The Rise and Rise of the United Front Work Department under Xi

Publication: China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 7

The March meeting of China’s two national level parliaments, the National People’s Congress and the Chinese Peoples’ Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), was notable for more than just formalizing the abolition of term limits for state president. It also signaled the end of much of the pretense of separation between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and key government institutions, including the three government departments responsible for ethnic affairs, religion and Overseas Chinese affairs, whose functions will now be largely subsumed by the CCP’s own United Front Work Department (UFWD).

At least the names of the three departments—the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, the State Administration for Religious Affairs and the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council—will likely live on, at least in nominal terms, because of their usefulness when dealing with Westerners unused to the reality of the party-state. More importantly, however, this change reflects a return to policies of ethnic assimilation and party leadership over religion in ways not seen since the 1950s, when Mao Zedong oversaw China’s forced transition to socialism. It also implies an unprecedented extension of Party influence abroad.

Clarified Lines of Authority

As Andrew Batson has pointed out, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s reorganization of the PRC’s government serves the useful purpose of greatly simplifying lines of responsibility and administrative complexity, as well as making the centrality of the Party (and of Xi himself) crystal clear (Andrew Batson, April 5). While previously, the UFWD was the key actor within each of the three government ministries, driving their policies from within, they were nevertheless different organizations with sometimes differing interests, incentives and personnel (with some overlap). The resultant gaps sometimes resulted in deviation from the line set down by the central leadership via the UFWD, particularly at lower levels, and in frictions between the different interests.

By unequivocally placing the UFWD at the center, many of the problems and inefficiencies of the old system can be overcome, at least in theory. The Department itself is now even more under the direct control of the CCP’s Central Committee via the Committee’s new Leading Small Group on United Front Work, substantially increasing its ability to impose its policies downwards as intended.

Most importantly, since assuming Party leadership in 2012, Xi himself has been forcefully promoting united front work and the UFWD, most notably by appearing at the national United Front Work Conference of 2015. Xi has also raised the status of the Department’s work and its place within the bureaucracy in ways which make a career in it much more attractive and should help attract better quality cadres. United front work after all, often involves working with individuals and groups that have proven politically dangerous in the past, a reality borne out by the falls from grace of past leaders like Li Weihan under Mao and Yan Mingfu in the wake of the student movement of 1989 [1].

Administrative and bureaucratic rationales aside, there are also ideological reasons for consolidating CCP control over the government departments responsible for executing UFWD policy, in ways that parallel important previous phases of united front work.

The United Front Over Time

The success of united front work in the CCP’s long struggle against the Guomindang was the reason that Mao Zedong declared it one of the CCP’s three “magic weapons” (along with the Red Army and Party building, AKA ideological indoctrination) [2]. But from 1949 to 1956 the UFWD was redeployed to use selected allies and Party institutions to force the assimilation of the urban middle classes and the handful of formerly rich Chinese who had not fled abroad and minimize the loss of expertise needed to build socialism.

After 1978, a revived UFWD worked hard to re-motivate those bourgeoisie, capitalists and intellectuals who survived Mao’s thought reform and political purges, in order to overcome the failings of the centrally-planned economy. Significantly, the first area to be revived, even before Mao died, was with Overseas Chinese as the Party sought to rehabilitate its reputation abroad, and use the talents and connections of this group to provide markets for goods and secure investment to help modernize China’s outdated industries.

From the 1980s until approximately 2015, the Department expanded the scope of its work to take into account the profusion of new interest groups emerging from economic pluralization, including new entrepreneurs, those working for foreign companies, and lawyers etc. At the 2015 United Front Work Conference, even more new groups were added, including social media personalities, Chinese students studying abroad and recent Chinese emigres, the so-called “new Overseas Chinese.”

There was an element of urgency behind the UFWD’s expansion as it sought to understand and cope with a much more complex society. New groups had to be controlled, integrated and represented in the CPPCC system to forestall the development of anything that might resemble a civil society space. Thus, the independent creation of any new bodies that might independently represent any sort of collective interest is criminalized, while a profusion of non-governmental organizations that emerged during the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration have also been increasingly constrained and subject to Party oversight and control.

A New, Harder Line

Significantly, Xi’s rise to power has seen important divergences from previous corporatist policies of recognition-representation-control. Most well-known is the crackdown on idiosyncratic expressions of Christianity in Zhejiang Province (between the gaps between the UFWD and SARA [3]), which resulted in the demolition of large crosses on churches and even the full scale demolition of some churches and cathedrals (Telegraph, May 19, 2014). This dramatically increased attention to religion has spillovers into ethnic affairs, notably the Buddhism of China’s Tibetans and the Islam of its Uyghurs, Kazakhs and even of the Hui (ethnically Chinese Muslims). Here, Sinification seems to be going hand-in-hand with what seems, for all intents and purposes, like forced assimilation and, particularly in the case of China’s Muslim population, a dramatic securitization if not outright militarization of policy. Accompanying this intensification of overt control is the stepped up use of surveillance and artificial intelligence technologies to assist in monitoring and regulation (The Guardian, January 18).

This new emphasis on assimilation rather than accommodation has seen rather dramatic reversals of policy on issues such as language. Bilingual teaching has given way to concentration on teaching in Mandarin and efforts to protect or promote the Tibetan language have been dealt with harshly (RFA, January 4). Many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of young Uyghurs have been sent to “re-education” camps often on only the merest suspicion of even potential support for separatism, independence or Islamic extremism (RFA, March 22). Even Qurans and previously allowed religious texts have been confiscated (RFA, September 27, 2017). It seems the Party wishes to revise even the most key religious texts to suit its own needs,

These actions and many others seem prima facie inimical to the promotion of harmonious bonds between the Party and key elements of the population and are a far cry from decades of policies designed to maximize national unity. They are not changes that Xi would have undertaken lightly.

Old Solutions, New Failures?

Here the role of history and ideology become important. Much of the rationale for the shift in policy seems to revolve around Xi Jinping’s rise and his analysis of what the Party must do to both survive and to achieve his vision of national rejuvenation. Xi takes very seriously those Party analyses undertaken in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc which stressed the loss of Party control over the levers of government, the failure to take ideology seriously enough, the alleged role of “hostile foreign forces” and civil society forces like churches, and the growth of ethnic consciousness among the USSR’s many minority nationalities (SCMP, November 18, 2013). The UFWD’s new policies reflect his determination to prevent anything similar from happening in China.

In many ways then, the hardline turn in today’s united front work parallels the 1950s, which saw the urban bourgeoisie forced to undergo “thought reform”, and to give up their old ways, old ideals and any connections to the West in order to be accepted as proletarians by the Party and the people. At that time too, Christians had to accept the reorganization of their churches and a complete break with the West, while ethnic minorities had to surrender all rights to self-determination other than those implied by the creation of the so-called “autonomous regions” [4]. Yet all these measures failed in important ways, and failed at a time when the CCP was much more able to contain outside influences. Among the consequences was the retreat into passivity by many people made fearful of the future, and a stifling of innovation and progress. Indeed, the consequences of Mao’s reactionary response to the 1957 Hundred Flowers campaign, first in the form of the Anti-Rightist campaign and later the Cultural Revolution, were the reasons that reform and opening up was eventually needed.

Today, China is both connected to the rest of the world in ways unimaginable in the 1950s, and has grown wealthy as a consequence. Xi is either unaware of this history, or perhaps believes that technologies like AI can help contain any negative consequences. However, it would probably be safer to bet that like Mao, Xi too has begun to overreach.

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 as well as soft power, social change as it relates to China and Asian influences on Western culture past and present


[1] The fall of another former head, Ling Jihua in 2014 was almost certainly more about corruption engaged in before he was made head of the UFWD rather than any activity after assuming that role.

[2] Much of this history is summarized in the book Managing Transitions: The Chinese Communist Party, United Front Work, Corporatism and Hegemony, Groot (2004).

[3] For some examples of this idiosyncratic activity, see the examples collected by Ray Wang in Ray Wang and Gerry Groot (2018) “Who represents? Xi Jinping’s Grand United Front Work, legitimation, participation and consultative democracy,” Journal of Contemporary China – DOI: 10.1080/10670564.2018.1433573Ray Wang and Gerry Groot.

[4] China’s five autonomous regions are province-level units nominally set aside for specific ethnic groups. In practice they function little differently from provinces in the degree of control exercised by the CCP.