China’s secret ‘magic weapon’ for global soft power


Xi Jinping is quietly ramping up the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist party in a push for global “soft power”, The FT’s James Kynge writes in a must-read analysis:

“Enemy forces abroad do not want to see China rise and many of them see our country as a potential threat and rival, so they use a thousand ploys and a hundred strategies to frustrate and repress us,” according to the book, titled the “China United Front Course Book”. “The United Front . . . is a big magic weapon which can rid us of 10,000 problems in order to seize victory, adds another passage in the book, which identifies its authors and editorial board as top-level United Front officials. …

Credit: South China Morning Post

Winning “hearts and minds” at home and abroad through United Front work is crucial to realising the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”, Mr Xi has said. Yet the type of power exercised by the cadres who work behind the neoclassical façade of 135 Fuyou Street is often anything but soft. A Financial Times investigation into United Front operations in several countries shows a movement directed from the pinnacle of Chinese power to charm, co-opt or attack well-defined groups and individuals. Its broad aims are to win support for China’s political agenda, accumulate influence overseas and gather key information.

The organisation’s structure exhibits the extraordinary breadth of its remit. Its nine bureaux cover almost all of the areas in which the Communist party perceives threats to its power. The third bureau, for instance, is responsible for work in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and among about 60m overseas Chinese in more than 180 countries. The second bureau handles religion. The seventh and ninth are responsible respectively for Tibet and Xinjiang — two restive frontier areas that are home to Tibetan and Uighur minority nationalities.

Under Mr Xi there has been a distinct toughening in China’s soft power focus, said Merriden Varrall, director at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank. The former emphasis on reassuring others that China’s rise will be peaceful is giving way to a more forceful line. “There has been a definite shift in emphasis since Xi Jinping took over,” says Ms Varrall. “There is still a sense that reassuring others is important, but there is also a sense that China must dictate how it’s perceived and that the world is biased against China.”

Beijing’s stark ambition should challenge those in the west who have for decades predicted that China would stumble or collapse. It also calls for a re-examination of the conventional wisdom that an authoritarian, single-party state is doomed to be too hidebound or corrupt to foster dynamic and innovative economic growth, Kynge adds:

Over the period of “reform and opening” since the late 1970s, China has generally sought to “bide its time and hide its strength”. But no longer. At the congress, Xi Jinping, the president, presented “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as “a new choice” for developing nations to follow.

But what lends heft to this globalist intent are technological advances that are already invigorating the Chinese economy and may also help to address some of the historic failings of the country’s polity. The data revolution is fusing with China’s party-state to create a potential “techno-tatorship”; a hybrid strain in which rigid political control can coexist with ample free-market flexibility.

China also uses development aid as a tool of soft power, notes Dan Banik, a professor director at the University of Oslo’s Center for Development and the Environment. Beijing’s strategy is to make recipient governments believe they can shape their own development strategies without outside interference. In doing so, China aims at expanding its global influence by emphasizing the benefits of what it calls South-South collaboration, he writes for The Washington Post.

“China’s approach is characterized not by generosity, but pragmatism. It does not believe in offering aid conditioned on improving local governance or combating corruption” he adds. “Unlike Western donors, China controls the implementation process by bypassing the public administration of recipient countries, and awards contracts to Chinese companies.”

Like its Soviet forebears, China’s Communist Party employs a range of front organizations to spread influence. The United Front controls all of China’s national religious organizations, the FT notes, including the Buddhist Association of China, the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Three-Self (Protestant) Patriotic Movement.

The United Front also uses identity politics to mobilize the diaspora mobilize the diaspora Cultivate identity politics and mobilize the diaspora, Kynge writes, noting that a teaching manual recommends a number of ways in which United Front operatives should win support from overseas Chinese:

Some are emotional, stressing “flesh and blood” ties to the motherland. Others are ideological, focusing on a common participation in the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”. But mainly they are material, providing funding or other resources to selected overseas Chinese groups and individuals deemed valuable to Beijing’s cause.

By projecting the regime’s soft power, China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) threatens to undermine democracy and bolster autocratic regimes, analysts suggest.

The BRI’s vast network of infrastructure projects represents an ambitious undertaking, the implications of which are not yet well understood, notes Shanthi Kalathil, director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies. Nadege Rolland’s monograph, China’s Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative, examines the drivers and objectives behind BRI, she writes in a review for the October 2017 issue of the Journal of Democracy.

“Cynics might reasonably point to BRI’s ‘community of common destiny’ as just the latest in a series of awkward constructions that have formed the rhetorical architecture of China’s emergence as a global power,” Kalathil writes. “Rolland makes an effective case that BRI is something different, tied to the emergence of a new age in which democracies have to struggle to justify the established liberal international order and authoritarians in turn use the language of openness against them.”

The BRI (aka “One Belt, One Road”) “is a massive commitment, dwarfing the Marshall Plan in size and scope,” The Guardian’s Larry Elliott writes. “Countries do not have to join a military alliance with China to benefit, but the expectation is that they will inevitably develop stronger trading and political links as a result.” At a time when the US “appears to have lost its knack for deploying soft power; Xi has shown how to do it,” he says.

Democratic alternative to OBOR?

At the G20 summit in Hamburg in July, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe indicated a willingness to take part in Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, apparently prompted by concerns that domestic firms would miss out on the modern-day “Silk Road” project’s lucrative construction projects, Deutsche Welle reports. But just three months later, Tokyo intends to use the upcoming visit of US President Donald Trump to engage regional democracies like India and Australia in an alternative to OBOR.

“It is important that we have an alternative to the ideas of China because countries might join their plan and Beijing could very easily change those plans to better favor themselves,” said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University. “China is so big and powerful that not many other nations can stand up to them. I believe there is a risk involved for any country that places all its eggs in one basket and works solely with China.”

For the United Front, a bigger prize is political influence in the west, writes The FT’s Kynge:

The teaching manual notes approvingly the success of overseas Chinese candidates in elections in Toronto, Canada. In 2003, six were elected from 25 candidates but by 2006 the number jumped to 10 elected from among 44 candidates, it says. “We should aim to work with those individuals and groups that are at a relatively high level, operate within the mainstream of society and have prospects for advancement,” it says.

Canada’s intelligence agency warned that several Canadian provincial cabinet ministers and government employees were “agents of influence” for foreign countries, particularly China. In recent months, Australia has said it is concerned about Chinese intelligence operations and covert campaigns influencing the country’s politics. But over time, such setbacks may prove temporary hiccups in the projection of China’s brand of hard-boiled soft power around the world.

Australia’s government is now considering new limits on campaign contributions, restrictions on foreign investments and tougher counterintelligence laws….Concern about political interference by China is also growing in New Zealand, where a Chinese official recently advised Chinese-language journalists to coordinate coverage with China’s official press, The New York Times adds.

“The Chinese party-state has overplayed its hand in trying to influence Australia’s choices,” said Rory Medcalf, head of the national security college at the Australian National University…..“I never imagined the level of instruction was that direct,” said Anne-Marie Brady (right), a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, who recently published a research paper on Beijing’s efforts in New Zealand.

The 14 Confucius institutes operating in Australian universities, along with the pro-Beijing think-tank – Australia China Relations Institute (ACRI) – are closely aligned with the United Front Work Department, one observer notes. Xi’s emphasis on ideological renewal, discipline and hostility to “Western” liberal democracy has given a hard edge to China’s soft power, analysts suggest.

“In the beginning the Chinese government talked about culture — Peking opera, acrobatics — as soft power,” says Li Xiguang, a head of Tsinghua University’s International Center for Communication Studies. “When Xi Jinping came to power, he was totally different from previous leaders. He said China should have full self-confidence in our culture, development road, political system and theory.”


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