Source: WSJ (6/8/20)
China Steps Up Moves to Influence Diaspora Communities
Countering the effort requires heightened vigilance by democratic countries, new report says
By Kate O’Keeffe
WASHINGTON—China is making fresh efforts to influence Chinese communities around the world to advance Beijing’s interests, requiring heightened vigilance from democratic countries, a new study says.
A unit in China’s ruling Communist Party known as the United Front Work Department [中共中央统一战线工作部] engages thousands of organizations to collect intelligence, encourage technology transfer, counter dissident movements and generate support for other Beijing objectives, said the report by the nonpartisan Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The department focuses its influence operations overseas on Chinese diaspora communities and foreign elites, the report said.
While Beijing has used the united front system for decades, President Xi Jinping renewed the department’s mission as part of a push to make China a global power.
In recent years it has turned to increasing its control over Chinese-language media abroad, funding research at prominent think tanks and using China’s popular WeChat messaging platform and other social media to censor, surveil and shape dialogue on policy issues, it said.
Alex Joske, an analyst at the institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre and the author of the report, said that United Front activities are difficult for open societies to address because they range from overt, generally accepted forms of public diplomacy to espionage and other covert actions.
Their effect “undermines social cohesion, exacerbates racial tension, influences politics, harms media integrity, facilitates espionage and increases unsupervised technology transfer,” Mr. Joske wrote in the report.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The Chinese government has denied interfering in other countries’ affairs.
Since much of the United Front efforts are aimed at Chinese living outside China, governments need to take measures to better support those communities, the report said. Governments should support independent Chinese-language media and explore legislation to root out censorship and surveillance on WeChat, it said.
The report adds to a growing international debate over how to address the Chinese Communist Party’s more muscular efforts to expand its influence around the world.
This month, legislators from the U.S., Europe and elsewhere launched the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China with the idea that “democratic states must maintain the integrity of their political systems, and actively seek to preserve a marketplace of ideas free from distortion.”
Australia has been on the front lines of China’s influence operations and passed legislation in 2018 to counter foreign interference, partly spurred by the discovery of a Chinese property developer’s efforts to influence politics in the country.
The U.S. in the past two years has begun to try to root out what it sees as undue Chinese government interference. Congress passed a defense policy bill in 2018 that limits the use of funds for language-training to U.S. schools hosting Chinese government-backed Confucius Institutes, which serve as conduits for disseminating pro-Beijing views under the direction of the United Front. As a result, some schools have severed ties with the institutes.
The Australian institute report also identifies China News Service, which runs a large network of overseas bureaus, as operating at the direction of the United Front. The outlet is one of five the U.S. State Department is considering forcing to report its personnel and property in the U.S., giving officials insight into its operations.
Write to Kate O’Keeffe at email@example.com