‘United Front Work’ is now Xi’s most potent tool

Claude Arpi

Big changes are in the offing in China. Beijing has already announced its objective to become the number one power in the world by 2049, when the Communist regime will celebrate its hundred years at the helm of the Middle Kingdom.
The ongoing “trade war” with the United States, with President Donald Trump not ready to see China replacing his own country as the world leader, is a sign of it.
President Xi Jinping is aware that the Communist Party needs new tools, new organisation to fulfil its “China Dream” — the radical reforms undertaken by the People’s Liberation Army are part of this attempt.
Another organisation has recently come into pre-eminence to help China in attaining its goal — it is the United Front Work Department (UFWD) — today the most potent tool in the hands of the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Earlier this month, the China Brief of the Jamestown Foundation consecrated an entire issue to this organisation. It explained the meaning of the United Front Work Department as: “the process of building a ‘united front’ coalition around the CCP in order to serve the party’s objectives and subordinating targeted groups, both domestically and abroad. United Front Work is viewed by party leaders as a crucial component of the CCP’s victory in the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), and is now central to controlling and utilising domestic groups that might threaten the CCP’s power, as well as projecting influence abroad.”
UFWD coordinates various vital activities inside the party and at the periphery of the party, like the relations with religious and ethnic “minorities” or the overseas Chinese.
For the China Brief: “Without question, United Front activities have taken on renewed importance under general secretary Xi Jinping…The past four years have seen United Front work expand in scope, resourcing and top-level coordination.”
Some of the 12 bureaus of the department deal with Chinese “democratic” parties, ethnic affairs, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan (Bureau 3), Tibet (Bureau 7), Xinjiang (Bureau 8), overseas Chinese (Bureaus 9 and 10) or religious affairs (Bureaus 11 and 12). A vast encompassing program!
Note that the last three bureaus have recently been added.
It means that the department has greatly extended its scope by adding the activities of the Chinese overseas which are now monitored and controlled; conducting external propaganda or “influencing” important foreign personalities.
The seventh bureau, for Tibetan affairs has for decades been one of those most central to the UFWD’s activities.
To give an example, on May 5, Wang Yang, the chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee (CPPCC) and de facto the UFWD supremo, met with Gyaltsen Norbu, the Chinese-selected Panchen Lama, in Beijing. After offering a khata (a ceremonial scarf), the young lama considered as a Chinese puppet by the exiled Tibetans (the “real” Panchen Lama has been under house arrest for the past 24 years, he was kidnapped by the Chinese State at the age of five), briefed Mr Yang about “his studies and life in recent years”. Mr Norbu is important to China because he is the key for the recognition of a future “Chinese” Dalai Lama.
Mr Wang told the young lama: “The Panchen Lama, as a leader of Tibetan Buddhism, shoulders a great responsibility of leading Tibetan Buddhism in the right direction, and safeguarding the unification of the motherland and ethnic solidarity.” He added that he hoped the Panchen Lama “will take a firm political stand and lead religious figures and believers in fighting against all separatist elements.”
The Panchen Lama was urged to take the lead in interpreting religious doctrines in order to adapt them to socialism; in other words Tibetan Buddhism with Communist characteristics.
The Panchen Lama agreed to safeguard “the unification of the motherland, ethnic solidarity, social stability, and religious harmony”. He also promised that he will always remember the CCP leaders’ instructions.
You Quan, the powerful director of the UFDW was present when Mr Yang checked on the Chinese Panchen Lama.
A couple of days later, Mr Quan went on a four-day inspection-cum-research tour in the restive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), which has been in the news in recent months after the information leaked that more than one million local Uighurs are being kept in captivity… to be re-educated.
According to Xinhua news agency, Mr Quan called on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) and urged the corps “to maintain stability in and garrison the country’s border areas”.
Speaking highly of the achievements of the corps, Mr Quan asked the participants “to further understand and grasp the responsibilities and missions of the Corps in the new era and improve their emergency system in maintaining stability”.
The XPCC is an autonomous economic and paramilitary organisation with administrative authority over large areas in Xinjiang; it fulfils governmental functions such as healthcare and education, but more importantly, it looks after Xinjiang’s borders. Founded by Wang Zhen, one of the CCP’s Eight Elders in 1954, the XPCC’s goals are “to develop frontier regions, promote economic development, ensure social stability and ethnic harmony and consolidate border defence”.
Border with whom? First and foremost India, but also the Central Asian republics whose stability will make the Belt and Road Initiative, dear to President Xi, a success…or a failure.
Mr Quan spoke highly of the corps’ achievements; he asked the corps to mobilise cadres and ordinary people “to develop, construct and stabilise southern Xinjiang;” we know what it means for the Uighur population.
As mentioned earlier, the UFWD has recently gone through a major reorganisation — three new bureaus were created: “The new bureaus reflect the UFWD’s absorption of two State Council agencies responsible for overseas Chinese and religious affairs — the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO) and the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA)”, noted the China Brief; in the meantime, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, an essential government organ, has been placed under the UFWD.
The new 10th Bureau, known as the Overseas Chinese Affairs Bureau, has the responsibility for educational and cultural affairs, the media as well as the Chinese living abroad. This includes managing China’s official international media network, China News Service, which in turn, influences foreign organisations and individuals around the world, while promoting the Chinese language via organisations such the Confucius Institutes.
Another important responsibility of the UFWD is to prepare for the reunification with Taiwan. On May 12, Mr Yang sent a message to the fourth annual conference of media organisations from China and Taiwan, a pro-mainland group. Mr Wang warned Taiwan that the United States will not be able to preserve Taiwan’s security and that time is on China’s side: “Taiwanese authorities cannot even guarantee what will happen two years from now. Therefore, we are confident in saying that both time and momentum are on our side, the side of mainland China,” he said.
He heavily criticised those “placing their bets on the Americans” in Taiwan: “The Americans are just using Taiwan as a pawn. Will they go to war with China for Taiwan? I’m guessing they won’t. If we really go to war, will the Americans win? I’m guessing not,” Mr Wang hammered.
The UFWD is also used to “influence” intellectuals, journalists, academics or deciders abroad. The consolidation of the borders, the selection of the next Dalai Lama or influencing of personalities should concern India. Hopefully New Delhi is carefully watching these new developments.