China’s ruling Communist Party is engaged in systematic efforts to undermine American and Western societies through the operations of a party organ called the United Front Work Department, according to an extensive new think tank report.
The report by a former Hong Kong police intelligence officer contends that the subversive operations are increasing under Chinese President Xi Jinping and are founded on an ancient strategy called “sowing discord.”
That strategy is based on a Chinese proverb that calls for fomenting deep internal disputes among the enemy that distracts them from the conflict, according to the report by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation.
Outside enforcement action and sanctions against Chinese government agencies engaged in the subversive activities will not solve the problem, the report states.
“The most effective shield that the U.S. and other Western societies possess is their shared democratic values, which are the most effective means of countering any negative influence of [Chinese Communist Party] activities,” the report said.
“We must proactively defend our democracies and prevent them from being undermined, but in order to do so, we must first understand the nature of the threat being posed by the CCP,” writes report author Martin Purbrick, a former officer of the Hong Kong police special branch and criminal intelligence bureau.
Beijing’s influence operations against the United States seek to distract attention from repression inside China and also to pressure Chinese dissidents abroad as well as such domestic sources of unrest as Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, the report said.
The report echoes recent warnings from the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Agency, which issued its own report alleging that China is targeting U.S. government officials at the state and local levels through influence operations designed to further the regime’s goals.
The counterintelligence report, published in July 2022, states that China invests large sums in its United Front Work Department operations, whose targets also include officials in the federal government in Washington.
An example is the operation that involved a Chinese agent named Fang Fang who reportedly had a relationship with Rep. Eric Swalwell, California Democrat. Mr. Swalwell denied leaking any secrets during the relationship, however, he was recently removed from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence by new Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and British MI5 Director General Ken McCallum have also issued public warnings against Chinese intelligence and influence operations targeting the West.
MI5, Britain’s domestic spy agency, issued an alert last year to Parliament warning that a person linked to the United Front Work Department had penetrated the legislature, Mr. McCallum said.
“Through networks of this sort, the UFWD — described by Mao as one of the CCP’s ‘magic weapons’ — aims to amplify pro-CCP voices — and silence those that question the CCP’s legitimacy or authority,” Mr. McCallum said in a rare public address outlining his concerns about Beijing.
The Jamestown Foundation report said more assertive propaganda efforts by the Chinese government to influence foreign societies are linked to united front work that evolved from the Chinese Communist Party’s earliest days after it was founded in 1921.
The activities began as a method of co-opting political and social groups in support of the CCP, and more recently as a means to garner support both in China and abroad.
“United front work represents a broad strategy that not only involves the spread of influence, but also exists as an espionage tool for PRC government agencies such as the Ministry of State Security (MSS),” the report states, using the acronym for People’s Republic of China.
Chinese government offensive activities in the United States and Western nations are so significant they have the potential to seriously disrupt those societies.
“This undermining of U.S. and Western societies is not as systematic or effective as Russian political subversion, but the PRC may learn more effective execution if it sees a benefit in using a ‘strategy of sowing discord’ to pressure the U.S. government,” the report said.
The ‘Thirty-Six Stratagems’
Chinese leaders often refer to the classic “Thirty-Six Stratagems,” a text used by the Chinese for centuries as a guide to politics and war.
The book urges leaders to “undermine your enemy’s ability to fight by secretly causing discord between him and his friends, allies, advisors, family, commanders, soldiers and population. While he is preoccupied settling internal disputes, his ability to attack or defend is compromised.”
The Jamestown report said Beijing is working to deflect criticism of China through an asymmetric warfare strategy of undermining U.S. and Western society and causing a refocus on domestic matters.
“This is not merely conjecture of what the CCP might intend, but is — according to U.S. and UK intelligence agencies — the nature of what is happening right now,” the report states.
United front operations serve a dual role of perpetuating CCP one-party rule and influencing foreign governments through soft power means.
In addition to the United Front Work Department, other Chinese organs involved in the subversion include the Ministry of Education and party committees in universities; the National People’s Congress Overseas Chinese Affairs Committee; the Chinese People’s Consultative Committee (CPPCC); the Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and Overseas Chinese Committee; the China Zhi Gong Party; the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese; and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Intelligence agencies also taking part including the MSS and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) political work department liaison bureau.
In addition to influence activities in the United States, the report also notes Chinese influence operations in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Britain. Australia’s government several years ago uncovered an operation by a covert Chinese military officer working in the parliament.
Canada is currently embroiled in a scandal over illicit Chinese government funding of Canadian political activities. Efforts to influence activities in favor of the CCP in Taiwan, however, have largely failed, the report said.
China’s influence operations were derived from those first used by the Soviet Union and later Russia.
Current Chinese operations appear more sophisticated than those used by Moscow, the report said.
The key influence narrative promoted by Beijing through united front work and propaganda is that American democracy has failed, and that the U.S. political system is not a model for the world. Additionally, China has set up a network of think tanks, business lobbying groups, and “friendship” organizations for influence activities.
The report concludes that “it is important to consider that the CCP operates according to its core ideology of Marxism-Leninism.”
“The CCP exists by maintaining single party political rule and therefore feels it must take strong action against any perceived threats to its rule,” the report said.
China has soft-power tools that could be used to influence the world, including Chinese food, art, culture, music, movies, and television shows.
Unless Chinese united front operations are countered, the activities will weaken free and open societies, the report warns.
“Increasingly, the U.S. and its Western partners are becoming more aware of the threat of Chinese Communist activities that seek to subvert societies, notably through enforcement actions taken by the FBI and the intelligence collaboration with partner agencies such as MI5,” the report said.
• Bill Gertz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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