Earlier this year, the Sydney Morning Herald and ABC Four Corners released in-depth investigative reports on the influence of Chinese Communist Party agents in Australian politics (ABC, June 4; Power and Influence; Sydney Morning Herald, March 3). These reports are based on a longstanding investigation by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), Australia’s counterintelligence agency, into Chinese Communist Party (CCP) efforts to exert influence in Australian politics. While the CCP employs many means for ‘soft-power’ influence, an important but understudied organization involved in sub-official contacts at home and abroad is the United Front Work Department (UFWD). In addition to exerting influence abroad, the UFWD has broad responsibilities for policies within China. Further highlighting the central role of the UFWD in CCP thinking, Chinese President and CCP Party Secretary Xi Jinping has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the UFWD to China’s rejuvenation.
Despite its relative obscurity, the United Front Work Department (中共中央统一战线工作部) has a high place within the CCP hierarchy as a working organ (办事机关) of the CCP Central Committee (中共中央委员会), “the central administrative and decision-making body of leading party, state, and military officials.”  This places the UFWD at an approximate level to other Central Committee organs such as the General Office, the Organization Department, the International Liaison Department, the Propaganda Department, and the Policy Research Office, although the exact hierarchy remains polemical. 
Sun Chunlan (孙春兰) heads the UFWD, assisted by seven deputy directors (一正七副). The leadership also includes Su Bo (苏波), the group leader for the Central Commission on Discipline Inspection for United Front Work Group. The Department itself is divided into offices (办公厅/室), bureaus (局), and subordinate units (所属事业单位), namely mass organizations (人民/民众 团体). The nine numbered Bureaus each specialize in either a particular facet of united front work or a geographic location. Bureaus three, six and nine, for example, cover Hong Kong, Taiwan, Overseas Chinese, Tibet and Xinjiang. However, it is unclear how different bureaus manage their consequently overlapping responsibilities. For instance, there is no clear guideline on how the Tibet Bureau, responsible for “harmonizing Tibetan socioeconomic development,” interacts with the Ethnic and Religious Work Bureau, and the Economics Bureau.
|United Front Work Department Structure|
|First Bureau (一局)||Party Work Bureau (党派工作局)|
|Second Bureau (二局)||Ethnic and Religious Work Bureau (民族、宗教工作局)|
|Third Bureau (三局)||Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, & Overseas Liaison Bureau (港澳台、海外联络局)|
|Fourth Bureau (四局)||Cadre Bureau (干部局)|
|Fifth Bureau (五局)||Economics Bureau (经济局)|
|Sixth Bureau (六局)||Independent & Non Party Intellectuals Work Bureau (无党派、党外知识分子工作局)|
|Seventh Bureau (七局)||[Tibet Bureau]|
|Eighth Bureau (八局)||Bureau for New Social Class Representatives Work (新的社会阶层人士工作)|
|Ninth Bureau (九局)||[Xinjiang Bureau]|
|Note: “[ ]” indicates that the official title is unconfirmed|
These bureaus display the outsized role ethnic minorities and non-Party representatives (无党派代表人士) play in the CCP’s efforts to secure said groups’ support. The creation of a Tibet Bureau in 2006, and a Xinjiang Bureau in 2017, demonstrate the Party’s desire to exert more direct control in the civil government’s handling of these regions, and perhaps also as a consequence of the gargantuan security apparatus developing in those regions (South China Morning Post, May 5; China Brief, May 14; China Brief, February 6). As the UFWD has grown in size and stature, it should come as no surprise that the Party vanguard increases its role in reaching out to those for whom China’s promised “Great Rejuvenation” (伟大复兴) has not yet materialized. For instance, the UFWD has played an active role in promoting the CCP’s poverty alleviation policies, especially in “old revolutionary base areas”—particularly Shaanxi province and Northeast China—left behind by the new market economy (United Front, May 20; China Brief, February 20, 2016).
Although a CCP-organization, rather than part of the Chinese state apparatus, the UFWD closely collaborates with the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (中国人民政治协商会议 – CPPCC), an advisory body which meets every year at the same time as the unicameral National People’s Congress (全国人民代表大会 – NPC). The CPPCC serves as a means of representation by interest group rather than geographic focus for vast swathes of the population, but holds no executive power. Instead, it makes recommendations to the Party leadership. In contrast to the NPC, where 60 percent of delegates are party members, 60 percent of CPPCC delegates are either non-affiliated, with any political party or part of the eight CCP-aligned “democratic parties”.  The CPPCC Chairman, Yu Zhengsheng (俞正声), is fourth in Party hierarchy and is a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest organ of power in Chinese bureaucracy after the Party Chairmanship. He also heads the Central Committee Coordinating Small Group for Xinjiang Work (中央新疆工作协调小组) and the Central Committee Coordinating Small Group for Tibet Work (中央西藏工作协调小组), roles he is well suited for given his position at the CPPCC.  Through these organizations, the Party is able to guide state and Party policy. As Chinese President Xi Jinping repeatedly emphasizes, united front work has an important role to play in contemporary Party policy, both within the China and abroad.
Although the UFWD held 20 meetings between 1995 and 2006, no significant conference occurred until May of 2015, when the UFWD held its first work conference in nine years under the name of ‘CCP Central Committee’s Conference on United Front Work’ (中央统战工作会议). The ‘Central’ qualifier represented a rise in status for a previously ‘national’ (全国) conference. The elevation in status corresponded with Xi’s new vision for the department as laid out in a September 2014 speech celebrating the CPPCC’s 65th birthday. In that speech he referred to united front work as a ‘magic weapon’ for the ‘Chinese people’s great rejuvenation’, one to be used by the CCP to seize victory, construction, and reform (Xinhua, July 30, 2015). At the 2015 conference, Xi Jinping outlined a new direction of the UFWD:
“Throughout our history, the Party has always placed the United Front and united front work in an important position within party-wide work. […] Presently, our situation and our mission have undergone significant change. The larger the change, the more the United Front under the ‘new situation’ (新形势) needs to be developed, the more united front work needs to be carried out. […] united front work is party-wide work” (Xinhua, May 20, 2015).
Xi noted that students studying abroad are a valuable and new focus of united front work. Xi also called on cadres to strengthen and perfect united front work targeting new media (新媒体) representatives so as to “allow them to struggle to purify cyberspace” (Xinhua, May 20, 2015).
Shortly thereafter, at a July 30 Politburo meeting, Xi created a Leading Small Group (LSG) on United Front Work (中央统一战线工作领导小组) (Xinhua, July 30, 2015). Xi has used LSGs as policy coordination centers to circumvent the leviathan bureaucracy of the CCP, indicating a willingness to realize the lofty goals in his speeches. 
Since the 2015 speech, the UFWD has formed two new bureaus: the Xinjiang Bureau (this bureau is not explicitly named as such), and the Bureau for New Social Classes Work (新的社会阶层人士工作局). Although Xi frames united front work as part of his comprehensive vision, the groundwork for the establishment of the Bureau for New Social Classes Work has been laid for years.  In support of this integration, the United Front Work Department has carried out yearly, 50-student classes for New Social Class Representatives every year since 2004 (they were under the purview of the Sixth Bureau), thus creating a “New Social Class talent pool” (FMPRC, Accessed June 21). Hu Jintao would later emphasize the targeting of New Social Class representatives in his last United Front Work Conference in 2006, without significant bureaucratic outcomes (United Front, October 9, 2010). Despite the significant emphasis placed on domestic affairs, united front work has long included overseas operations.
While the CCP employs many means through which it seeks foreign intelligence, the UFWD is distinct from other organizations in its overt and benign appearance.  United Front organizations abroad often operate in the open with names alluding to ‘peaceful reunification’ (code for Taiwan work) or ‘friendship association’ (Sun Chunlan was elected to head the Chinese Overseas Friendship Association in 2015) (The Paper, August 17, 2015, COFA Official Website, Accessed June 6, 2017).
While most observers have focused on united front work in Taiwan, the scope of the department’s mission is both foreign and domestic. Within China, the UFWD plays a vital policy development and coordination role, especially for ethnic and religious minorities. Abroad, the UFWD has had a hand in developing political and business ties with overseas Chinese, bringing investment and research benefits, as well as helping the CCP shape foreign views of China. Xi Jinping’s repeated urging that the Party make use the UFWD as a “magic weapon” to realize the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People makes it clear that he sees it as an important tool for the CCP. The bureaucratic changes he has implemented lends further credence to this judgment. As China continues to deal with complicated domestic issues involving minorities and attempts to shape opinions abroad, the United Front Work Department will undoubtedly be in the vanguard.
Marcel Angliviel de la Beaumelle is an independent researcher who has worked at the Center for New American Security and the Jamestown Foundation. He is proficient in Chinese.
- China’s Political System, Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), 2016
- Traditionally, the UFWD has been the lesser of the CC working organs, but given the personal prominence of Department Head Sun Chunlan and Deputy Wang Zhengwei within the Party, Groot has argued “that the Department ranks marginally ahead of both the Central Department of Organization and that of Propaganda.” Given Wang’s premature departure from this position in early 2016, it would be interesting to check if the current deputies maintain this imbalance. See: Gerry Groot, “United Front Expands Under Xi Jinping,” The Australian Center on China in the World, Yearbook 2015, https://www.thechinastory.org/yearbooks/yearbook-2015/forum-ascent/the-expansion-of-the-united-front-under-xi-jinping/.
- China’s Political System, 2016
- For a thorough description of Leading Small Groups see: Alice Miller, “The CCP Central Committee’s Leading Small Groups” China Leadership Monitor, no. 26, September 2, 2008, https://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/CLM26AM.pdf and “More Already on the Central Committee’s Leading Small Groups,” China Leadership Monitor, no. 44, July 28, 2014, https://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/clm44am.pdf; for a visual presentation of the most prominent LSGs and their Heads, see Jessica Batke and Matthias Stepan, “The Who’s Who of China’s Leading Small Groups,” Mercator Institute of China Studies, updated May 2017, https://www.merics.org/en/merics-analysis/china-mapping/the-whos-who-of-chinas-leading-small-groups/.
- Miller, 2008, 2014.
- During the celebration of the CCP’s 80th anniversary in 2001, Jiang Zemin pointed out that Chinese social composition changed after the reform and opening with the introduction of new classes of people included skilled workers, entrepreneurs, employees of foreign owned companies… “These new classes are united with workers, peasants, intellectuals, cadres, and PLA Commanders and fighters. They are also builders of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” (FMPRC, Accessed June 21)
- For a presentation of the various other means employed, see: Peter Mattis, “China’s Espionage Against Taiwan (Part I): Analysis of Recent Operations,” China Brief, November 7, 2014, https://jamestown.org/program/chinas-espionage-against-taiwan-part-i-analysis-of-recent-operations/; Peter Mattis, “China’s Espionage Against Taiwan (Part II): Chinese Intelligence Collectors,” China Brief, December 5, 2014, https://jamestown.org/program/chinas-espionage-against-taiwan-part-ii-chinese-intelligence-collectors/; and John Dotson, “Retired Taiwan Officer Exchanges Offer Insight into a Modern “United Front,” China Brief, October 14, 2011, https://jamestown.org/program/retired-taiwan-officer-exchanges-offer-insight-into-a-modern-united-front/.