The Life and Death of United Front Promises From Revolution to (Re)-Unification Past, Present and Future

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 19

Police subdue a protester during the September 29, 2019 “anti-totalitarianism” rally in Hong Kong (source: Wikipedia)


The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) dramatic show of military force in the Taiwan Straits between August 4-6, ostensibly in retaliation for the visit to Taipei by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking American visitor in decades, while impressive in many respects, was also a sign to the rest of the world of a key Chinese weakness (, August 6). Xi Jinping, as General Secretary of the CCP and state president, has few options left for gaining direct control over Taiwan other than by force. This is despite a decades-long offer under the banner of “One-Country, Two-Systems” (1C2S) and a “peaceful unification” deal proffered by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s as part of United Front Work to bring Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan under direct CCP control (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs [FMPRC]). Under this proposal, Taiwan would, in theory, be able to retain its systems of government and institutions and even military, if it recognized the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) as sovereign over it.

Lessons from Hong Kong

The promise of One-Country, Two-systems is probably the best known CCP assurance made in the context of its contemporary United Front Work because it was crucial to the ultimately successful negotiations with Britain and Portugal, which brought first Hong Kong and then Macau, under direct CCP sovereignty in 1997 and 1999, respectively (FMPRC, November 17, 2000). In both cases, the CCP promised that the status quo would be upheld for fifty years. While the integration of Macau has gone relatively smoothly, the eruption of dissent and open unrest in Hong Kong, including mass demonstrations, resulted in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the PRC passing a set of National Security Laws to cover Hong Kong in mid-2020 (China Brief, July 29, 2020). This direct intervention by the PRC and the nature of the laws themselves, as well as the return to using British colonial-era sedition laws, meant the clear and effective end of Hong Kong’s judicial independence and thus a key plank of the One-Country, Two-Systems promise —twenty-seven years ahead of schedule!

This abrogation was noted in Taiwan, where it made the work of the tiny minority of pro-unification activists even harder and reinforced the skepticism of others regarding the value of CCP promises. The events in Hong Kong aided the election of the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen in 2020, while the CCP’s pronouncements on the IC2S seemingly undermined the otherwise sympathetic Kuomintang Candidate Han Kuo-Yu (Taiwan News, January 8, 2020).

While some lawyers might have been surprised by the turn of events in Hong Kong, scholars of CCP history would not have been. While united front promises have often played important, even crucial roles in helping the Party achieve its ends, they have rarely, if ever, ended when those who succumbed to them expected. Instead, such promises are always contingent ones, dependent on the shifting needs and circumstances of the party and often made cynically and with a clear view to the ultimate casting aside, if not elimination, of those who have helped the Party once the need for help has passed or the Party is strong enough to do without assistance.

United Front Work’s Revolutionary Roots 

The nature of United Front Work is that of the CCP reaching out to individuals, groups, classes or even countries it needs to achieve its goals at any given time and for periods ranging from months to years or decades. This was once framed as reaching out to classes outside the Party’s “natural” constituencies, like workers, peasants and soldiers as determined by Marxist-Leninist and later Maoist ideology. Because the goal of the Party was the full socialization of the means of production and thereby eliminating the basis of classes and the achievement of communism, to win the support or at least acquiescence of other classes with useful assets (money, knowledge, influence, etc.) who would be the eventual target of elimination, concessions would be made to their material interests under the banner of greater altruistic causes which seemingly justified the CCP compromising if not hiding their revolutionary principles. [1]

The greater cause of eventual revolutionary success justifies concessions in the here-and-now. Failure to make such concessions, when necessary, would be in in Lenin’s words, a leftist infantile disorder. [2] However, concessions are only good for as long as is necessary to overcome the weaknesses that required them or if they have become a greater threat to the Party than a help. In most cases, this means when the Party is strong enough to do without its allies or can replace them from within its own ranks. What this means in practice is that any promises made in united front context by a revolutionary communist party, such as the CCP are always conditional and contingent on Party needs and circumstances and/or the degree to which the Party’s goals have been met  or become endangered.

The CCP was not keen to embark on its first united front with the then rising revolutionary anti-imperialist Kuomintang (KMT) in the early-1920s but having only just been founded in 1921, it was a small, disparate party lacking in numbers and organizational experience. The bloody end of the “First Period of Nationalist – Communist Cooperation” (第一次国共合作, di yi ci guogong hezuo )” in April 1927 has mostly been remembered in the West as an absolute disaster for the CCP. [3] Nevertheless, the CCP emerged from this struggle much stronger and with the needed experience to survive into the future. The key lesson the Party drew from their expulsion and subsequent purge from the united front with the KMT was the absolute need to maintain organizational independence and leadership in any setting and this remains a cardinal principle of the CCP.

By the mid-1930s, the KMT had come close to finally eliminating the CCP even in its remote rural strongholds. The CCP needed all the help it could muster in the cities to fend off the Nationalist threat. Therefore, the CCP called for a united front against a common enemy, Japan which was stepping up its invasion of China proper, having expanded out of Manchuria. To better secure its place in the countryside and minimize support for the KMT, the CCP moderated its then radical left revolutionary program and actions, such as killing landlords and radical land redistribution, by clothing itself in reformist garb and appropriating the moderate language of the KMT’s late founder, Sun Yatsen. The CCP had not disowned its ultimate program as revealed in its radical agenda. Rather, the Party was under existential pressure and Stalin’s Soviet Union also wanted it to again work with the Nationalists to fight Japan.

The period between 1936 and 1945, which is often called the era of the second KMT-CCP united front, is more accurately described in Chinese as the second period of GMD-CCP cooperation that was just one part of a much broader Anti-Japanese United Front for the CCP. In 1940 subsequent concessions were justified in ideological terms by party leader Mao Zedong’s work, “On New Democracy.” [4]

New Democracy was even more explicitly aimed at assuaging the fears of urban Chinese by promising them a future in which China’s different classes and their forms of capitalist and bourgeois forms of property ownership would coexist as part of a “New China.” How long this coexistence would last was never clear, but it was going to be for “a long time.” This program became more important after the CCP learned of Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941. At this point, the CCP came to believe that Japan’s defeat was now inevitable, so preparations should be made to pivot to the subsequent eventual showdown with the KMT. In the interim, the party was so successful in promoting its new image, one far removed from the Red Terror of 1927-1930, that many foreign visitors, like Edgar Snow, often came away convinced that the Party was one of “agrarian reformers” and painted a very rosy picture of the Party for foreign audiences. Tellingly, the CCP still holds up Snow as a model for foreign journalists, who cover China today (CGTN, March 22, 2021).

The CCP’s adoption of moderate policies in the countryside, notably rent reductions for tenants rather than confiscation from landlords, the institution of the so-called three thirds systems of local representation (one-third Communists, one-third Left progressives, and one-third middle-of-the-roaders and other elements) came under strain after 1945, when the long simmering civil war between the GMD and CCP resumed. As the need for soldiers increased, the CCP resorted to promising to entice peasants to volunteer. Meeting these promises, required the CCP to abrogate its previous tolerance of landlords in favor of land confiscation and redistribution. At the same time, the CCP was reassuring those in the cities that little would change should they win, and that all rights would be protected under the banner of New Democracy while it pursued final victory through military means. Other promises made to numerous minor political parties and groups, KMT-allied armies and individuals during the course of the civil war and in the context of United Front Work were immediately put to the test after the CCP won victory. A key tactic united front tactic undermining the Nationalist government in the cities was the CCP’s “Second Front Line” (第二条战线, di er tiao zhanxian)—the use of mass demonstrations protesting inflation, unemployment, civil war and the subsequent crackdowns on those same protests. [5]

The founding of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) by the CCP in October 1949 ushered in the era of New Democracy in a “New China” and its much heralded long-term coexistence of different forms of ownership and classes. However, the length of this coexistence for a “very long time” was hard to pin down. Roundups of politically suspect individuals, including former KMT officials started immediately and before long, political re-education was being imposed on key groups like teachers, academics and professionals. United Front Work in cities was stepped up to both mobilize and “educate” key classes using the CCP’s “democratic parties and groups (民主党派, minzhudangpai )” and independent democratic personages (无党派人士, wudangpai renshi) with “red” capitalists like Rong Yiren becoming very prominent as symbols of acceptance of CCP rule. [6] United Front Work among overseas Chinese was aimed at encouraging those with money, talent and skills to return to the Motherland and help build this new nation.

It is worth remembering that the persuasive element of United Front Work present in these efforts, was backed by a series of much more punitive and complementary campaigns such as the Three (三反运动, san fan yundong)and Five-Anti (五反运动campaigns in towns and cities, as well as the Suppression of Counter Revolutionary Campaigns (镇压反革命运动, zhenya fangeming yundong), the latter of which resulted in hundreds of thousands of executions across China. [7] Persuasion and coercion went hand in hand. The long-term coexistence of classes and forms of ownership then, was under threat from almost from the moment of the CCP’s victory. The political campaigns were used to push the socialization of industry and commerce and by 1956 Mao was so confident he felt the first stage in the transition to socialism had already been achieved. Few businesses remained in purely private hands and few people escaped the experience of coercive forms of political education.

The next big political campaign, the Hundred Flowers, was largely aimed at asking United Front allies to make constructive criticisms of the Party in order help overcome bureaucratism and inertia. However, these groups were already so cowed by their experiences that it took considerable effort by CCP leaders like Li Weihan to instill any confidence in them. Once the dam broke though, the criticisms of the Party and lack of fulfilment of United Front promises were soon joined by criticisms of even Mao himself . In response, Mao changed his attitude and instead launched the even more brutal Anti-Rightist Campaign (反右运动, fan you yundong), which many of the former allies did not survive. Now securely in power, the CCP had little use for its former allies and many were now labelled as class enemies, usefully rolled out as targets with each new political campaign. New Democracy, such as it was, had lasted a mere seven years.

Hong Kong Subdued  

In the early 1980s, when the CCP under Deng Xiaoping was seeking to incorporate Hong Kong into the PRC system, Party theorists came up with the idea of One-Country, Two-Systems to be implemented when British colonial rule terminated in 1997. However, the framework was also formulated with a clear eye on incorporating Taiwan into the PRC. The proposed duration of this arrangement in Hong Kong was put to Deng Xiaoping who vacillated between twenty, thirty-five or fifty years, finally settling on fifty. Deng’s decision was a purely arbitrary one. [8]

In many ways though, the PRC’s takeover of Hong Kong after 1997, at least initially, went smoothly, helped by large numbers of CCP agents already in what was now a Special Administrative Region, rather than a British colonial outpost (Hong Kong Government, 1999). It was only when the beginnings of the same pattern of assimilation into PRC/CCP norms began to be instituted in overt ways that resistance arose. In response, CCP leaders defaulted to externalization of blame and began the counter-productive spiral of calling for more “education” to overcome “misunderstandings” and “external interference” such as the protests against the first attempt to force through a National Security Law in 2003 and the attempts to begin “moral and national education in 2012 (South China Morning Post, October 8, 2013). In the meantime, pressure from an increasingly radicalized public, especially Hong Kong youth with their calls for more democracy from 2006, led Beijing in 2007 to promise direct elections for the Chief Executive in 2017 and for the Legislative Assembly in 2020 (CECC, July 14, 2010).

Such promises were unlikely to be kept. However, the rise of mass protest movements including the 2014 “Umbrella Revolution,” the 2016 “Fish ball Revolution” and “Rally for Hong Kong Independence,” and not least, the annual June 4 Tiananmen Commemorations with their clear shades of color revolutions and separatism, which had brought down communist and other dictatorships elsewhere, meant such promises had been rendered meaningless (, August 15, 2019). Hong Kong’s trajectory had changed beyond all recognition from Beijing’s point of view. Moreover, those promises had been made under Hu Jintao while much of the increasing unrest occurred after the 2012 accession to power of Xi Jinping, a man with both extensive United Front experience and a powerful desire to impose ever more direct Party control.

There is a pattern of the CCP making promises in a United Front context, sometimes with vague, albeit implied, timelines, sometimes with explicit ones. However, these timelines are not, as many Westerners might expect, approaching anything legally binding, even if some of the targets may have been persuaded that they were. When Mao judged the CCP strong enough in 1956 to begin dismantling the New Democratic United Front and stepping up political campaigns against erstwhile former allies, past promises were simply abandoned. In Hong Kong, the CCP and leaders like Xi see no problem or alternative to winding back past concessions, stepping up coercive control of all suspected of disloyalty to the PRC and using the new National Security Laws, intensifying political education in the education systems now that resistance to moral and national education has been crushed.


These precedents have clear implications for the CCP’s increasingly less believable claims that it seeks “peaceful unification” with Taiwan under the 1C2S framework (Xinhuanet, January 2, 2019). For example, recent statements by PRC diplomat abroad have cast doubt on just how peaceful such a reunification would be. The PRC ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, stated that when unification occurred, there would have to be re-education of Taiwanese, to make them patriotic, a point restated by Xiao Qian, Ambassador to Australia, in August 2022 when he declared, “There might be a process for the people in Taiwan to have a correct understanding of China about the motherland” (Taiwan News, August 5; Taipei Times, August 11). This is no slip of the tongue, but rather indicates recognition that after first making a clear delineation between the CCP’s enemies and friends, the next step is to “educate” those not locked away (or executed) in order to teach them to “think” the way that the CCP expects its subjects to think. This dynamic has been demonstrated most starkly in Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have been interned while the Sinicization of their culture and religion intensifies outside of the camps. For the people of Taiwan this not make peaceful unification an attractive prospect and nothing in the 2022 White Paper on Unification does anything to make the prospect more appealing (Xinhua, August 10).

Gerry Groot is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies and Head of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide, South Australia. He has written extensively on United Front work, soft power, and social change as it relates to China and Asian influences on Western culture past and present.


[1] Gerry Groot, Managing Transitions, The Chinese Communist Party, United Front Work, Corporatism and Hegemony (Abingdon, Routledge, 2004).

[2] Vladimir Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder,” 1920.

[3] Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1938).

[4] Mao Tse-Tung, “On New Democracy,” in Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, Peking, Foreign Languages Press, 1967 vol II, pp.339-384

[5] Groot, 2004, pp.49-53

[6] See Groot, 2004, pp.76-81; Neil Thomas, “The Red Capitalist,” Wired, January 10, 2021.

[7] Kuisong Yang.  “Reconsidering the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries,” The China Quarterly; Cambridge Vol. 193, (Mar 2008).

[8] Didi Kirsten Tatlow, in discussion with a united front researcher in Beijing as told to Graeme Smith and Louisa Lim in the podcast, “Cheongsams and Coppers: Beijing’s stealth infiltration of Hong Kong,” The Little Red Podcast, June 30, 2022,