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China’s United Front Work Department spearheads Xi Jinping’s expansionist dreams

In its ambition to expand its global influence, China is depending heavily on its United Front Work Department (UFWD)—a Mao-era contraption, which has been thoroughly revamped on Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s watch.

The UFWD was formed as a psychological tool to extend the influence of the Communist Party of China (CPC) within and beyond the Chinese borders. It has specifically targeted “influencers” among ethnic groups, business organisations, students, media organisations, politicians and more—in fact all those who can extend the Chinese official line, both domestically and abroad. At home the UFWD plays a critical role in channelling the CPC’s narrative in restive areas, with sizeable non-Han populations, such as Xinjiang and Tibet.

“Essentially it (UWFD) coordinates the party’s ‘scientific’ efforts to win ‘friends’ — in ethnic groups, foreign political parties, western think tanks, overseas Chinese communities, private companies, non-Chinese nationals sitting on the advisory boards of Chinese companies like Huawei,” writes Will Hutton in <em>The Guardian</em>, in his review of the book <em>Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World</em>, by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg.

Mao Zedong, the architect of the Chinese revolution, had asserted that the UFWD had the power of a “magic weapon”. “The Party is the heroic warrior wielding the two weapons, the united front and the armed struggle, to storm and shatter the enemy’s positions,” Mao wrote in 1939.

Following Mao’s footsteps, Xi swiftly recognised the value of the UFWD in soft-landing and dwarfing resistance to his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—a trans-continental connectivity initiative, which serves the CPC as a powerful engine for elevating China as an unrivalled global power. During his address at the 19th edition of the twice-a-decade communist party congress in 2017, Xi had made China’s aspirations in the so-called “new era” transparent. He had stressed that after becoming moderately prosperous by 2020, China would tread on a path of becoming the world’s peerless superpower by 2050.

Unsurprisingly, within three years of becoming China’s paramount leader, Xi re-launched a revamped UFWD, whose primary purpose was now to make BRI palatable, especially abroad, by co-opting foreign elites, who could then become torchbearers for advancing Beijing’s blueprint.

Xi’s overhaul of the UFWD began in 2014. Relying on his anti-corruption campaign, China’s new leadership under Xi, which had acquired centre-stage at the end of 2012, began a comprehensive purge. Ling Jihua, the UFWD head then, was unceremoniously removed. Later he was sentenced to life in prison for corruption, abuse of power and clandestinely gathering state secrets. Ling’s dismissal followed the month-long demonstrations in Hong Kong, and election of Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party in November 2014—both events seen as failure of the UFWD and its leader to impactfully anchor China’s interests.

Next summer, following a national conference, major changes were made in the UWFD’s architecture. A new centrally-controlled leading small group—a typical high-level body of the CPC, usually headed by a top-ranking leader, was formed to steer and tightly monitor the Fronts’ functioning. According to some accounts, Xi personally heads the UWFD small leading group.

It is estimated that the UWFD, which reports to the powerful Central Committee of the CPC has around 40,000 people in its ranks.

With Xi’s second term in office coming under the scanner, following military provocations in the South China Sea, the beginning of a new Cold War with the United States, and the China-India border in Ladakh, more details are emerging about UWFD’s machinations on foreign soil.

A study by, The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments—a Washington-based think-tank—has nailed the modus operandi of China’s influence grab in three arenas—the European Union, Italy and the Czech Republic. In all three cases, specific influential individuals have been identified and cultivated to amplify, and if necessary, firefight, the narrative of the Party-state.

On the institutional plane, Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), is the UFWD’s public face. In a speech that he delivered in February, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described CPAFFC as the "public face of the Chinese Communist Party's official foreign influence agency, the United Front Work Department”.

The CPAFFC, in turn sponsors and mentor’s numerous friendship associations comprising political, business, and other elites, in several countries across the globe.

Those individuals who allow themselves to be co-opted then cascade the CPC’s propaganda and robustly deflect or counter anti-China rhetoric. They also host public events showcasing CPC’s merits, promote trade and investment and technology transfers. In Europe, they have become bullhorns calling for European policies that support China. Critics say that these bilateral associations have become a major cause of concern as they leverage Europe’s open civil societies and free speech to wrest access to higher government decision-making channels.

The CSBA study has analysed the EU-China Friendship Group, Italy-China Friendship Association and the Czech-China Chamber of Collaboration, to draw conclusions about China’s current approach to shape European opinion in Beijing’s favour through targeted elite co-option.

Expanding on the EU-China Friendship Group, which was formed in 2006, the study reveals that this body comprises members of the European Parliament (EP).

The CSBA analysis narrows its focus on the activities of Nirj Deva, a former British Member of European Parliament, who was the Chairman of the EU-China Friendship Group until mid-2019. The findings show that Deva undertook a government-guided tour of Tibet in 2016, and later lauded China's policies in Tibet.

He also became an active defender and promoter of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi’s signature trans-continental connectivity project. In March 2019, Deva established the BRI Policy Coordination Committee, of which he became the Executive Chairman. Shortly afterwards, he attended the Second BRI summit in Beijing.

Deva also stood out for defending China when the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China over the South China Sea in 2016. The tribunal had ruled that that China has "no historical rights" based on the "nine-dash line" map—a reference to China’s unilateral declaration of its maritime boundary in the South China Sea. Deva also ran an unsuccessful public relations campaign that favoured Huawei, China’s telecom giant, ahead of the European Parliament’s vote on cyber-security and 5G technologies. Deva’s defence of China's growing profile in Central and East European Countries has also not gone unnoticed.

There are plenty of similarities in the modus operandi of the EU-China Friendship Group, and the functioning of the Italy-China Friendship Association (ICFA). CPAFFC officials in Beijing were closely involved in establishing ICFA in 2013. Irene Pevetti, is a former President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, with deep political and business connections in China became ICFA’s President.

Pivetti has been feverishly trying to shape a pro-China perception in Italy, using the ICFA as the platform. She has defended China's detention of Uighur Muslims, praising it as an "efficient anti-terrorism policy". Her stance on Tibet has also been predictable. In 2016, she expressed "regret" over Milan City Council's decision to bestow the title of "honorary citizen" on Dalai Lama.

Like Deva, Pivetti has been a vigorous supporter of BRI. In October 2019, she signed a memorandum of cooperation between ICFA and the Silk Road Planning Research Center, a think tank on BRI. This think tank is overseen by the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body, indirectly controlled by the UFWD.

Pivetti has been involved in formally appointing several prominent overseas Italian-Chinese individuals to leadership positions in ICFA.

In the Czech Republic, the Czech-China Chamber of Collaboration, has been nodal in projecting Chinese interests after signing a cooperation agreement with the CPAFFC in 2012. The Chamber plays multiple roles, which transcend economic partnerships. For instance, it has been engaged in linking local governments, and even facilitating visits by Chinese leaders, including Xi Jinping in 2016.

Once again, the Chamber has targeted key influencers, to push Chinese interests. The Chamber's first chairman was Jan Kohout, a former Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs. Apart from working to alter his country’s traditional position on Tibet and human rights in China, he established the New Silk Road Institute Prague after leaving the Chamber in 2015. The Institute promoted China's foreign and economic policy goals until its closure in 2019.

Former Czech Defence Minister Jams lav Tvrdik succeeded Kohout. From a Chinese perspective, this was a coup, for Tvrdik became personal advisor on China to Milos Zeman, known for his pro-Beijing leanings after he became Czech President in 2013. Tvrdik closely cooperated with the CPAFFC in various domains, including culture, economics, and business, according to the CSBA study.

Tvrdik apparently facilitated and strengthened the CPC’s relationship both at the local level within the Czech Republic and at the national and local levels with other European countries.

It is almost certain that so long as Xi is in power, Beijing will continue to expand and embellish the global UFWD network to promote the BRI as the keystone for realising the Chinese Dream of making China an unrivaled hard and soft power by 2050. An equally robust and coordinated riposte by world’s democracies and like- minded countries now becomes imperative to prevent the rise of a totalitarian international system led by China..