Chinese President Xi Jinping is relying on the United Front Work Department (UFWD)—a Mao-era contraption—to tighten his totalitarian grip on China’s society and economy. On September 16, Xi told the inaugural UFWD conference for private companies that China’s entrepreneurs must fall in line, and work under the steely stewardship of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
“People in the private economy have been an important force that the party must unite and rely on for long-term governance,” Xi said in his inaugural message. To ensure that private businesses strictly follow his diktat, China’s iron-fisted leader exhorted the ever-reliable UFWD to “educate and guide” entrepreneurs to “unswervingly listen to, and follow the steps of the party”.
China follows a hybrid system of economic governance where market principles are allowed to work only under the watchful eye, and decisive intervention whenever required, of the CPC. The CPC has a long history of mistrust towards private enterprise. In the early 1950s, zealots of Mao Zedong, the mascot of the Chinese revolution, seized private property, and business owners were viewed as barriers to “social transformation,” steered by the CPC.
In the late seventies, following Mao’s infamous “cultural revolution” which killed millions, Deng Xiaoping encouraged the rise of private enterprise under his market reforms slogan. Private industry has since flourished, generating 90 per cent of jobs, and 60 per cent of the GDP. But Xi has already mounted a partial reversal, with a renewed effort to strictly monitor, shape and, if required, veto decision making among private entrepreneurs.
For some time, Xi has been hammering on the theme that “party building” must take root within the private sector. With no option to defy the Party-State, more than 90 percent of private enterprises, by 2018, had opened their doors to party cells within their organizations.
<strong>This is how the UFWD works.</strong>
Xi is relying on the UFWD, because of its complete loyalty to the CPC. The CPC has a membership of nearly 90 million people. But in order to enforce the party-line among non-members, overseas Chinese, ethnic minorities and religious groups, including Tibet’s Buddhist community, and select influencers of the foreign elite, the UFWD, through its soft-power push, has served as reliable tool.
During Deng’s post-Mao era, which began in the late seventies, UFWD shifted gears, and rapidly fanned out of China, to seek big ticket foreign investment, in tune with the country’s massive market reforms. After he arrived center-stage at the end of 2012, Xi has redeployed the UFWD with renewed ardor. This was to soften the ground abroad for soft-landing his controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a gigantic connectivity project to dig in Beijing’s rise as an unrivalled global power by 2050.
During the seminal 19th congress of the CPC held in October 2017, Xi had announced that the party was planning to accomplish the Chinese Dream, of becoming the most powerful nation on earth—an ambition that had to be realized during the centenary celebrations of the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
<strong>Sincizing Tibet and other ethnic minorities</strong>
Recently, UFWD head You Quan, has renewed his focus on sincizing Tibet. On September 15, he was in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, which has a large Tibetan population, to support Xi’s totalitarian goals. “Stressing that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation, You noted that Tibetan Buddhism should be guided in adapting to the socialist society,” the People’s Daily, the CPC flagship wrote. During his visit, You was accompanied by Sithar, a former deputy minister in the UFWD, who played a key role during the 2002-2010 talks with envoys of the Dalai Lama, the website <a href="https://savetibet.org/"><strong>Save Tibet</strong> </a>reported.
The UFWD head’s message to sinicize minorities blared loud and clear when You urged “all ethnic groups” to “enhance recognition of the motherland, the Chinese nation, the Chinese culture, the CPC, and socialism with Chinese characteristics…”
Separately in the remote Qinghai province, known as much for its huge reserves of lithium—the feedstock of China’s electric car revolution, Wang Yang, member of the super-seven standing committee of the politburo, China’s top leadership, was already spreading the message of sinicizing Buddhism. Wang’s special mission during the visit to the Guoluo Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, was essentially part of a huge effort to spread Xi’s earlier message, to integrate the region, and other provinces with large Tibetan population, further into the dominant Han-Chinese social mainstream.
In his address to the two-day Seventh Tibet Work Forum of the Central Committee of the CPC, which began on August 28, Xi had called for building an “impregnable fortress” to maintain stability in Tibet, protect national unity and educate the masses in the struggle against “splittism”. In doing so, Xi was defending the so-called one-China principle of keeping the country united, which has been under strain because of the stand-off with India in Ladakh bordering Tibet, resurgent nationalism in Taiwan, and social unrest in Xinjiang.
The CPC General Secretary also stressed that political and ideological education must be strengthened in Tibet’s schools in order to “plant the seeds of loving China in the depths of the hearts of every youth”.
Writing in <strong><a href="https://tibet.net/">Tibet.net</a></strong>, Tenzin Tseten of the Tibet Policy Institute, explained that “there has been a growing sense of insecurity within the Chinese establishment concerning the younger generation Tibetans taking part in every aspect of Tibetan freedom struggle”.
He added: “With regard to this Beijing’s decision to return to re-education rather than solely relying on the securitization in Tibet is perceived as a long-term solution to ensure long-term stability in Tibet.”
During his address, Xi emphasized the importance of unity between nationalities. Tseten points out that the thought arguably promotes the idea of intermarriage between Tibetan and Chinese. In his view, the policy of incentive-based intermarriage between Chinese and religious minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs was first promoted through a symposium held in Lhasa, the capital city of the Tibet, in 2014. Chen Quanguo, former party secretary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), had stressed at the symposium that inter-marriages was an important starting point to promote the great unity of all ethnic groups in Tibet.
Xi, China’s “core leader,” a designation assigned to a handful of leaders, who have steered the country during challenging transitions, also made it plain that Tibetan Buddhism needed to adapt to socialism and to Chinese conditions.
With internal dissent brewing and the external environment vitiating, Xi is bound to amplify his reliance on the UFWD and its affiliates to keep his flock together, and strengthen his totalitarian grip on pillars of Chinese society and economy, as well as dissenters within the ranks of the CPC..