Opinions”) (CCP Central Committee, September 15). This document, which lays out directives for CCP organs to take a closer and more direct role in supervising China’s private sector enterprises, is but the latest development in the steadily increase of the roles and responsibilities of the CCP United Front Work Department (UFWD) during the tenure of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping (China Brief, April 24, 2018; China Brief, May 9, 2019).
The Opinions echo earlier statements by CCP leaders about the centrality of united front work (China Brief, May 9, 2019) by asserting that “private economy united front work is a major effort for the entire party” (民营经济统战工作是全党的重要工作, minying jingji tongzhan gongzuo shi quandang de zhongyao gongzuo) (Opinions, section 8). The release of the document was also accompanied by a series of political meetings and a propaganda campaign in state media involving senior CCP officials from the united front policy architecture (see accompanying image). These developments signal clear intent by the CCP to bring China’s growing private sector industries under tighter party-state supervision.
Bolstering the Role of the Party
A core message of the new set of directives is the need to tighten supervision over private enterprises in order to ensure the CCP’s ruling status. The document emphasizes that the private sector is a key part of China’s overall economy, and “an important strength that, from start to finish, our party must unify and depend upon for long-term governance.” Therefore, party members are advised that “strengthening…united front work is an important means of achieving the party’s leadership over the private economy” (加强… 统战工作是实现党对民营经济领导的重要方式, jiaqiang… tongzhan gongzuo shi shixian dang dui minying jingji lingdao de zhongyao fangshi) (Opinions, section 1, article 1).
The directives contain undertones that hint at a fundamental clash of interests within the CCP: on the one hand, the need to leverage the potential dynamism of private enterprises for technology advancement and economic growth; while on the other, preventing these same companies from threatening the interests of state-controlled enterprises (SOEs). The document states that the party must “bring into play the positive functions of private industry for technological innovation and positive transformation” (Opinions, sec. 5, art. 15). However, it also asserts that “[we] must from beginning to end persist in and perfect our country’s fundamental economic system, [and] unshakably solidify and develop the public economic sector” (Opinions, sec. 1, art. 2).
Some of the propaganda themes surrounding the drive for renewed private economy united front work hint at the CCP’s perennial anxiety regarding organizations beyond its control. One such slogan extols party members and the public to “more effectively promote the healthy development (健康发展, jiankang fazhan) of the private economy” (see accompanying image). “Healthy” and “unhealthy” trends are frequently invoked in state propaganda as codewords for loyalty or disloyalty to the CCP—and in this context, “healthy development” is therefore characterized by loyalty to the party and its central leadership.
Recruiting Private Economic Actors into the Party
Per the Opinions, a key component of united front work must be to “bring the broad [numbers] of private economic persons more closely united into the party’s orbit” (Opinions, sec. 1, art. 1). As one of the surest means of establishing further control over the private sector, the directives call for the active recruitment of “private economic persons” (民营经济人, minying jingji ren) into the ranks of the CCP—an effective doubling-down on an element of the “Three Represents” concept originally set forth under Jiang Zemin. 
To facilitate such recruitment, local UFWD and other concerned departments are to compile “representative person databases and talent banks” (代表人士数据库和人才库, daibiao renshi shujuku he rencaiku) of promising individuals—especially in high-tech industries—in order to “cultivate a team of private economic persons who are resolute in walking with the party, and wholeheartedly committed to development” (Opinions, sec. 4, art. 11). If the company in question does not have its own party organization, then the organization departments of CCP committees at county level and above are authorized to conduct this liaison and cultivation work (Opinions, sec. 4, art. 12).
The document also calls upon lower-echelon party bodies to initiate pilot programs, under which selected individuals from private industry would be assigned positions in a variety of united front bureaucratic organizations. This could include appointment as chairpersons of provincial-level branches of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce; taking up seats at various levels of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) system; and more vaguely, appointment as “special inspectors and special ombudsmen” (特约检察员, 特约监察员 / teyue jiancha yuan, teyue jiancha yuan) (Opinions, sec. 4, art. 13).
Ideological Indoctrination for Private Sector Actors
The need for more rigorous ideological “education”—within both the party itself, as well as Chinese society as a whole—has been a major theme of CCP propaganda over the past year (China Brief, December 10, 2019; China Brief, December 31, 2019). Much of the Opinions text is taken up by repeated assertions of the need for rigorous ideological indoctrination, in order to “lead private economic persons to unceasingly enhance a sense of political identification with the Chinese Communist Party and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” (Opinions, sec. 3, art. 7). Such ideological training should increase “patriotism” and the party’s “political leadership and thought leadership” among economic actors (Opinions, sec. 3), and place such persons “on the political path to maintain a high level of unity with the party center” (Opinions, sec. 3, art. 7).
The specific means by which this is to be accomplished are not entirely clear, although the document indicates that “United Front Departments of party committees at various levels should establish a system of responsibility for ideological thought work in the private enterprise realm” (Opinions, sec. 3, art. 6). CCP party schools at all echelons are to be responsible for formulating content for this training (Opinions, section 4, art. 12). For their part, enterprise managers are exhorted to “strengthen self-study, self-education, [and] self-improvement” (Opinions, section 3, art. 7)—potentially suggesting intent to draw such persons into the CCP’s use of mandatory self-study apps such as Xuexi Qiangguo (China Brief, December 31, 2019).
The Role of Industry Associations in Private Sector United Front Work
The Opinions document also lays out general (albeit vague) guidance regarding the mechanisms by which these goals are to be accomplished. Two organizational bureaucracies, operating at multiple echelons, are assigned prominent roles: the CCP UFWD itself; and the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce (中华全国工商业联合会, Zhonghua Quanguo Gongshangye Lianhehui) (ACFIC), a UFWD-subordinate umbrella organization for state-controlled industry associations. The document states that:
Party committees at various levels should rely upon united front work leading small groups, establishing and perfecting… coordination mechanisms, conducting regular study deployments [and] comprehensive planning to advance private enterprise united front work. They should fully bring into play party committee [UFWDs]… [and] the bridging and assistance functions of [ACFIC]. (Opinions, section 8, art. 26)
ACFIC and its “subordinate industry associations” are to provide the basis of “major organizational support for private economy united front work” (Opinions, sec. 7). In addition to advocating increased roles for ACFIC and its subordinate bodies (Opinions, sec. 5, art. 18), the document indicates that party officials should “encourage and guide” private enterprises to join these organizations (Opinions, sec. 7, art. 24). Cadres are also directed to focus greater effort on strengthening the party organizations within these industry associations, and to “establish systems for party and government leading cadres to interface with industry associations” on a more regular basis (Opinions, sec. 7, art. 24; sec. 6, art. 21).
The central theme of governance under Xi Jinping has been the effort to extend the CCP’s totalitarian reach ever-further into all facets of Chinese society. It is therefore no surprise that private enterprises would also be subject to Xi’s commonly-repeated dictum that “the party leads all.” However, there are other, long-term reasons that the CCP leadership would wish to establish tighter supervision—and even active control—over China’s growing private sector. The CCP leadership clearly sees that it needs to harness the potential dynamism and innovative capabilities of private industry, especially in emerging high-tech sectors; but it also wishes to avoid direct economic competition between private firms and SOEs that might risk social unrest and threaten entrenched interest groups within the party. The leadership’s obsession with the anti-communist revolutions of 1989, and the “color revolutions” that have followed in subsequent decades, have also imprinted a lesson regarding the dangers of failing to engage and coopt emerging social groups.
More immediate concerns may also be providing further impetus to the drive for increased authority over the private sector. A general economic downturn—exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the trade war with the United States, and severe flooding throughout the summer—is likely prompting increased concern by senior CCP officials to gain greater control over all levers of the economy. These steps also align with the turn towards greater economic autarky as reflected in the “dual circulation” (双循环, shuangxunhuan) concept unveiled earlier this summer (China Brief, August 14, 2020).
However, increased party control over private enterprises could risk inhibiting the very innovative dynamism that state officials wish to harness. It also risks further fueling foreign suspicions that Chinese companies—to include nominally private ones—are stalking horses for state ambitions. The campaign for enhanced “private economy united front work” will likely be successful in reinforcing state authority over private companies, but it will be unlikely to resolve these underlying contradictions and challenges.
John Dotson is the editor of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, feel free to reach out to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
 The “Three Represents” (三个代表, Sange Daibiao), an official CCP ideological formulation first promulgated in 2000, included the idea that the CCP must embrace “the development trend of China’s advanced productive forces” (China Daily, July 10, 2007). This was, in part, coded language for allowing private businesspeople into the party. The idea was controversial at the time, but the CCP has since made major efforts over the past two decades to coopt and recruit business leaders.