By Kenneth Rapoza, CPA Industry Analyst
Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger explained during a conference in London recently how China's United Front is one massive influence campaign designed to get Western nations to see things Beijing's way. In some cases, it may already be working.
We are reaching the tipping point. We have the world’s No. 1 economy that is a free market open to elections every two years and the No. 2 economy that is a Frankenstein market, run by a single party. In this divergence between the US and China, something’s got to give. Either the US – and the Western powers, in general – become more like China, or China becomes more like us. For years, Washington policy makers assumed China would become more like us. Getting them into the World Trade Organization in 2001 was supposed to push that along.
Both sides are aware of these battle lines now. China’s goal is to bend institutions and societies to its will.
In this global influence game, China is now pulling out all the stops. In some cases, they are winning. On October 23, Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger gave attendees at the Policy Exchange in London a glimpse into how China does it. Ever hear of the United Front? It’s China’s “magic weapon”.
China’s United Front is a bureaucratic department, a gigantic government function with no equal here or in Europe. China’s leaders call it their “magic weapon,” and the Party’s 90 million members are required to support its activities. While the system has many branches, the United Front Work Department alone has four times as many cadres as the US State Department has foreign-service officers. The difference: instead of practicing diplomacy with foreign governments—the Chinese foreign ministry handles that—"the United Front gathers intelligence about, and works to influence, private citizens overseas,” Pottinger said. He made his speech in Mandarin, for the Chinese to understand he was clued in. “The focus is on foreign elites and the organizations they run. Think of a United Front worker as a cross between an intelligence collector, a propagandist, and a psychologist,” he said.
A short history lesson for the CPA China watcher: The Communist Party’s victory in a 20-year Chinese civil war owed less to its combat skills against Nationalist forces that eventually fled to Taiwan. It owed their eventual success to its ability to “infiltrate and manipulate the language, thinking, and actions of its adversaries,” said Pottinger.
The current CCP leadership is redoubling its emphasis on that work today. The China voices calling for harsher, economy destroying lockdowns on Western social media, for example, could easily be doing United Front work. A must-read Tablet magazine article titled “China’s Global Lockdown Propaganda Campaign: Inside the CCP’s use of social media bots and other disinformation tactics to promote its own response to the coronavirus pandemic and attack its critics” looked at ways in which China infiltrates Western systems of communication to get them thinking more in line with the CCP. Or at least questioning the wisdom of their own economic and political models in dealing with the pandemic.
In his London speech last week, Pottinger talked about China’s big data collection. He singled out one company notorious for this. They build “dossiers” on people that may be of use, either in business, in an influence campaign, or to blackmail.
Shenzhen Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co, supports what its CEO reportedly calls “psychological warfare.” Zhenhua harvests and organizes public and private data about us for exploitation by its clients, which are organs of the Chinese security apparatus, according to its own website.
No, they are not on the Entity List.
“The dossiers Zhenhua is compiling include people in virtually every country on earth, no matter how small,” Pottinger said. “They include members of royal families and members of parliament, judges and clerks, tech mavens and budding entrepreneurs, four-star admirals and the crewmembers of warships, professors and think-tankers, and national and local officials. The material is used now, as before, to influence and intimidate, reward and blackmail, flatter and humiliate, divide and conquer. What’s new is how easy we’ve made it for autocrats to accumulate so much intimate data about ourselves—even people who’ve never set foot in China.”
What is Beijing trying to influence?
According to Pottinger, it’s about forging a mindset that on Monday says “It’s too early to say whether Beijing poses a threat,” and by Friday says “They’re a threat, all right, but it’s too late to do anything about it now.” It’s about being seduced into submission—like taking the “blue pill” in The Matrix.
The United Front is like a psyop, winning hearts and minds to the CCP way of governance, and economic management.
Their messaging has two consistent themes: “We own the future, so make your adjustments now.” And: “We’re just like you, so try not to worry.” Together, these assertions form the elaborate con at the heart of all Leninist movements.
New Zealand scholar Anne-Marie Brady, a pioneer in snuffing out United Front ploys, calls their work a “tool to corrode and corrupt our political system, to weaken and divide us against each other, to erode the critical voice of our media, and turn our elites into clients of the Chinese Communist Party, their mouths stuffed with cash.”
Pottinger’s main message is that all hope is not lost. The US is not destined to be run by a CCP-lite style of governance. But we have to stop fighting each other and “get back to common sense” if we are to succeed.