Xi Jinping Gives China’s United Front a Bureaucratic Boost

May 1, 2018

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published by The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing select articles from The Interpreter.

Xi Jinping’s radical overhaul of the Chinese bureaucracy is not, as Xinhua would have you believe, just about streamlining government administration and reducing “red tape.” A host of state agencies that once stood between the public and the Chinese Communist Party have been done away with.

One of the chief beneficiaries is the United Front Work Department, the same department whose influence operations have made headline news in Australia.

Government bodies, including the Religious Affairs Bureau, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, and the State Council’s Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs have been absorbed by the United Front Work Department. While the “nameplate” of these offices will likely be maintained for foreign consumption, the move demonstrates the importance Xi places on the party’s nearly century-old United Front strategy.

The strategy was developed during the 1920s and 1930s to ensure the survival of the CCP, to undermine the Nationalists from within, and to raise funds among the diaspora. Mao nominated it as one of the three “magic weapons” that brought victory in the civil war, yet held a deep suspicion of cadres involved in United Front work.

It involved collaboration with those outside the “natural constituencies” of the party, such as capitalists, intellectuals, and religious leaders. The mission was a simple wartime approach: win over or eliminate. Ironically, cadres who tried to defend United Front allies after the CCP took power, such as revolutionary leaders Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai, soon found themselves in Mao’s crosshairs.

While the recent rise of the United Front Work Department was in train under Hu Jintao, what was once only paid lip service has been given higher status under Xi. The department now outranks the CCP’s Organization Bureau and Propaganda Department. The University of Adelaide’s Gerry Groot argues on Episode 20 of the Little Red Podcast that Xi has made his endorsement absolutely clear by appearing at numerous United Front functions:

It shows every official downstream that if Xi is taking it seriously, we should too. Now they’re going to be called to account. With the anti-corruption campaign and all these other imperatives, to be seen to be not doing something will be seen to be a political act.

This is not merely a shift in the wind’s direction – Xi has added 40,000 cadres to the United Front Work Department’s ranks. Given that China’s substantial aid program was until last month run by less than 100 officials in the Department of Foreign Aid, this is a staggering increase of personnel in a system where the party strictly controls the nomenklatura.

Attention has understandably focused on the department’s designs abroad, with Xi vowing “to fight the bloody battle against our enemies … with a strong determination to take our place in the world.” Yet coupled with the party’s newfound intolerance for religious expression and ethnic separatism, this boost in the stocks of the United Front Work Department may have more profound effects within China’s borders.

Groot sees parallels with the United Front’s approach to capitalists in the 1950s, which moved from peaceful coexistence and different forms of ownership to “assimilation and confiscation” when Mao declared socialism realized in 1956. Under Hu and Jiang, religious and ethnic expression was tolerated, and even encouraged. Not so under Xi.

Groot speculates that Xi’s confidence in the social, political, cultural, and economic dominance of Han China is such to believe the CCP can force assimilation:

That might explain why those 40,000 people were employed, to help push this transition through.

To understand the complicated implications of United Front work for Australia, I encourage you to listen to the episode. Rather than naming the United Front Work Department’s foot soldiers in Australia – ground covered by Clive Hamilton and Alex Joske in their submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security – Groot offers the example of the fictitious “Australian Association for Buddhists from Guangxi” to illustrate the importance of “plausible deniability” for United Front Work Department activities in Australia:

It could represent all those people, or it could only represent a couple of people. A lot of these groups are created by entrepreneurs who try to parlay community associations into political influence in Australia. Or they’re doing it deliberately to curry favor with the United Front Department and get benefits that way.

If you have something specific say on Chinese Muslims, [and] there’s a discussion in Australia about policy in China regarding Muslims, then the tendency of the Australian media is to balance. So they’ll look for a community organization to balance the claims of someone else, and they naturally come to these sorts of organizations, which then endorse the party line.

It’s a wonderful advantage for the United Front Department because it allows all sorts of plausible deniability.

Denials about United Front Work Department operations in Australia are sure to continue. Sharp divisions are emerging among policymakers and scholars about how serious a threat the department’s operations pose: One scholar’s threat to sovereignty is another’s panicky comments.

It’s important for China scholars to keep an open mind and not to line up neatly along friend-enemy lines. If China scholars continue to feel the need to launch ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with their views about CCP influence operations, nothing will please the United Front Work Department more.


Dr. Graeme Smith hosts The Little Red Podcast, is a research fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University and a visiting fellow at Sun Yatsen University’s Centre for Oceania Studies. His research interests include local politics in rural China, China’s engagement with the Pacific and the geopolitics of search engines.