The Third Magic Weapon: Reforming China’s United Front
Last week in Xiamen, Chinese Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Yang presided over a routine conference on cross-strait relations and the relationship with the Taiwanese people. Wang observed that the current trends supported national reunification and national rejuvenation. Such meetings are part-and-parcel of the united front policy system, which helps the Chinese Communist Party consolidate its power and security by building control over non-party groups ranging from overseas ethnic Chinese to ethnic minorities and businesspersons. The routine makes it difficult to see change. In 2015, party General Secretary Xi Jinping began reinvigorating the united front system with new guidance, useful bureaucratic reforms, and an infusion of resources commensurate with the system’s expanded mandate.
This renaissance began after the center of the system, the United Front Work Department, lost its director Ling Jihua to Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Ling disappeared into the party’s disciplinary system in December 2014, later to be sentenced to life in prison for corruption, abuse of power, and illegally obtaining state secrets. The department was already beset by criticisms of its work and performance in coordinating united front policy. Nor was it helped by the months-long demonstrations in Hong Kong beginning in September 2014 or the resounding electoral victory of Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party in November. With Ling serving as scapegoat for failures in united front work, Xi launched an aggressive overhaul.
The United Front Work Department and the surrounding policy system exist to rally social groups and individuals to support the Chinese Communist Party and its objectives. From the party’s Politburo Standing Committee down to its grassroots committees, united front work involves thousands of members, social organizations, and fronts. Wherever the party is found, be it a government ministry or a party committee in a joint venture, the united front system is likely to be operating.
The united front is the third “magic weapon” of the party alongside party building and armed struggle. Xi appears to have used this traditional formulation of Mao Zedong to guide his efforts to strengthen the People’s Republic of China and achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people. Introducing a new party journal in 1939, Mao explained the relationship between the three magic weapons: “the Party is the heroic warrior wielding the two weapons, the united front and the armed struggle, to storm and shatter the enemy’s positions.” Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has strengthened the party and reasserted central leadership. The anti-corruption campaign and the wholesale military reorganization that followed reshaped the People’s Liberation Army to better align its organization with its warfighting concepts. However, what Xi Jinping has done to redress the shortcomings of united front work, especially in the United Front Work Department, has gone mostly unnoticed by Western analysts, despite its central role in the party’s plan for national rejuvenation.
“The United Front is Not United” (统一战线不统一)
The Chinese Communist Party’s leaders have consistently emphasized united front work, calling it “the work of the whole party” and highlighting it as a magic weapon for achieving the party’s goals. At the same time, successive leaders have failed to raise the status of united front work and ensure the entire party implements it.
The broad scope of the united front led to poor coordination of work, harming its effectiveness as a tool for controlling and mobilizing groups outside the Chinese Communist Party. The advent of the internet, new threats to the party’s power, and growing international ambitions have continued to expand the scope and burdens of united front work. Recent years have seen the number of bureaus in the United Front Work Department almost double, as new bureaus were created targeting areas such as Xinjiang, the Chinese diaspora, and managerial staff in foreign enterprises. At the 2015 Central United Front Work Conference, Xi also called for three new focuses of united front work: overseas Chinese students, representative individuals in new media, and the young generation of entrepreneurs and businessmen. Recent cases in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada and many other countries suggest that more resources also are being devoted to overseas united front work.
Despite party leaders’ insistence that united front work is the responsibility of all Party cadres, most have not been taking united front work seriously. As far back as 1951, Deng Xiaoping complained of “comrades who approve of united front work but think it’s the responsibility of united front work departments, with no relation to themselves.” More recently, Xi Jinping criticized the belief that “doing united front work would not get you great successes; not doing united front work would not get you in big trouble.”
Alongside the failure of all party cadres to carry out and emphasize united front work, even the United Front Work Department’s activities have been criticized. Party discipline officials inspecting the department in 2016 concluded that “Ling Jihua’s severe violations of party discipline and the law had a vile influence on the department’s leadership by the party and political ecology, weakening the party’s leadership for a period.” They pointed out that the department’s direction of united front system work units, which includes organizations such as the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification, had been insufficient.
To confront these problems, Xi needed to strengthen the party’s leadership of the united front, raise its political status, and improve coordination of united front work across the party and government. In other words, the united front needed to be united.
Launching United Front Reform
While previous leaders had failed to have the whole party carry out united front work, Xi Jinping is following through with his words. Concretely resolving the problem of a disunited united front system appears to be the overriding objective of all the reforms that emerged in 2015. Conceptual and organizational changes have been aimed at centralizing authority over united front work at every level of the party.
The most important developments came after the Central United Front Work Conference of May 2015. The conference’s increased status signaled the changes to come — the previous 20 united front conferences had only been national-level, i.e., lower-status events.
Shortly after the conference, the establishment of a Central United Front Work Leading Small Group was announced and the first-ever set of trial regulations on united front work was released. Creating the leading small group indicated that there would be greater high-level attention to united front work. It also functions as a platform to coordinate and raise the status of united front work across the bureaucracy, bringing together senior officials from numerous agencies for united front study and inspection tours across China. As one United Front Work Department publication explained in an article on the leading small group, “with everyone doing [united front work] together, there must be some division of labor.” The last time the party created a united front leading small group — in 1986 under the leadership of Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun — it faced a similar set of problems: expanding scope and responsibilities, and lack of central direction.
Through these developments, Xi has been implementing the Great United Front (大统战) concept. While it has been promoted since the 1990s, the Great United Front is described by one departmental theorist as “the most distinctive defining characteristic of the era of Xi Jinping’s thought on the united front.” It emphasizes a new structure for united front work that has greater coordination and strategic importance, and aims for united front work to be carried out across the bureaucracy under the coordination of the department and the leadership of the party.
Organizational Reform of the United Front Work Department
As the united front system has been reformed, so has its principal department. One of the most prominent developments came in March 2018 when work and policy on religious groups, ethnic minorities, and the Chinese diaspora was explicitly placed under the control of the United Front Work Department. At the same time, the department was formally given control of three State Council agencies responsible for work in those areas: The Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, the State Administration of Religious Affairs, and the State Ethnic Affairs Commission. This reorganization, which led to the creation of new bureaus targeting ethnic Chinese and religious groups, was documented by one of the authors in a May article.
While those three agencies have always been parts of the united front system that worked closely with the United Front Work Department, the department has said that the central objective of this reform was “to strengthen the party’s centralized and unified leadership of united front work.” Scholars have observed that work on religious and ethnic minority groups has seen greater emphasis on party control as the department’s role in those areas grew. For example, the department’s growing influence over Xinjiang policy has coincided with hardline policies designed to control the Uyghur population, including through the detention of over a million Muslims in concentration camps.
United front work on the Chinese diaspora is moving in a similar direction. One overseas united front member in Egypt told the People’s Daily that the Chinese embassy had greatly increased its coordination of overseas Chinese work and deepened its ties to local liaisons such as himself since the March 2018 reforms. According to the People’s Daily, the reforms “have in effect resolved the issue of overlapping responsibilities between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and the United Front Work Department,” unequivocally placing the United Front Work Department in charge of overseas Chinese work. As one of us wrote in May, “The [department] now has far greater overseas experience among its cadres, and a stronger hand to coordinate united front work carried out by various parts of the government, including staff in PRC diplomatic missions.”
Led by Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party is working to ensure that the united front remains a magic weapon eighty years after Mao’s famous formulation. United front work may have suffered from a lack of coordination and emphasis in past decades, but reforms since 2015 have elevated the united front to a position of greater importance than it has enjoyed since the communist victory. The “Great United Front” that has emerged since then is increasingly institutionalized, coordinated, and controlling. While the full extent of this expanding united front system remains to be seen, its importance is difficult to overstate, and it will be crucial to understanding the party’s engagement with the outside world.
Peter Mattis is a former contributing editor at War on the Rocks. He wrote this article while a visiting fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The views expressed are his alone and do not represent those of the U.S. government or anyone in it.
Alex Joske is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre.
Image: Wikimedia Commons