Lost in the sea of political rhetoric and policies laid out during the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 19th Congress in October were references to United Front Work—an important group of policies that the CCP uses to forge consensus at home and exert influence abroad (Xinhua, November 3). Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping’s remarks on the United Front deserve particular attention, not only because of the forum in which they were delivered, but also because Xi is the first leader since Xi Jinping with the political wherewithal and expressed intention to use it effectively.
For many outsiders, the Congress was notable for its elevation of Xi as leader to the status of ‘core’, and what appears to be the creation of a personality cult. There is also a general tendency to downplay the importance of statements made at these congresses as more window dressing than substance. In fact, Party Congresses generally—and this one in particular—will act as a guide for some ninety million Party members and others in governments at all levels for years to come. In this context, guidance regarding the United Front takes on greater significance because it forms the basis of many domestic policies (particularly in relation to religion and ethnic minorities) and foreign business and international relations through its use in building relationships with overseas Chinese communities and foreign politicians.
Congresses such as this are also valuable reminders that China is run as a Party-state system. Understanding the Party’s usually overlooked United Front Work Department is an important part of overcoming these deficiencies.
United Front Work and the Role of Xi Jinping
Although united front work is just one small part of Xi’s work report, it deserves more attention because for the first time since Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader has direct and apparently positive experience and recognition of the utility of this work for achieving Party goals. There is also an important family connection as Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was heavily involved in such work between 1940 and 1989 and was one of the people behind its post-Mao revival.
As a result of extensive experience and his roles in Fujian and Zhejiang, Xi is unique in recent decades in having effectively hands-on experience while his keen desire to push unification with Taiwan is also evident. Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, had a separate section of the work report devoted to united front work in these areas. Xi’s appointments of key allies and experienced diplomats to related positions highlights the importance he attaches to UFW as a central part of related policy (Xinhua, November 3; China Brief, November 10).
Overall, Xi has reemphasized the role of the UFWD within the CCP, expanded its size, raised its status, endorsed it by making his presence at the 2015 United Front Work Conference clear and extended, and appointing himself head of the Small Leading Group in United Front Work. 
The consequence of this top-down validation is a renewed emphasis on this work throughout the Party and government systems, often down to local levels. This often occurs in villages in provinces like Fujian or Guangdong where United Front cadres attempt to research the family histories of any visiting Overseas Chinese to find ways of appealing to them for investment and support. It is now dangerous to try to ignore such work or downplay its role lest cadres be criticized or even disciplined. This has long not been the case and neglect of such work by top officials was a recurrent problem from the 1990s onwards. Under Xi’s emphasis of united front work, key performance indicators (which determine promotion) for cadres dependent on it and UFWD-related careers are now much more desirable. As a result, much more activity is to be expected both domestically and abroad. Moreover, failures or complications with united front work can readily become reasons for dramatic setbacks and unrest as stepped up security in places like Tibet and Xinjiang readily attest.
The recent public extension of the Department’s efforts to any place with a sizeable population of Chinese emigrants, students or even visitors, also mean it is now relevant to many foreign governments.
An increasingly sensitive united front constituency, the established Chinese Diaspora groups around the world and the groups of PRC raised Chinese entrepreneurs, emigrants and students, all subsumed under the label ‘Overseas Chinese’ will be united with through ‘the maintenance of extensive contacts’. In 2017, as result of united front work in places like Australia and New Zealand, the relevance of Xi’s emphasis was starting to become apparent even though the groundwork had often been laid years or even decades before.
While the CCP has been emphatic in rejecting what it calls interference in China’s domestic affairs, if the recent cases of Chinese influence over politicians in Australia and New Zealand are any indication, we might well see a dramatic increase in United Front-related interference elsewhere. However, harsh Party measures in Xinjiang and Tibet and tensions in Hong Kong point to either current failures or sufficient confidence to move beyond united front work to a new stage.
Building Consensus at Home
In his Party Work Report in October, Xi who is also the Chair of the Leading Small Group on United Front Work, declared, “Steady progress has been made in enhancing socialist democracy; intraparty democracy has been expanded, and socialist consultative democracy is flourishing. The patriotic united front has been consolidated and developed, and new approaches have been adopted for work related to ethnic and religious affairs.” Socialist democracy in this context means the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and National People’s Congress systems, the selection of representatives of classes and groups (professional, religious or ethnic) as either individual representatives (democratic personages) or as members of the eight official United Front Work Department-controlled ‘democratic parties’ and the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce. 
This system allows the recruitment and corporatist co-option into the system, of otherwise potentially dangerous elements as well as allow access to their knowledge, skills and connections to both understand and influence particular constituencies but permits a small distance from the Party proper.  The CCP constantly uses the expertise in these bodies to conduct investigations into sensitive issues and pass on suggestions and criticisms, so-called mutual supervision. The frustration for united front ‘allies’ is that their contributions and influence are subsumed by the CCP which takes public credit for all success and rewards allies only behind closed doors or with public plaudits which ordinary Chinese find meaningless.
These approaches are different in emphasis from relatively straightforward promises to allow the democratic parties to control their own expansion or to upgrade the decision making powers of the CPPCC system made in the wake of the 1989 post-June 4 crackdown, promises never realized when the economy recovered rapidly. The failure to deliver reflected the tactical nature of the original concession; when the need receded, so did the promise.
In his speech, Xi reiterates the importance of this consultative system and makes clear that it should be extended to communities and social organizations (Xinhua, November 3). We must, he declared, “uphold and improve the system of people’s congresses, the system of Party-led multi-party cooperation, and political consultation, the system of regional ethnic autonomy, and the system of community-level self-governance; and consolidate and develop the broadest patriotic united front.” These all help constitute the CCP’s “socialist consultative democracy”. The overall success of this work is reflected in part, in the numerous surveys of high levels of urban satisfaction with the political system and China’s ‘democracy.’
In relation to the eight democratic parties, Xi reasserts the principles of long-term coexistence and mutual supervision. In ethnic minority work he stresses the need for more public awareness of ethnic unity and need to create a strong sense of community, likening the minorities to the many seeds of a pomegranate which must nevertheless stick together. In religious affairs, the recent shift to emphasizing the Sinification of religion, i.e. finding ways to allow the CCP to be the highest authority, is now phrased as the principle that they ‘must be Chinese in orientation.’ Moreover, the Party must be active in guiding them as they adapt to socialist society.
The new ‘strata’ (the word ‘class’ must not be used) and interest groups emerging from reform and economic growth are also important. Non-Party individuals and members of these new social groups are to be ‘encouraged to play important roles in building socialism while the Party will also build ‘a new type of cordial and clean relationship’ between government and business.’ Keeping corruption at bay while increasing control over business while increasing dependence on the state when useful, is of course key to preventing it becoming a self-funded source of opposition in the classical Western mode of bourgeois classes seeking to protect themselves from state predations by demanding democratic rights and rule of law. Xi is promising cooperation and rule-by-law along Singaporean lines but his declarations of the importance of improving procedural fairness throughout all levels of government and activities (social services, health and education for example), except suppressing corruption, have to-date borne little fruit.
Xi Jinping’s discussion of how the Party needs to consolidate and develop the Patriotic United Front should be taken at face value. As Xi has declared: “The united front is a way to ensure the success of the Party’s cause and we must maintain our commitment to it long term” (Xinhua, November 3). Observers should take Xi seriously and study the implications—just like thousands of Party cadres and government officials will—and not ignore them as hackneyed or cliché.
- For more information see the author’s contributions to the China Yearbook series (Australian National University Press, Canberra, 2013-2017) https://www.thechinastory.org/
- In addition to the CCP, China has eight ‘democratic parties’ Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang, China Democratic League, China National Democratic Construction Association, China Association for Promoting Democracy, Chinese Peasants and Workers Democratic Party, China Zhi Gong Dang, Jiu San Society and Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League. The All China Federation of Industry and Commerce now also has equivalent status. All of these parties are subordinate to the CCP’s leadership via the United Front Work Department and do not function in the same way as traditional opposition parties.
- For a full discussion of the CCP’s application of corporatism in united front work see, Gerry Groot, Managing Transitions: The CCP, Corporatism, Hegemony and United Front Work (Routledge, New York/London, 2004)