Hong Kong: China would like the rest of the world to think of it as a benign force, as it tries to project a carefully cultivated image of a country different to others, one that does not seek hegemony and does not interfere in the internal affairs of others.
However, nothing could be further from the truth, and it is only now that many around the world are waking up to the fact that a pernicious Chinese influence is working behind the scenes and pulling strings.
For a nation ruled by an authoritarian one-party bloc, where police have almost unlimited powers and where human rights, press freedom, ethnic minorities and due legal process are trampled upon on a daily basis, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has no compunction about doing whatever it takes to keep itself in power and to legitimize itself in the court of world opinion.
In international affairs, China’s pressure on Pakistan to refuse competing Japanese loans that offer better terms than what Beijing does, shows the truth behind Chinese strategic influence. The One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative is not about “win-win”, as Beijing likes to proclaim. Instead, it is about spreading Chinese influence, making money for itself and improving its strategic position.
The current tensions in the Maldives paint a similar picture, as President Abdulla Yameen stifles opposition and drives his nation into debt to China. An International Monetary Fund report predicts the Maldives’ external debt will rise from 34.7% in 2016 to 51.2% in 2021 in large part due to infrastructure projects he has signed with China.
So how is China influencing the world?
The example above fits well with what US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calls “predatory economics”, but its military buildup also exerts influence. As tensions in the Maldives rise, for example, a Chinese naval task group is currently and ominously sailing nearby.
Nonetheless, China has a ready toolkit available and it can flexibly customize its approach to nations depending on their situation. For example, impoverished countries in the Pacific may be best wooed by investment and financial largesse. In wealthier countries it may take the form of more subtle propaganda, and certainly this is the enemy within the gates that many have ignored or downplayed for too long.
For instance, last year Australia and New Zealand were showered by news about how China, through various pro-Beijing lobby groups, is seeking to influence politics and politicians. In Australia, for example, Huang Xiangmo was fingered as a mainstay figure embroiled in these controversies. This real estate tycoon who emigrated to Australia in 2011 donated AUD2.7 million to political parties from 2012-16, exerting efforts to influence the Labour Party’s position on South China Sea territorial disputes.
Notably, Huang was president of the Australian branch of the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China (CPPRC). Denying it had any connection to the CPC, Huang described the group as “an autonomous non-government organization”.
Chapters of the CPPRC exist around the world, including the National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification (NACPU). John Dotson, writing for The Jamestown Foundation, a US think tank, said that, “The group has emerged in recent years at the forefront of groups representing, or claiming to represent, ethnic Chinese communities abroad; and has also become one of the PRC’s primary institutions for organizing and mobilizing the international Chinese diaspora in support of PRC policies.”
Dotson alleged, “.A cursory examination of the organization’s leadership structure reveals that the CPPRC is directly subordinate to the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD).”
The UFWD is a body under the Central Committee, which manages relations between the CPC and non-party elites (e.g., influential individuals and organizations who represent interest groups both inside and outside China). Indeed, the UFWD’s webpage lists the CPPRC as falling under its work units.
Dotson stated, “The CCP United Front Work Department is an organization that plays a major role in directing Beijing’s efforts to influence public opinion and government policy in countries throughout the world.”
Whereas the UFWD in the past mostly kept a low international profile, under President Xi Jinping it has risen in prominence as he pursues a more assertive foreign policy. Dotson warned, “This has coincided with a more aggressive effort by PRC state-affiliated entities to influence political figures and policy debates in other countries, and the efforts of the CPPRC in the United States and elsewhere closely match this pattern.”
The NACPU’s influence may come from statements on its website appealing for the US government and Congress to abide by the “One China” policy or to stop selling weapons to Taiwan. Most of its website content is in Chinese, suggesting it is mostly concerned with molding opinion in the Chinese diaspora. Dotson said that, so far, NACPU’s efforts “fall within conventional bounds of what US civil associations might do to influence political leaders”.
Dotson continued, “.There is ample evidence that the CPPRC is a thinly disguised front organization managed by the CCP United Front Work Department, and that it serves as a mechanism for promoting PRC state-sanctioned propaganda messages under the guise of an independent civic organization. Furthermore, the increasingly prominent role of CPPRC affiliates as self-appointed spokesmen for ethnic Chinese communities outside of China, and their role in mobilizing those communities in support of PRC policies, raises concern as to whether dissident viewpoints in those communities could be increasingly drowned out or intimidated into silence.”
Many Chinese join such organizations because of the networking opportunities they garner, as well as to show political loyalty and receive attendant rewards. However, there are numerous cases reported of peer pressure being exerted on the Chinese diaspora, student groups or businesses to support the Chinese government.
In what is difficult for most other cultures to comprehend, Chinese are taught to exhibit total loyalty to the party because there is no difference between the party and country. It is difficult for many Chinese to break free from these shackles, even when living abroad. Xiconstantly drums the message that the CPC should have “the leading role in all aspects of life”. Key ally Wang Qishan also summarized, “Upholding the Communist party’s leading role is the paramount political principle for contemporary China.”
As the CPC pursues a more assertive foreign policy, it wants to influence public opinion overseas too. It is therefore likely that fronts such as the CPPRC will be increasingly wielded as propaganda outlets.
Another perceived threat comes from Confucius Institutes. Indeed, the FBI is even investigating one such program at the University of Iowa. FBI Director Christopher Wray said his bureau is “watching warily” activities at Confucius Institutes.
Such non-profit Confucius Institutes notionally teach Chinese language and culture in host schools, but they help promote China’s own brand of history, such as the notions that Tibet and Taiwan are integral parts of China. Some universities in the USA have already cut ties amidst alarm about academic freedom and concessions to the Chinese government.
As of last year there were 516 Confucius Institutes and 1,076 Confucius Classrooms (at the elementary and high school levels) in 142 countries since they were first established in 2004. It is modeled on the British Council and it reaches more than 1.5 million students. They are essentially joint ventures between local universities and the Chinese government agency known as Hanban (or Office of Chinese Language Council International).
However, Willy Lam, a Chinese University of Hong Kong lecturer, noted, “The Confucius Institutes serve as a base where Beijing’s experts in propaganda and united front work can ‘infiltrate’ their host universities and shape the opinion of scholars and students.” He said they are responsible for spreading a favorable version of China and for correcting any misconceptions among Western intellectuals.
Concern continues to mount about nefarious Chinese activity. Even New Zealand’s Prime Minister JacindaArdern weighed in on suspicious crimes against an outspoken Canterbury University professor who has highlighted Chinese influence campaigns, as well as Beijing’s ambitions in the Arctic and Antarctic. The office of Anne-Marie Brady was broken into in December, and her home was burgled in February, with only computers, phones and USB storage devices targeted. Brady linked these incidents to her research, and said she had earlier received an anonymous threat letter. Although no link has been determined with the Chinese authorities, Ardern instructed New Zealand’s intelligence service to investigate.
China’s president has reemphasized the UFWD’s functions, expanded its size and raised its status, and he even heads the Small leading Group in United Front Work. Unusually, Xi even mentioned the UFWP in his speech at last October’s 19th Party Congress: “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.”
In 2017 the UWFD’s Research Office defined a new direction in terms of “the three tasks of serving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, safeguarding the state’s core interests, and maintaining the long term stability of Hong Kong and Macao and complete the unification of the motherland”.
Gerry Groot thus wrote for The Jamestown Foundation, “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.”
Beijing is trying to mobilize the Chinese diaspora to support its agenda. For example State Councilor Yang Jiechi said last year that it had become “necessary to actively push the governments of other countries to build a favorable environment conducive to the survival and development of ethnic Chinese compatriots”.
Xi also declared at the congress, “China will be a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.We will improve our capacity for engaging in international communication so as to tell China’s stories well, present a true, multi-dimensional and panoramic view of China, and enhance our country’s cultural soft power.”
By 2035, congress delegates heard, “China’s cultural soft power will have grown much stronger” and “Chinese culture will have greater appeal”. No letup is in sight, as soft power bolsters a military buildup and economic growth to achieve Xi’s grand aim.
There are inherent contradictions, of course. China “opposes acts” that “interfere in the internal affairs of others”, but “no one should expect [China] to swallow anything that undermines our interests”. The key for Beijing is therefore how to intervene in other countries without appearing to have done so.
When Beijing is caught out, it is not afraid to play the racism card either.
When Australia initiated new foreign interference lawslast year, the Chinese Embassy’s spokesman in Canberra responded furiously, “.Some Australian media have repeatedly fabricated news stories about the so-called Chinese influence and infiltration in Australia.Those reports, which were made up out of thin air and filled with cold war mentality and ideological bias, reflected a typical anti-China hysteria and paranoia.”
The berating continued, “The relevant reports not only made unjustifiable accusations against the Chinese government, but also unscrupulously vilified the Chinese students as well as the Chinese community in Australia with racial prejudice, which in turn has tarnished Australia’s reputation as a multicultural society.”
Then again, is China entitled to talk this way? It has no reputation of its own as a pluralistic multicultural society, plus it exhibits continued paranoia over foreign influence with strict laws of its own. (ANI)