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    The Chinese agency on a mission to win friends and influence people
    The Chinese agency on a mission to win friends and influence people
    POLITICS

    The Chinese agency on a mission to win friends and influence people

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    by
    Viola Zhou
    Viola Zhou
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    This mysterious agency that promotes the Chinese Communist Party’s influence at home and abroad has just been turbocharged.

    The Communist Party has given more power to its United Front Work Department (UFW), whose mission is to win friends and influence people outside the party.

    Once praised as a “magic weapon” by President Xi Jinping for the party to wield its soft power, the UFW will now control religious and ethnic minorities affairs at home, in addition to overseas affairs.

    The Communist Party has strengthened control through a massive restructuring.
    The Communist Party has strengthened control through a massive restructuring. Photo: Xinhua

    The agency’s new portfolio is part of a massive restructuring aiming to strengthen party control over its various departments.

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    But this means it will no longer be situated behind various government agencies – and must be more transparent, a source told the South China Morning Post.

    Here’s what you need to know about the shadowy UFW.

    What is it?

    According to its official website, the UFW was founded in 1939 during the long, bloody civil war between the Mao Zedong-led Chinese Communist Party and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party (also known as the Kuomintang).

    During the war, UFW operatives worked to build connections with Nationalists and those living in Nationalist-controlled areas, aiming to turn them to the Communist cause.

    Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek toast over the banquet table in Chongqing 1945.
    Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek toast over the banquet table in Chongqing 1945.

    After the Communists took over China in 1949, the agency continued to expand. Its main task – then and now – was to form alliances with forces outside the Communist Party.

    The hope is that such groups would become supporters of the party without actually joining.

    The main targets of the UFW are:

    • Overseas Chinese
    • Ethnic minorities
    • Religious groups
    • Minority political parties
    • People in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan
    • Private entrepreneurs

    What does it do?

    The UFW website says its job is to gather information about these groups, build connections with them and work with them.

    Chinese students show support for President Xi Jinping as he tours the University of Manchester during his state visit to the UK in 2015.
    Chinese students show support for President Xi Jinping as he tours the University of Manchester during his state visit to the UK in 2015.

    The tasks are carried out by department members in Beijing and hundreds of local branches across the country.

    The top UFW department has nine bureaus, each of which is responsible for connecting to certain groups.

    Of course, like every other Communist Party agency, the UFW’s exact operations remain a bit of a mystery.

    Does it do any spying?

    That’s the big concern among governments such as the US and Australia. They worry that China is trying to spread its influence abroad by interfering with public opinion and local politics.

    To prevent such interference, Australia has banned foreign political donations entirely.

    Thousands attended a pro-Beijing rally in Hong Kong in 2016 to support China's decision to effectively bar two pro-independence legislators from taking office.
    Thousands attended a pro-Beijing rally in Hong Kong in 2016 to support China's decision to effectively bar two pro-independence legislators from taking office. Photo: AFP

    Three US lawmakers have introduced a bill requiring certain Chinese institutions operating in the US to register as foreign agents.

    The Communist Party has been open about its efforts to woo ethnic Chinese overseas, whether they are citizens of China or not.

    Politicians and academics in Australia, New Zealand and the US have accused Beijing of using UFW operatives to sponsor China-friendly politicians, Chinese cultural events and pro-Beijing demonstrations in the US, Australia, New Zealand.

    President Xi Jinping attends an annual conference of UK Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms in London in 2015.
    President Xi Jinping attends an annual conference of UK Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms in London in 2015. Photo: Xinhua

    How is the UFW changing under President Xi Jinping?

    Under Xi, the agency’s scope has been expanded – along with China’s growing global ambition.

    In a research paper published in November, Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, argued that Xi had elevated the agency’s importance to a level not seen in decades.

    She documented how China could be extending its influence in New Zealand, a major trading partner, through campaign donations and business links, claiming China’s “covert, corrupting and coercive political influence activities in New Zealand are now at a critical level.”

    In October Xi called on the Communist Party to continue strengthening the UFW to make as many friends as possible.

    VIOLA ZHOU
    VIOLA ZHOU
    Viola is a multimedia producer at Inkstone. Previously, she wrote about Chinese politics for the South China Morning Post.

    VIOLA ZHOU
    VIOLA ZHOU
    Viola is a multimedia producer at Inkstone. Previously, she wrote about Chinese politics for the South China Morning Post.

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