The Chinese Communist Party wants to control the diaspora and suppress foreign criticism. Mongolians, Tibetans and Uighurs are not only silenced inside Xi Jinping’s empire, but abroad
You may not have heard of the United Front Work Department. But—if you dare to stand up to the Chinese Communist Party—you can be fairly sure that the UFWD has heard of you. Or worse. The phrase “united front” was coined by Vladimir Lenin. The Russian Bolshevik leader believed in the implacable exercise of power once achieved—but the use of stealth in order to achieve it. In Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder he lambasted revolutionaries who sought head-on confrontation with their adversaries. Better, he argued, to play divide and rule.
The Chinese leader Xi Jinping was a diligent student of Leninist political warfare and describes the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department as its “magic weapon”. Tactics vary, but there are four main prongs: controlling the diaspora, co-opting foreigners, suppressing foreign criticism and building economic bridgeheads. The UFWD works alongside other government agencies, ministries and public bodies to maintain control at home—and to establish influence over, to constrain and eventually to control any activity abroad that threatens the Party’s legitimacy.
It works. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has largely muffled the Tibetans, and ensured that the Muslim world, shamefully, ignores the persecution of their Uighur co-religionists. The Southern Mongolians’ plight is all but forgotten. Even the Vatican no longer champions China’s underground Catholics. Taiwan is ruthlessly marginalised. Standpoint is glad to offer these peoples its pages. We stand for their freedom—and ours.
Edward Lucas, Editor
Maintaining Party control in Tibet is a strategic and geopolitical priority for the Chinese leadership, and China’s aggressive, systematic influence efforts extend well beyond its borders.
The Seventh Bureau of the secretive and powerful United Front Work Department (UFWD) is dedicated to ensuring the suppression of Tibetan “separatism” and to countering the influence and global reach of the exiled Tibetan religious leader the Dalai Lama, as well as seeking to eliminate loyalty to him in Tibet.
The UFWD is instructed to be ruthless in building an “iron Great Wall” against “enemy forces abroad” who seek to challenge China’s narrative. During the past decade, three times more Chinese delegations have been sent to the West to “tell the world the story of Tibet in China” compared with Western representatives heading to Tibet.
Beijing has also gained significant ground and contracted negotiating space in Britain and other European countries by browbeating Western states. For instance, China blamed a period of diplomatic chill between Britain and China on a meeting between the then prime minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg in 2012 with the Dalai Lama. Although there was no evidence of an adverse impact on trade ties, with some figures showing an increase in trade since the meeting, Cameron rapidly conceded in other areas following Beijing’s criticisms.
China propaganda operations have exploited the contraction in wealth and staff numbers of Western media organisations. Thus the Daily Telegraph continues to publish without comment propaganda supplements produced by China Daily, while, in Germany, the Süddeutsche Zeitung only belatedly recognised the damage done and quietly withdrew them.
In a classic tactic, outlined in Sun Tzu’s Art of War, creating divisions among Tibetans in exile and the Tibet movement is also a key element. Tibetans living in exile in Britain and across the world are subject to a potent and damaging combination of surveillance, threats, intimidation and inducements.
The apparent unmasking and imprisonment of a Tibetan in Sweden in 2018 for espionage sent a chill through the tightly-knit Tibetan community. Sweden was willing to act, but most European countries still ignore the role of Chinese UFWD operatives at higher levels who reside in-country or travel freely in EU member states, managing propaganda and intimidation networks.
China ruthlessly exploits family connections. While British citizens can obtain Chinese visas in a matter of days, the Beijing bureaucracy often denies access to British-born Tibetans to see relatives even if they are sick and dying.
British Tibetans who do apply to the Chinese embassy to return, or to visit their homeland for the first time, immediately encounter officials from the UFWD and may face conditions for obtaining a visa, such as the requirement to inform on others in the community, or to fall in lockstep with the Communist Party narrative.
Tibetan scholars or others with a profile in the West, especially if regarded as influential, may be granted a visa and then subject to aggressive measures such as a summons by the police late at night for questioning, or threats to families. Some may even be offered significant financial inducements to return and settle in Tibet.
The Tibetan diaspora is often subjected to harassment, monitoring, and cyber-attacks often tracked back to the PRC government. Last September, PRC government efforts to hack into the phones of senior Tibetan leaders abroad were traced by Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto.
Meanwhile, the PRC continues to disrupt radio broadcasts of Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan—and Mandarin—language services in Tibetan areas, as well as those of the Voice of Tibet, an independent radio station based in Norway.
How much does China care about the voice of the Southern Mongolian people? Enough to denounce a 13-year-old girl at the United Nations (UN).
In 2018, my daughter Namulun addressed the UN Forum on Minority Issues, part of the Human Rights Commission in Geneva. She told delegates about the plight of Southern Mongolia (a term which includes not only the “Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region”, but also Mongolian-inhabited areas in its neighbouring provinces).
“Our nomadic way of life, the very foundation of Mongolian culture and identity, has completely been eradicated; grassland, the cradle of nomadic civilisation, is turned into mining pits,” she said. “Mongolian schools at rural levels are either eliminated or converted to Chinese ones; Mongolians who defended their land and rights are arrested, detained and sent to jail.”
A Chinese spokesman denounced my daughter for supposedly distorting facts and inciting confrontation on behalf of an organisation with “evil intent”. At least my daughter managed to speak. During our campaign to make heard the voice of Southern Mongolia, many others have been silenced. In 2008, the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) sponsored the journalist and indigenous rights activist Naranbilig for a UN grant to attend the Seventh Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York. His application for funding was approved, but the Chinese authorities intercepted and confiscated the documents necessary for a visa application. Naranbilig was arrested and detained for 18 days followed by one-year’s house arrest. In April 2010, another SMHRIC representative was arrested at Beijing airport on his way to attend a UN session. He has not been heard from since.
China then successfully pressured the UNPFII Secretariat to deny our right to attend and to erase our Centre’s account and profile at the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Our accreditation to UNPFII was removed without explanation. Complaints to the UN Inspector General have gone unanswered.
When I subsequently attended the indigenous forum by joining the Society for Threatened Peoples, a human rights group, my attendance was allowed but no speech or intervention has ever been permitted. Every time I register to speak, UNPFII chairpersons deliberately skip me. Last year, the UNPFII chairperson clearly and openly admitted that this is due to pressure from the Chinese government. (UNPFII was contacted for comment by Standpoint but did not respond.)
Keen to broaden our campaign beyond UN headquarters, I began to attend UN conferences in Geneva, especially the UN Forum on Minority Issues. Almost every time I make a statement, the Chinese delegate aggressively makes points urging the chairpersons to shut me down. In 2016, my three-minute statement was interrupted by China. Russia, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Venezuela and Pakistan support the Chinese stance. In 2017 China even roped in a self-proclaimed “ethnic Mongolian” from a Chinese front organisation to counter my statement. Last year, the UN’s Minority Forum Secretariat attempted to block me from speaking, claiming I was disqualified because of “incorrect information in the registration”. After a four-hour protest, the Secretariat reluctantly allowed me to speak for two minutes with the condition of “not using inappropriate terms or languages” to anger the Chinese authorities.
The CCP’s efforts to silence critics increasingly know no borders. Here in London, shockingly, Chinese exiled dissident Shao Jiang was arrested after peacefully protesting against Xi Jinping’s visit in 2015, following pressure from China on the British police. And I myself have received numerous threatening letters to my home address. Others have gone to my neighbours, my employers and my mother.
Four British MPs have told me of occasions when the Chinese embassy urged them to silence me. (To their credit they refused.) One was an attempt to tell me not to publish an op-ed for the Conservative Home website I had written for the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover, another an effort to tell me not to visit Hong Kong (which resulted in my being denied entry on arrival in October 2017), a third was a more surprising attempt to put an effort to silence me at the top of the agenda of a discussion on global issues such as trade and climate change, and a fourth was when the Chinese ambassador told a former Cabinet minister over lunch on the day I was denied entry to Hong Kong that I was an “agitator”, only to be told by the former minister that he hoped I would become an MP. I was told the ambassador choked on his soup.
Finally, I have been told that around that same time, the Chinese ambassador placed a call to the then Conservative Party Chairman about me, though what was said in the call is unknown. My experience is nothing in comparison with what people in China face, but it illustrates the contempt which the regime in Beijing has for the international rules-based order and the lengths to which it will go to stop those whose activities it dislikes—or fears.
I am a Roman Catholic. My fellow believers in the Chinese church, with its ties to Europe and worship of a non-communist God, are high on Beijing’s target list. Those who do not accept the Vatican’s 2018 deal with Beijing are coming under pressure. According to the magazine Bitter Winter, which documents violations of religious freedom in China, “Since the signing of the Vatican-China deal of 2018, the CCP has been increasingly suppressing unregistered Catholic churches by closing them down for refusing to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA).”
The most prominent critic of the Vatican’s deal with China, Hong Kong’s emeritus bishop Cardinal Joseph Zen, faces constant efforts by both Beijing and Rome to silence him even outside China. Last August the Chinese embassy in Lisbon tried to pressure the organisers of a private conference in Fatima to withdraw their invitation to the Cardinal, and when that failed, they made representations to the highest levels in the Vatican and sent a delegation of diplomats to try to infiltrate the gathering. And last month the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, sent an unprecedented and explosive letter to all cardinals attacking Cardinal Zen. The tentacles of the Chinese Communist Party have reached even into the upper echelons of the Holy See.
East Turkistan is a Chinese-ruled region in central Asia. Its 11 million Turkic-speaking native population, known as Uighurs, have suffered extreme cultural, linguistic and religious repression including mass incarceration, coercive psychiatric treatment, child abduction and rape. Uighurs living abroad report relentless, well-resourced intimidation if they try to highlight their homeland’s plight.
A favoured approach exploits imprisoned Uighur families to pressure relatives in exile. The practice is widespread. Threats are generally made by voice call or text message through the Chinese messaging app, WeChat. China’s agents rarely identify themselves and while the message contents are often oblique, they are clear to the receiver. Messages also come directly from family members or acquaintances, and often in such messages the family members will alert their overseas relatives that the police are nearby or would like to follow up shortly. The implication is clear—that a failure to cooperate will put family members in danger.
Please don’t be a disaster for your loved ones. You better think more about your family members.
—Message from a Chinese police officer to Guly Mahsut, a Uighur Canadian woman. She said authorities continuously threatened her through her family, causing extreme mental stress. Mahsut’s family had suddenly made contact with her to urge that she speak to the officer.
The Chinese government must have also forced my brother to reach out to me. He left a voicemail on the cell phone I brought from China. My brother said: “How could you do this to your parents, to us? What kind of daughter are you? You should go to the Chinese embassy right away and denounce all the things you said about the Chinese government in the interviews you gave to the Radio Free Asia and tell them you love China. Tell them you were pressured by the Uighur organisations in the US to lie about your detention and torture in the camps, and take back everything you said. Otherwise China can get you wherever you hide.”
—Uighur prison camp survivor, Mihrigul Tursun, in evidence to the US Congress.
Akey target of the Beijing regime’s multifaceted efforts to shape the outside world in its favour is the Republic of China (Taiwan), a democracy of 23.5 million people whose territory it treats as a rebel province. Through a concoction of psychological warfare, dis- and mis-information, co-option, blackmail, intimidation, censorship and coercion, the Chinese leadership has sought to condition the international community into adhering to its “one China” principle, which argues that Taiwan is an “indivisible” part of the People’s Republic of China.
By sidelining Taiwan, the campaign aims for its eventual elision as a sovereign member of the community of nations. The most conspicuous front is diplomatic. Since 2016, Taiwan has lost seven official diplomatic allies following promises of heavy Chinese infrastructure investment. Just 14 countries, mostly small Caribbean and Latin American states, still have diplomatic relations with the only Chinese democracy.
Taiwan remains a member of the International Monetary fund and other Bretton Woods institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, but is denied even observer status at the UN and its family of agencies, such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation, World Health Organisation and others. This is not just symbolic. In times of global crisis such as the current coronavirus pandemic, Taiwan’s isolation hampers its officials’ ability to obtain vital information. This threatens not just the people of Taiwan but the entire region.
For Beijing, any recognition of Taiwan is treated as criticism of and opposition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and thus warrants threats and retaliation. This coercion has had a detrimental impact on the willingness of foreign governments to engage the authorities in Taipei, to sell arms to Taiwan or sign bilateral trade agreements. In some instances, officials who posted a picture of themselves meeting President Tsai Ing-wen on their social media have discovered they were subsequently unable to obtain a visa to enter China. In other cases, specific businesses have been threatened with retaliation should a government official visit the island-nation. Chinese consulates and embassies have harassed officials planning trips to Taiwan.
In 2019, for example, China successfully pressured the Czech Republic’s ministry of trade and industry to expel Taiwan’s representative to the Czech Republic, Wang Chung-yi, from a meeting.
China also threatened to take retaliatory action against Czech companies operating in the PRC, such as Skoda Auto and the lender Home Credit Group, if Jaroslav Kubera, speaker of the Senate, the upper house of the country’s parliament, visited Taiwan. In 2017 the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation reprimanded the mayor of Pretoria, Solly Msimanga, for visiting Taiwan. Taiwanese nationals have been denied entry at the UN buildings in Geneva, New York and Montreal: security guards said only documents issued by member states were acceptable.
Using economic incentives and access—and the threat of denial thereof—Beijing has successfully compelled businesses, governments, the media and academic circles to engage in risk-avoidance. As a result, Taiwan has often found itself excluded from multilateral organisations, rejected as a subject of academic research (or subsumed into “China studies”), and marked by its absence in international media coverage and elsewhere. No target is too trivial. Chinese officials forced the makers of the film Top Gun: Maverick to remove the Taiwanese (and Japanese) flags from Tom Cruise’s jacket. International airlines complied with a letter from the Aviation Administration of China in April 2018 to 44 foreign airlines insisting their websites and other public designations must show Taiwan as part of China. Careers in academia can be done and undone by treatment of Taiwan—a problem exacerbated by the regime’s use of Chinese students abroad as an incentive or sanction.
This relentless, all-out assault on the foundations and symbols of Taiwan’s statehood plays to ultra-nationalist sentiment, undermines morale in Taiwan, and is intended, in the long run, to create external conditions under which Beijing could annex the island.