HONG KONG—When Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping visited a military base in Southeast China this month, he told members of the party’s Marine Corps to “focus your minds and energy on preparing to go to war.” His speech came shortly after the Trump administration said it would move forward with a $7 billion arms sale to Taiwan, which China has threatened to retaliate against if it goes through.
Xi has long wanted to absorb Taiwan under the Communist Party’s rule—he’s openly stated his ambition to “reunify” the democratic island with mainland China while he is the party’s helmsman. And his strategy to dominate Taiwan includes more than gunboats, jets, and boots on the ground. For decades, party leadership in Beijing has leaned on what Xi calls his “magic weapon” to leverage trade relationships and shared ethnic roots to lay the groundwork for entrenched CCP influence in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese diaspora abroad: wielding soft power through China’s United Front Work Department.
Compared to the CCP’s military jingoism and propaganda-spreading “wolf warrior” diplomats, the United Front works behind the scenes, often targeting wealthy individuals with transnational holdings to do the CCP’s bidding through persuasion, economic incentives, and blackmail, or by funneling money toward grassroots organizations that shape opinions about the party among Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and expat Chinese communities.
Far more than an advocacy mechanism, United Front receives at least $1.4 billion each year from the CCP—the actual figure is likely much higher, as some budget details are classified. These funds may even outstrip the budgets for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Public Security, fueling the primary engine for the party’s gray-area influence efforts at home and abroad.
But it is in Taiwan and among the broader Taiwanese community where the United Front’s influence is most evident.
Fake News and Failed Election Theft
The United Front Work Department was first formed in 1942, during the Chinese Civil War, as an arm of the CCP that set out to instill Mao Zedong’s ideology in all social strata and establish party oversight over groups that weren’t part of the CCP’s hierarchy. Through the years, the United Front’s scope of work expanded based on the overall goals of party leadership, and came to include intelligence operations in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas. And at home, United Front officials exert control even over some foreign enterprises; its officials routinely meet with heads of factories, including subsidiaries of overseas corporations.
Since 2015, Xi has steered new and useful resources toward the United Front, adding new bureaus to give it the manpower and funds it needs to leave deeper imprints across the globe—and especially across the strait in Taiwan, where the United Front has been ramping up operations since the late 1980s to subvert Taiwanese democracy.
China’s growth into the second largest economy over the past four decades meant Taiwan’s enterprises have had to rely on business ties with the mainland for their own economic survival. In June 2014, hundreds of Taiwanese business executives gathered in Shenzhen, a Chinese city that borders Hong Kong. Their guest of honor was the chief of the United Front’s Shenzhen section, who spoke to his audience about making Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” a reality in Taiwan as well as the prospect of reunification. When he finished, applause erupted in the hotel’s banquet hall, Reuters reported.
Similar scenes have played out since then in other parts of China, according to Taiwanese and Chinese business people I spoke to between early 2015 and the end of 2019. Local branches of the United Front keep tabs on the number of Taiwanese citizens who are in China for education or work, and include details from background checks in their annual reports to CCP leadership. The organization is involved in shaping China’s commercial environment, offering favorable conditions to entice Taiwanese business executives into setting up shop across the strait—a carrot to complement the People’s Liberation Army’s explosive stick. This special attention gives the CCP an opening to call in debts.
That happened ahead of last year’s presidential election in Taiwan, when the United Front put pressure on Taiwanese media executives and senior journalists after a series of sponsored “exchanges” with news organizations in China, deploying economic incentives and threats of barring them from the lucrative Chinese market.
In the weeks leading up to Taiwan’s presidential election in January, disinformation and propaganda flooded the airwaves, TV programs, and online content, playing up the incumbent Tsai Ing-wen’s friendly ties with the United States and Japan to suggest she was selling out Taiwan. On Facebook, there was a barrage of posts that claimed votes for the opposition’s candidate, who was seen to have China-friendly leanings, would not be counted.
While it is difficult to separate disinformation originating from domestic Taiwanese rivalries from interference directed by Beijing, the United Front did organize a conference on how to mobilize on the internet in November 2019—two months before Taiwan voted—covering subjects like “guiding political thought” in cyberspace.
One example is the United Front’s partnership with the Cyberspace Administration of China to hire social media influencers and livestreamers who can amplify the party’s message online. In the weeks leading up to Taiwan’s presidential election this year, clusters of Taiwanese models uploaded photos of themselves striking the same pose onto Facebook and Instagram, with similarly worded posts including complaints about social and economic conditions under Tsai’s administration.
Despite the disinformation campaigns, Tsai was the eventual winner.
Get Them When They’re Young
Long before Taiwanese nationals seek employment or reach the age to vote, the United Front already has their eyes on them. Sung Wen-Ti, a visiting fellow at the Australian Center on China in the World, a research institute that is part of the Australian National University, said the United Front operates at all levels of society to “win hearts and minds.” Sung hails from Taiwan, and his research focus covers Taiwanese politics, Chinese elite politics, and U.S.-China-Taiwan relations.
Sung pointed to the United Front’s engagements to “court Taiwanese youth,” offering “hospitality, experience, and opportunity” to students of all ages. One example is the Straits Peace Angels initiative, which is co-sponsored by the CCP’s Young Pioneers division and has organizational input from the All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots. The program focuses on children aged 7 to 14 who are from Taiwan, and brings them to mainland China for visits where they are paired with children of their own age, in a bid to establish long-term relationships. Its mandate says, “cross-strait friendship ought to start from the babies.”
This echoes a statement by Xi in August 2019, when he referenced suggestions made by the CCP’s historians: “Our youngsters should be branded with red since their childhood.”
Once programs like the Peace Angels lock in on young children in Taiwan, the United Front is in it for the long haul to shape pro-CCP opinions, forming a pipeline “from school students, grassroots-level community association heads, media and scholars, all the way to senior politicians,” Sung said.
In recent years, Taiwan has been losing foreign allies, with nations dialing back diplomatic relations with the island nation to only recognize the People’s Republic of China. Now, only 15 states—dotting Central America, the Caribbean, Polynesia, Micronesia, plus the Holy See—have formal diplomatic ties with Taipei.
Even so, the United States remains Taiwan’s most significant backer. Facing an existential crisis in early October because of increasing military aggression from China, the island nation’s legislators urged their Ministry of Foreign Affairs to seek formal recognition from Washington—and gain a real ally that might make Beijing back off. However, knowing that this outcome is virtually impossible, the Kuomintang—which was the CCP’s rival during the Chinese Civil War but has in recent years adopted a Beijing-friendly stance—may be trying to “out-hawk the hawks and do the foreign policy equivalent of virtue signaling” in an attempt to repair its reputation in Taiwan, according to Sung Wen-Ti. By putting forth the proposal to approach Washington, the KMT casts the image that it may now be keeping the CCP at arm’s length.
“Our youngsters should be branded with red since their childhood.”
Responding to The Daily Beast’s inquiry about the bipartisan resolution on reaching out to Washington, Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu said his ministry will “seek every opportunity to further enhance bilateral ties with the United States one step at a time.” In September, Wu told France 24 that his island nation is “on the front line defending democracies from being taken over by communist China.”
Yet Taiwan’s economy remains intimately intertwined with mainland China’s—and it’s precisely this enmeshment that the United Front relies on to force its way into Taiwanese circles, building upon a presence that was first established decades ago.
While a full-on military invasion of Taiwan is a concern, the United Front also occupies significant real estate in the minds of Taiwanese officials. In conversations with me in the past two years, the island nation’s officials and diplomats have stopped short of saying that they seek to decouple Taiwan’s economy from mainland China’s, but the overarching idea is to persuade Taiwanese enterprises to rethink their links with Chinese labor and investment, as well as related business ties, and encourage them to move their operations back to Taiwan. The goal is to limit channels that the United Front can exploit in its long game to lure Taiwanese elites into its spheres of influence.
To understand the scale and intensity of the United Front’s operations in Taiwan and further afield, and how much leverage it can have over individuals who depend on China’s market forces, an examination of the United Front’s activities within China’s borders—such as its role in the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs—provides a sense of just how far the Front can go and how its every move intertwines with the party leadership’s rosy proclamations.
In October, China was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, and will maintain its seat from 2021 to 2023. In early October, 39 countries, led by Germany, condemned the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, where more than 1 million people are kept in detention camps, which Chinese officials say are vocational training centers. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) also estimates that at least 80,000 Uyghurs from Xinjiang have been subjected to forced labor transfers organized by the Chinese government from 2017 to 2019.
ASPI specifically pointed out that a United Front official based in Qingdao, 3,500 km east of Xinjiang, told Uyghur workers at a Korean-owned shoe factory’s night school that they must “strengthen their identification with the state and the nation. The school’s name, the Pomegranate Seed Night School, references a precept from Xi Jinping: “Every ethnic group must tightly bind together like the seeds of a pomegranate.”
China has 56 ethnic groups, including the dominant Han-Chinese who make up more than 90 percent of the population. The CCP implements policies to tweak or even erase elements of the cultures of non-Han groups, with the most brutal measures leveled at Tibetans and Uyghurs. Meanwhile, the party’s propagandists paint a picture of harmony and unity—like the many seeds in Xi’s pomegranate. Without the party, the implication runs, how can you thrive and bear fruit?
The United Front’s proven track record of incubating influence and managing progress toward the CCP’s long-term objectives makes it the perfect vessel for the party to extend its ideological reach across the globe—close to home in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and crossing into the Chinese diaspora in western Europe and North America. Overseas Chinese include people who fled China during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, and Hongkongers who left the city before it was handed back to China in 1997, as well as their offspring. The United Front wants to bring them back into the fold by playing up shared cultural roots, creating one identity, all loyal to the CCP.
During a tour of Southeast China last week, the CCP leader said, “An important quality of overseas Chinese is that they love their country, love their roots, love their families… China’s reform and opening up, its development, cannot be separated from the many overseas Chinese whose hearts are tied to their motherland.”
Beyond Guns and Diplomacy
For all of Xi and the United Front’s soft-power operations, and their push to get Taiwan to self-identify with China and the CCP as one people, their moves may be backfiring, at least in the short term. Since Taiwan’s election, unfavorable views towards the CCP in Taiwan have been at a peak—and are shifting into new territory with Taipei’s courting of Washington
With the U.S. selling more arms to Taiwan than ever before, experts expect to see more incursions by Chinese jets and bombers into Taiwanese airspace, as well as more PLA Navy gunboats hugging the median line in the Taiwan Strait—in what CCP-backed outlet Global Times called “a rehearsal for a Taiwan takeover.” For years, PLA troops have been training in Inner Mongolia to storm the presidential office in Taipei.
War would surely be fraught for both sides—which is why Xi might be hoping the United Front’s longstanding influence operations could ultimately persuade Taiwan’s elite to step back from a full-on conflict and move towards China on their own.
“Most of the United Front’s work is generally more geared towards indirectly and slowly shifting the general atmosphere,” Sung Wen-Ti said. “To put this in another way, methodologically, the United Front provides conducive conditions to changes, rather than sufficient conditions. Tracing a clear causal channel is often challenging, because for clear causal claims you need both conducive and sufficient conditions to be present, and United Front is only part of the picture.”
Despite the recent saber-rattling from both sides, the United Front’s decades-long campaign for the fate of Taiwan may be yielding results. Sung explained, “What we can say is that the United Front has likely created a constituency in Taiwan that is socially embedded in China, economically dependent on stable cross-strait relations, and politically more sympathetic towards placating Beijing’s preferences.”