This week the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington, hosted an event entitled “Chinese Influence Operations in the U.S: Shedding Some Light on All the Heat.” Among the announced speakers was Henry Wang, President of the Center for China and Globalization, a think tank based in Beijing. What that title didn’t reveal is that Wang is also a “Standing Director of China Overseas Friendship Association of The Ministry of United Front,” according to his CV on his homepage.
After a warning letter from Senator Rubio to the Wilson Center about disclosing Wang’s United Front affiliation, and reporting by Bethany Allen-Ebrahamian, a journalist for Foreign Policy who tracks United Front activity in the United States, Wang disappeared from the guest list. Actually, that was a shame: With sufficient transparency about Wang’s affiliations, it would have been interesting to hear the spin from a United Front perspective about whether there is reason to worry about its operations abroad.
Instead, Wang put out a rebuttal to Foreign Policy’s article on his webpage. He glossed over the fact that a U.S. Senator had initiated the investigation into his background, instead zooming in on the press coverage. “This line of media coverage will not divert public attention away from the real challenges facing the Sino-US relationship,” he wrote, referencing recent “trade frictions” in a telling statement of his own priorities.
Wang also highlighted the independence of his Beijing think tank—a highly dubious prospect in state-run China—by noting that CCG is included among the top 100 in the University of Pennsylvania’s global ranking of think tanks. Note that the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) is also listed in the same ranking. CICIR is an acknowledged part of the Chinese Ministry of State Security: the equivalent of the CIA running a front-end think tank. Through its think tank status, CICIR has great access to policymakers in the United States and globally. Accordingly, the bigger question Wang raised by noting that CCG is internationally listed is whether the think tank listing should exclude completely state-run entities, or at a minimum include a warning sticker.
Why does this all matter? For most people, the United Front Work Department sounds like a relic of a distant Cold War past. Not so for Secretary General Xi Jinping, who has elevated and expanded United Front activities, seeing it as a “magic weapon” to co-opt Chinese diaspora communities, build relationships with Western enablers, and “make the foreign serve” the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its goals. Compared to Russia’s quicker interference operations, the Chinese Communist Party builds varied and long-standing relationships. Russia wants to create disruptions inside democracies, whereas the CCP wants to change how democracies speak and think about the People’s Republic of China. The main goal is to make the world safe for continued Communist Party rule in China, which means quelling dissenting and negative voices at home and abroad.
The current effectiveness of the United Front strategy is on open display in Australia and New Zealand: two Western, democratic countries whose political, media, and business life have been pierced by the United Front. This has led, first of all, to Beijing’s near-complete takeover of Chinese-language media in the two countries. It has also been revealed that a former Chinese army spy trainer now serves in the New Zealand Parliament and secures Chinese funding for the National Party. In 2017, a now-disgraced Australian Senator was caught reading the Party line on the South China Sea, leading to the discovery of an avalanche of red money in Australian politics. The two main Australian parties have been financially propped up by foreign money through Chinese United Front operatives. And academic freedom has been pressured in both countries, as shown by public intellectual Clive Hamilton’s difficulties in getting his book on Chinese influence published in Australia.
Thus, the Wilson Center was right to host the event: Americans need to have a serious debate about United Front activities. It should not be about casting all Chinese influence abroad as malign. But neither should we allow the story of China to become a trademark of the Chinese Communist Party, which seeks to subsume all Chinese under its banner. Citizens of Chinese origin are an important part of democratic societies globally, with almost 5 million Chinese-Americans living in the United States alone. They have made their choice on citizenship, and no foreign power should be allowed to undo that choice of loyalty. The problem originates with the logic of the Chinese United Front, which addresses overseas Chinese as their “sons and daughters,” part of the extended family of the Chinese Communist Party. Democracies need to shield these citizens of Chinese origins and in particular dissidents who seek refuge from the authoritarian system of the People’s Republic of China.
There has not been a comprehensive public debate about this threat since Chinagate, following revelations of Chinese illicit finance in the 1996 presidential and Congressional elections. Such a debate is long overdue. For that reason, the Hudson Institute is coming out with a report soon on the topic, based on collaboration with other think tanks, journalists, and civil society.
Uncovering the United Front strategy in action will demand continuous effort, which is why our report recommends launching a “United Front Tracker” as a joint civil society and think tank effort. The curious case of Mr. Wang underscores the need for transparency—and should raise the red flag about our own vulnerabilities to the threat.