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Opinion It’s time to end China’s ‘United Front’ operations inside the United States

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 13th National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 28. (Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The coronavirus pandemic has brought a lot of attention in Washington to the Chinese Communist Party and its behavior, especially its influence operations inside the United States. Lawmakers are now calling for action against Beijing’s “United Front” activities, which are designed to interfere in our politics and society without our realizing it.

Lots of countries try to spread influence abroad through soft power, government media or propaganda, lobbying and even intelligence operations. And yes, the U.S. government does engage in such activities, as do other rivals, including Russia. But the CCP’s United Front effort is unique because it is more organized, more expansive and more insidious than our government or nation has realized.

On Wednesday, the Republican Study Committee, a group of about 150 conservative lawmakers, will release a report spelling out its national security strategy and calling for sanctions on all top officials in the CCP’s United Front Work Department, the bureaucratic office that coordinates Beijing’s influence operations at home and abroad. The RSC will also call for sanctions on officials responsible for repression of Chinese citizens in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.

“We’re proposing in this report the toughest sanctions on the Chinese Communist Party ever proposed by Congress. And we think the time is right for that,” RSC Chairman Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) told me. “We have been focused on the threats posed by the CCP for a long time, but the pandemic and covid-19 have really focused the world’s attention on this.”

The CCP’s United Front system operates both inside and outside China toward the same goal, still described in Maoist terms as to mobilize the party’s friends to strike at the party’s enemies. Now expanded under the leadership of Xi Jinping, United Front work has brought covert CCP influence operations to bear inside foreign political parties, diaspora communities, colleges and corporations, all with the goal of promoting the party’s interests by co-opting local organizations.

“These efforts are carried out by the United Front system, which is a network of party and state agencies responsible for influencing groups outside the party, particularly those claiming to represent civil society,” researcher Alex Joske wrote in a new report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “It manages and expands the United Front, a coalition of entities working towards the party’s goals.”

Wealthy members of the CCP’s political organs, including former Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, oversee United Front work by throwing money at foreign institutions that are willing to toe Beijing’s political line, including U.S. think tanks and even media organizations.

Confucius Institutes on dozens of U.S. campuses have “longstanding and formal ties” with the United Front Work Department, the bureaucratic head of the CCP’s vast network of influence efforts, according to a report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Chinese Students and Scholars Associations on U.S. campuses are less directly connected to the UFWD itself but are supported by the party and are part of the United Front strategy, the report stated.

The RSC will also call for all Confucius Institutes to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, as Chinese state media organizations are now required to do. Also, U.S. universities would be required to report any foreign gifts over $50,000, lowering the threshold from the current level of $250,000.

"The American people need to know what the facts are about United Front Work Department, its origin under Mao [Zedong], its goal of political warfare, and then the incredible influence it has inside the United States,” said Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who leads the RSC’s national security task force, which came up with the recommendations.

Although the RSC is part of the minority, there is some space for bipartisanship in Congress on the China issue, especially when it comes to human rights. The House voted 413-1 last month to send the Uyghur Human Rights Act to President Trump’s desk.

The China issue has also fallen victim to partisanship during the covid-19 pandemic. Republicans have been accusing Democrats of failing to hold Beijing accountable for its behavior during the crisis, while Democrats have been accusing Trump of scapegoating China to distract from his own failures.

But the challenge presented by the CCP’s United Front work existed before the pandemic and must be confronted regardless of our partisan political differences. Mao called United Front work one of China’s “magic weapons” because it’s meant to harm us without us noticing. The time has come to call it out and then take action to shut it down.

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