In the West, more and more concerns are emerging about China’s political influence over universities, cultural organisations or ordinary citizens.
Summers are hot in Beijing; this explains why every year, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) takes the direction of the beach resort of Beidaihe, north of the Chinese capital. The tradition has existed since the 1950s, “when Mao Zedong would alarm aides by swimming far into the soupy waters of the Bohai Sea”, commented The Economist.
But the top bosses of the party are not in the resort only to swim and enjoy the privileges of the Communist nomenklatura, “hot” discussions take place between the politburo members and their colleagues. This year, there were rumours that President Xi Jinping faced severe opposition over his policies; while Mr Xi’s close ally, Wang Huning, the member of the politburo standing committee responsible for propaganda, was in the hot seat.
The leaders disappeared from the radar of the Chinese (and world) media for two weeks when suddenly Mr Xi and his colleagues reappeared in the limelight.
The President chaired two meetings; the first one with the senior cadres of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), during which Mr Xi asked the generals “to comprehensively strengthen the leadership of the party over the defence forces”. He made it clear that the party will tighten its control over the Army. But it was not enough.
China-watcher Bill Bishop, author of the Sinocism newsletter, noted that after reaffirming his control over “the Gun”, Mr Xi had to show that “the Pen” was under his wing. For this purpose, Mr Xi chaired a national conference on propaganda and ideological work.
According to Xinhua, the Chinese President underscored that in order to better fulfil China’s missions in the new era, a “solid publicity and ideological work to unite the people to embrace shared ideals, convictions, values, and moral standards” was necessary.
He urged the cadres for “unity of thinking, holding high the banner of Marxism and socialism with Chinese characteristics”; in other words, all behind the party, the party above all.
Bishop concluded that it was “indicating that whatever criticism there was about the propaganda strategy [before Beidaihe] and Wang [Huning], has now been completely rejected”.
The Emperor won the round.
Chinese influence abroad is today pervading all spheres of activities, but it is not the intrusion of the Chinese hackers in Western websites to fish out the latest designs of fighter planes, drones or missiles or the West’s advanced studies in Artificial Intelligence.
The Wilson Centre in Washington D.C. recently published a detailed report entitled “A Preliminary Study of PRC Political Influence and Interference Activities in American Higher Education”; to quote the author: “As the CCP consolidates its control over every aspect of domestic society, it increasingly seeks to shape the world in its image. Mammoth multimedia platforms broadcasting the ‘Voice of China’ [promote] projects like the Belt and Road Initiative.”
The report observed that China promotes “global initiatives as public goods”, while the Americans believe that these moves are aimed at creating “a world antithetical to US values and interests”.
In the West, more and more concerns are emerging about China’s political influence over universities, cultural organisations or ordinary citizens. It has prompted “a slew of congressional hearings on the subject. In the American education sector, lawmakers and journalists have focused their attention on the state-sponsored Confucius Institutes, which allegedly promote CCP propaganda and censor campus activities critical of China”, said the Wilson Centre’s report.
In the recent past, Chinese cultural institutions have interfered in American universities, for example, in the choice of speakers invited by universities (the Dalai Lama is one of the principal victims of Chinese pressure). A large number of cases are cited such as inducements offered to the faculty not to write on the dark sides of China or probing faculty and staff “for information in a manner consistent with intelligence collection”.
The list is long. Propaganda and “influence” go hand-in-hand.
During the National People’s Congress meeting in March, China had decided to unify its Voice. A document of the state council released on March 21 announced that Beijing had decided to form the world’s largest media group called “Voice of China”.
It was to combine the existing China Central Television, China National Radio, and China Radio International under one unified umbrella and name with the responsibility to “promote the party theory and guidelines, organize major publicity and coverage, guide social hot topics, strengthen international communication capabilities, and publish positive news on China”.
Voice of China was to produce the party’s propaganda programme, copying the model of stations in foreign countries, using limited amount of advertising. The influence/propaganda policies apply outside China as well as inside.
On September 10, Wang Shitong, a standing committee member of the CCP’s Guangzhou municipal committee, proposed that “it is necessary to shoulder political responsibilities effectively in order to strengthen the party’s buildup in the Internet industry”.
Last month, Guangzhou’s Internet companies had seen the development of 169 CCP organisations, covering 436 companies, of which 83 were newly established this year, an increase of 96.5 per cent over the same period last year. The Guangzhou’s Internet sector has a total of 7,358 members of the Communist Party, including 3,267 members who are new to the party as of this year, a significant increase of 79.9 per cent over the same period last year. Can you believe it?
While party members are involved in internal propaganda, the “external” operations are orchestrated by United Front Work Department (UFWD) whose role is to “neutralise sources of potential opposition to the policies and authority of the CCP”.
On August 24, 2018, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commissionpublished a report “China’s Overseas United Front Work —Background and Implications for the United States” explaining that the UFWD, “the agency responsible for coordinating these kinds of influence operations — mostly focuses on the management of potential opposition groups inside China, but it also has an important foreign influence mission”. The UFWD seeks to co-opt ethnic Chinese individuals and communities living abroad, “while a number of other key affiliated organisations guided by China’s broader United Front strategy conduct influence operations targeting foreign actors and states”.
The UFWD plays an increasingly important role in China’s broader foreign policy, “to seek influence through connections that are difficult to publically prove and to gain influence that is interwoven with sensitive issues such as ethnic, political, and national identity, making those who seek to identify the negative effects of such influence vulnerable to accusations of prejudice”.
The Trump administration has started a counter-attack, it has ordered two Chinese state-backed organisations to register as foreign agents, “a move one US official said went beyond trade to reflect Beijing’s lack of give on media access”, commented the South China Morning Post.
The Wall Street Journal reported that both Xinhua and China Global Television Network (CGTN) have been told to clearly label their affiliation with Beijing and disclose budget and ownership structure information under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. A new “war” is clearly on. India does not seem to bother. Is that wise?