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PRC Overseas Political Activities: The Problem with ‘Chinese Influence’

by Andrew Chubb

In August, Neican Brief showcased a policy report by Andrew Chubb titled PRC Overseas Political Activities: Risk, Reaction and the Case of Australia, launched by the Royal United Services Institute in London. The report’s introduction is available open-access.

Chubb argued that “Responding effectively to the challenges presented by the PRC’s overseas political activities starts with disaggregating the distinct risks they pose”. He disaggregated risks posed by the PRC’s overseas political activities into three categories: national security, civil liberties, and academic freedom.

We are pleased to re-publish an excerpt from Chapter 1 of the report, which analyses the problem with the term ‘Chinese influence’ and provides a deeper understanding of the concepts underpinning PRC overseas political activities.

He reminds us that:

In a liberal democracy, individuals are held to be sovereign actors, equal under the law. Upholding this principle requires that political activities — especially problematic ones that may warrant government intervention — are accurately attributed to the actors that perform them. Foreign states are not entitled to the same rights as individuals, such that attributing an individual’s actions to a foreign state may entail a diminution of that person’s rights. Equitability depends on this being done only according to clearly defined standards.

The Problem with ‘Chinese Influence’

In early December 2017, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a major shakeup of the country’s national security laws, citing ‘disturbing reports about Chinese influence’ as an impetus. In the same press conference, Turnbull emphasised that the bills, which passed the parliament in 2018, were country-agnostic and that ‘interference’, rather than influence, designated the line between legitimate and illegitimate foreign political activity. However, it is ‘Chinese influence’ that has predominated in debates over China policy in Australia and around the English-speaking world.

But when applied as a shorthand to describe problematic or nefarious PRC political activities, the ‘Chinese influence’ projects two highly misleading conflations that carry negative consequences for both social cohesion and policymaking process.

The first is that it conflates Chinese with PRC or CCP. The party-state’s orthodoxy holds that ethnic Chinese people worldwide are its naturally loyal allies, but in reality most Chinese diaspora communities are highly diverse, including many migrants from around Southeast Asia and Greater China. Politically, overseas Chinese communities are highly diverse too, including migrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as many of the CCP’s staunchest dissident opponents in exile from the mainland.

As Jinghua Qian points out, ‘it is people of Chinese descent who are doing most of the work of challenging Chinese authoritarianism’. Far from importing authoritarian values, Chinese diaspora communities have a long and deep affinity with liberal democracy. The PRC overseas political activities that have raised risks in liberal democracies are, in short, not Chinese in character.

The root of this definitional problem lies in the fact that the English-language term ‘Chinese’ simultaneously denotes an ethnicity, geography, culture and state. As a result, labelling problematic PRC overseas political activities as ‘Chinese’ projects an unwarranted association between Chinese ethnicity and the CCP’s political activities. This presents risks to social cohesion, civil liberties and national security.

A second conflation is between influence and attempts at exercising influence. As Evelyn Goh notes, influence refers to ‘modifying or otherwise having an impact upon another actor’s preferences or behavior in favor of one’s own aims’. Among the various issues discussed under the ‘Chinese influence’ label, the actual level of influence the PRC and its supporters have achieved ranges widely.

Beijing’s political red lines now powerfully shape the content of the Chinese-language news environment abroad. However, its attempts at altering the foreign and security policies of Anglophone liberal democracies have generally been abject failures, with the US, the UK and Australia all hardening their positions on key security and technology-related issues in recent years. London and Canberra’s military alliances with Washington have remained a matter of bipartisan consensus, despite strongly negative public views of then US President Donald Trump during his tenure.

Failing to distinguish influence from attempts to influence is not merely a semantic problem; it carries potential negative consequences for analysis and policy. Most directly, it impedes the identification of priority areas for response. As Charles Parton observed in 2019, ‘If the judgement is that certain activities are ineffective and are likely to remain so, the best policy is to ignore them’.

Finally, referring to PRC political activities as ‘Chinese influence’ inflates the party-state’s power and masks its limitations. This too is both inaccurate and counterproductive. As the familiar idea of ‘bandwagon’ effects suggests (and the related Chinese concept of ‘shi’ [势], meaning ‘propensity’ or ‘potential’), the more powerful or inexorable an actor appears the more futile resistance can seem to those living in its shadow.

PRC Overseas Political Activities

Addressing the challenges presented by PRC overseas political activities requires consideration of the concepts that underpin them. Within the CCP’s own policymaking systems, United Front work and Overseas Chinese work are among the most important, with specialised bureaucracies responsible for their implementation. However, an array of other concepts also inform PRC activities outside China’s borders, bringing involvement from other parts of the party-state.

United Front and Overseas Chinese Work

The immediate targets of the party’s United Front work are individuals and groups that the CCP considers ‘patriotic’ but not necessarily committed ideological allies. These include intellectuals, capitalists, religious and minority ethnic groups, and more recently professionals and overseas students.

In return for aligning with the CCP’s goals, these individuals and groups stand to gain prestige, connections and a degree of privileged access into the PRC political system. As Gerry Groot observes, the United Front system enables ‘corporatist co-optation … of otherwise potentially dangerous elements’, helping both to control and leverage such groups’ knowledge, skills and connections. The CCP's fundamental ambivalence towards its United Front targets is embodied in the privileged, but arms-length, ‘consultative’ role granted to members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the party-state’s peak United Front body.

Today, United Front work aims at cultivating ‘patriotic’ links with non-party elements in the service of PRC goals. As specified in Article 2 of the CCP Central Committee’s 2021 regulations on United Front work, the united front that United Front work seeks to create refers to

the Chinese Communist Party-led, worker-peasant-based, alliance including all socialist workers, socialist entrepreneurs, patriots who defend socialism, and patriots who defend the unity of the ancestral land and strive for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Article 3 specifies the key tasks of United Front work to include ‘developing the broadest patriotic united front’ and supporting the realisation of ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ — implying nationalistic goals rather than ideological subversion, except in territories over which the PRC claims sovereignty. But Article 3 also calls for ‘the maintenance of social harmony and stability and safeguarding the state’s sovereignty, security and development interests’. The italicised language indicates that United Front work also entails the suppression of dissent against CCP rule over territories to which it lays claim, notably Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

United Front work has been central to the CCP’s promotion of cross-straits ties and opposition to independence in Taiwan, and for its management of Hong Kong’s affairs. Beyond this scope, United Front work involves promoting economic cooperation with the PRC, fomenting opposition to anti-CCP dissent, and building support for ‘reunification’ with Taiwan and other key PRC foreign policy positions — a function that has expanded in recent years.

An overlapping party-state concept is ‘Overseas Chinese’ work, or the management of the PRC’s relations with diaspora communities around the world. This too has domestic and international dimensions, being concerned with both the management of relations with ethnic Chinese who return to the PRC from abroad and with communities located in foreign countries.

Like its predecessors, the Qing Empire and the Republic of China (ROC), the PRC has sought, via its diaspora policy, to stifle dissent and neutralise political threats from overseas Chinese communities. However, it has also long focused on the goal of drawing in overseas Chinese capital and skills for the PRC’s economic development, especially since the reform era.

The PRC’s Overseas Chinese work bureaucracy was subsumed under the United Front Work Department in 2018, indicating the party-state leadership’s desire to increase coordination and control of both internal and external United Front work.

Other PRC Concepts

Besides United Front and Overseas Chinese work, numerous other party-state concepts mandate overseas political activities. These are typically implemented by better-known bureaucracies such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of State Security (MSS) and CCP propaganda units. These include:

  • ‘State Security’ (国家安全): China’s MSS conducts overseas operations aimed at actively forestalling political threats, for instance by infiltrating and disrupting dissident organisations, and putting under surveillance key target groups such as overseas students. The MSS has a ‘Foreign Security and Reconnaissance Bureau’ (对外保防侦察局) responsible for such tasks. Communications technologies also now enable PRC police from the Ministry of Public Security (公安部) to directly intimidate overseas-based critics and ethnic minority groups, including by harassing their families in China.
  • ‘Public Diplomacy’ (公共外交), a responsibility of the Foreign Ministry that, in contrast to the English-language concept of the same name, concerns communication with audiences both inside and outside China’s borders regarding foreign policy issues.
  • ‘Foreign-Directed (External) Propaganda’ (对外宣传), a narrower concept referring to mass communications directed at non-Chinese audiences, usually in non-Chinese languages.
  • ‘International Liaison Work’ (联络工作), which refers to the CCP’s outreach to foreign political organisations and individuals, particularly socialist and communist parties, but also other organisations and persons, particularly those considered fraternal.
  • ‘Military Liaison Work’ (军事联络工作), the efforts of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to engage and influence high-level counterparts in the defence and security establishments of foreign polities, especially Taiwan, through its own Political Work Department’s Liaison Bureau.

Many of these activities overlap with each other, and with United Front and Overseas Chinese work. This list is not exhaustive, but it illustrates the significant variety of party-state overseas political activities that exist. Each of the activities discussed so far is carried out by the party-state, but the political behaviours that they induce — if successful — may not be. This makes attribution challenging.

Terminology and Attribution

In a liberal democracy, individuals are held to be sovereign actors, equal under the law. Upholding this principle requires that political activities — especially problematic ones that may warrant government intervention — are accurately attributed to the actors that perform them.

Foreign states are not entitled to the same rights as individuals, such that attributing an individual’s actions to a foreign state may entail a diminution of that person’s rights. Equitability depends on this being done only according to clearly defined standards. PRC overseas political activities may be carried out by the party-state (the CCP), or they may be spontaneous, self-directed or self-interested actions of its citizens or supporters legitimately exercising liberal-democratic freedoms.

A crucial distinction must therefore be drawn between (1) the CCP and its agents, and (2) PRC citizens and pro-PRC supporters. ‘Agents’ refers only to people acting under the direction or material support of another.

The distinction is crucial because foreign states and those acting on their behalf are not entitled to the same political rights that ordinary private individuals are in a liberal democracy. They may also be justifiably subjected to more stringent disclosure requirements in the exercise of those rights to which they are entitled.

To take an illustrative example, there is a fine yet fundamentally important distinction between the CCP’s United Front and Overseas Chinese work, performed by party members, cadres and agents, and the PRC-aligned words and actions of people within the target scope of United Front and Overseas Chinese work. The latter are the desired outcome of the former, but the two may or may not be causally connected. The CCP’s guiding philosophy of dialectical materialism collapses this distinction, determining the character of political actions by which side of an assumed contradiction between opposing ‘forces’ they are perceived to fall on.

Liberal democracies operate from the opposite starting assumption — that political actions result from the choices of sovereign individuals pursuing their own beliefs and interests. Even if individual choices are shaped by incentive structures created by the CCP, the resulting actions cannot be attributed to the party-state without justification — such as evidence of material support or direction. Absent such evidence, actions seen to support or align with the party-state or its political positions are best described as ‘pro-PRC’.

Conceptual Clarity

Concepts and terminology are crucial to the methodical and effective development of public policy, but many of the terms that now dominate global English-language discussion of PRC overseas political activities have been vague or inaccurate. In particular, the idea of a wide-ranging, ill-defined threat to national security from ‘Chinese influence’ appears to have taken hold first in Australia, and then more broadly in English-language policy discourse on China. But liberal democracies are not in fact facing a generalised threat from ‘Chinese influence’.

As the RUSI Whitehall Paper shows in detail, what they are grappling with is three complex but distinct sets of risks: to national security, to civil liberties and to academic freedom. The use of inaccurate and inflammatory catch-all terms to refer to these complex and varied issues raises further risks that range from misdiagnosed causes of problems to damaged social cohesion and even harm to national security.