By Ralph Weber*
December 15, 2020
The influence of China on the world economy and international politics increases from day to day. Many economic or diplomatic actors are wondering about their relationship with the Chinese state, struggling to grasp all its facets. One facet of the Chinese party-state that we have difficulty identifying, despite its presence in Switzerland, is the United Front.
In Switzerland, many heads are being scratched over how to continue relations with partners in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Swiss Federal Government works on a new China Strategy. Companies, big and small, reconsider supply chains in light of the recent PRC mask and health diplomacy and the ongoing cultural genocide in Xinjiang. Universities review their cooperation with partners who are increasingly set in line with “Xi Jinping thought.” Observing the events in Hong Kong, finally, civil society actors engaged in Sino-Swiss dialogue for years, often with the best of intentions, are no longer so sure.
The PRC now embraces its supposedly rightful place as the coming great power of the 21st century. And its authoritarian regime centered around a Marxist-Leninist party standing above the state has begun to act like it. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has vamped up its influence and propaganda apparatus, as it challenges Taiwan more openly, engages in coercive economic diplomacy against Australia and spreads its media across the world. Meanwhile, the much-discussed Belt-and-Road-Initiative has cemented into the infrastructure of our heads the very idea that it, and no other, will indeed be the next superpower.
Chinese Influence as Interference
In all of this, it seems that we have lost the vocabulary and with it the understanding of Marxism-Leninism. The CCP intends to influence, indoctrinate, and mobilize non-CCP groups and individuals in order to serve the Party’s objectives. To do this, it co-opts and manipulates elites in an attempt to shape discourse and decision-making, operating in the conceptual space between influence and interference. This includes issues such as spreading propaganda about China, the monitoring of the diaspora and notably the Tibetan and Uighur communities, science and technology transfer, and the facilitation of intelligence work.
One facet of the Chinese party-state that we have trouble recognizing, but that is present in Switzerland, is the United Front. It is a top priority of the regime. Xi Jinping has vamped up the United Front considerably in terms of scope, resources (budget, personnel), and importance. The United Front uses a tactic that the CCP deploys at home and abroad. It divides between CCP and non-party members, which it then separates into “friends” and “enemies.”
The United Front System
In the party-state architecture, the United Front figures as one system besides several others, notably external affairs, propaganda and ideology, military and security, and economics and finance. The CCP uses all of these systems for its influence operations abroad. The United Front System is under the guidance of the Central United Front Leading Small Group (est. in 2015) and headed by the fourth-ranked member of the Politburo Standing Committee. Its most important platform is the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, while much of the day-to-day work is entrusted to the United Front Work Department.
The United Front System runs numerous organizations, such as the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification. These organizations all have overseas members and affiliates, which often the embassies and consulates guide. We know the structures of these actors quite well, but little about their operations on the ground.
There is ample evidence of united front tactics deployed in Switzerland. There are more than a dozen united front organizations. One is the Geneva-based Swiss Association of Merchants and Entrepreneurs of Chinese Origin (Association Suisse des Commerçants et Entrepreneurs d'Origine Chinoise, est. 2008). The persons governing it link an impressive network of organizations in Switzerland. The backgrounds of the board members are telling. There is the exuberantly rich Hong Kong businessperson, the restaurant owner who had fled Vietnam and made a career in the Overseas Chinese community, a Professor of Medicine at the University of Zurich, several practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and two people who claim links into the Swiss Federal Government.
The much-discussed systemic rivalry is expressed in a language that derives from the Cold War and unduly ignores not only cross-cutting dimensions of global capitalism but also the transnational realities and increasingly digital life-worlds of our day, which the United Front is quick to use and exploit. There is perhaps an option to counter united front tactics, namely by learning about them, bringing them into the open and addressing them, and therefore react to them as befits a pluralist liberal democracy..ounding through the united front echo chambers is nothing short of astounding. y by the Chinese Embassy in Bern, it helps guide the various Chinese student and scholar associations at Swiss universities.
The Terms of a Reaction
How to react? Here are a few points: 1. It is important to understand that most of these activities are fully legal. 2. Those involved might not necessarily know about their co-optation. 3. This is not a “Chinese” issue, but has to do with the Communist Party. There is a real risk of catering to unwanted xenophobia and racism, which would undercut the fundament on which a pluralistic democracy stands. 4. Those involved on whatever end are real people. Learning about the sociological complexity of their lives is crucial to avoid reactions that only polarize opinions.
Pronouncements of the Chinese party-state tend to normalize the PRC as trustworthy and responsible world leader. Geneva, with its many multilateral organizations, has increasingly witnessed the PRC’s self-fashioning as a global norm-entrepreneur, while it seeks to undermine the international law and human rights regime and dominate the discourse on international technical standards. United front activities reveal the continued ideological divergence loud and clear. In fact, the uniformity of the message resounding through the united front echo chambers is nothing short of astounding.
The much-discussed systemic rivalry is expressed in a language that derives from the Cold War and unduly ignores not only crosscutting dimensions of global capitalism, but also the transnational realities and increasingly digital life-worlds of our day, which the United Front is quick to use and exploit. There is perhaps an option to counter united front tactics, namely by learning about them, bringing them into the open and addressing them, and therefore react to them as befits a pluralist liberal democracy.
Ralph Weber is Professor at the Institute for European Global Studies at the University of Basel and an expert on China.