Historically, the ‘United Front’ was described by Chairman Mao Zedong as one of the CCP’s ‘three big magic weapons’, along with the People’s Liberation Army and the CCP’s internal ‘party building’.
The United Front Work Department (UFWD) is one of the six important departments of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is responsible for ‘United Front’ work.
The UFWD’s main role is domestic: to create a ‘United Front’, bringing together non-Party elements and sectors within China to support the CCP and its aims. The UFWD is in charge of the vast system of ‘political consultative conferences’, through which it both takes the temperature and also disseminates its policies. It controls and co-opts non-CCP groups, from private business, religious and ethnic minorities to cultural and sports organisations. Only 7% of the Chinese population are CCP members, so this work is of great breadth and importance.
Xi Jinping has greatly strengthened ‘United Front’ work, reinvigorated efforts to use the ‘United Front’ to expand CCP power, and reformed the UFWD. Xi’s programme of reform has included the strengthening of the UFWD’s control over what is referred to as ‘Overseas Chinese Affairs’, or the qiaowu 侨务 system.
By this system, the CCP has long sought to extend ‘United Front’ work overseas, especially amongst the Chinese diaspora, especially amongst temporary (e.g. students) and recent migrants who retain the strongest economic and cultural links to China. As has been extensively explored by experts and academics such as Anne-Marie Brady, Alex Joske and James Jiann Hua To, the qiaowu system has a broad range of general functions, including the following:
- To undermine anti-CCP movements amongst the Chinese diaspora and to enable the harassment of political refugees and dissidents abroad (sometimes termed ‘transnational repression’)
- To cultivate a pro-CCP network amongst the diaspora by means of propaganda, social outreach and commercial and professional opportunities and incentives (this network is sometimes referred to as the ‘United Front’)
- To propagandise the diaspora and encourage nationalism and favourable views of the CCP on key issues such as that of Taiwan and the South China Sea dispute
- To direct the skills, knowledge and capital of the diaspora towards China’s economic, scientific and military development
- To leverage the diaspora’s political influence in other countries in order to shape electoral politics and the way China is viewed in those countries
- To gather intelligence of all kinds and cultivate an ecosystem for ‘hard’ intelligence operations
According to the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, the United Front Work Department is responsible for “influence and interference activities directed at the Chinese diaspora, from managing relations with prominent Chinese individuals and groups to co-ordinating support for Chinese positions or targeting dissident groups abroad.”
The Chinese embassy in London has over 120 staff and at least one senior diplomat dedicated to Overseas Chinese Affairs and the administration of the qiaowu system. As of November 2023, this is Jiang Lei 江雷, described on the embassy’s website as Director-Counsellor for Overseas Chinese Affairs 理事侨务工参.
Liu Hongmei 刘红梅, a senior official formerly posted at China’s forcibly closed consulate at Houston, worked on qiaowu for the embassy during 2023. Lu Haitian 卢海田, who has now retired to China, served as Overseas Chinese Affairs Counsellor 侨务参赞 in London for much of the past decade.
UK-China Transparency is publishing a series of notes profiling individuals and organisations in the UK which are connected to the United Front Work Department.