Most people who think themselves well informed know little or nothing about China. They – or I should say ‘we’ for I am just as ignorant – understand what the CIA and FSB are, and what they want. But what is the CPAFFC, and, if it arrives in your neighbourhood, should you worry? How about the United Front, the ‘magic weapon for strengthening the party’s ruling position,’ in the words of Xi Jinping? What does it do and why does China’s dictator praise it so?
I am back from the last place I expected to learn about the Chinese Communist Party: the Budapest Forum, a conference of progressive European mayors in Hungary. I was there to see if the country’s opposition could unite to take on Viktor Orban’s dictatorial and corrupt regime, but took a break from the defence of democracy against its European enemies to attend a debate entitled ‘Responding to the Chinese Communist Party’s Strategies of Subnational Influence,’ which threw the net a little wider.
The lesson from politicians you could not begin to describe as warmongers was that western societies are up against a centralised and organised dictatorship that is determined to use every method to advance its interests.
Let a story from the Czech Republic illustrate how apparently benign entanglements become threatening. In 2018, Zdeněk Hřib won the race to become mayor of Prague. He represented the Pirate party, which campaigns for civil rights and participatory democracy, and naturally had little time for one-party states.
His predecessor had signed a ‘sister-city’ partnership with Beijing. Included in its terms were not only the normal exhortations for peace, cultural exchange and mutually beneficial trade. Prague had committed itself to upholding a ‘one-China policy’ that endorsed the Chinese Communist Party’s sovereignty over Tibet and Taiwan.
China insisted that even organisations that have no international power, such as a municipal council, must endorse its foreign policy aims, Hřib explained. The logic behind the pressure on the Prague authorities is not as crazy as it seems. If China, or any other power, can get every conceivable body it deals with to conform to its wishes, regardless of whether they have a voice in international affairs, it can make its aggression appear uncontroversial.
The relentlessness of the political pressure China’s economy can exert creates taboos so strong that the world’s Muslim-majority nations, which shouted so loudly about Salman Rushdie’s novels and Denmark’s cartoon drawings, dare not say a word in protest against China’s crimes against its Muslim minority.
Mayor Hřib refused to play along. China tore up the agreement and banned the Philharmonic Orchestra, the Prague Quartet, the Guarneri Trio Prague and any other musical ensemble with ‘Prague’ in its name from touring China and then refused to send a panda to Prague Zoo for good measure.
The apparently bland process of twinning cities was controlled at the Chinese end, not by local authorities in Beijing, but by the CPAFFC – the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, a part of the communist party’s United Front organisation that seeks to co-opt and influence elites in every country it can.
The obsessiveness is mind boggling. Didi Kirsten Tatlow, from the German Council on Foreign Relations, described how a Mainz music society was asked if it wanted to host a Chinese music event. Of course, it said, why shouldn’t it? What began in Mainz spread, and in a few months the CPAFFC had 36 friendship associations with German cultural associations. Once the network was established it told them they were meant to be China’s contacts at the local and national level and added, menacingly, ‘you have not been performing’.
The only western country where Chinese influence has caused a scandal is Australia. Its United Front tactics provoked a huge backlash which led to the country upgrading its submarine fleet today. The Leninist concept is a strategy for suborning any area of society that might challenge the party. Inside China, that means forcing ethnic minorities, religious groups and intellectuals into line. Abroad, the United Front targets universities, the Chinese diaspora, business and politics. In Australia, China’s attempts to secure ‘all around influence’ by pumping money into both government and opposition exploded in its face, and helped set off a new Cold War in the far East.
In Europe, it’s easy to feel that we are far from such conflicts. Subverting a Mainz music festival, stopping a panda delivery: these are ridiculous rather than sinister acts. But the power of Chinese money is global. In Prague, businesses and finance firms with Chinese interests hired hack journalists and politicians to produce propaganda, which said that upsetting Beijing would hurt the Prague economy. Milos Zeman, the republic’s president, who has ingratiated himself with China and Russia, warned of ‘unpleasant consequences’ if the Prague-Beijing partnership ended.
Hřib replied that Prague already had more tourists than it could cope with, and in the unlikely event of Chinese visitors boycotting the city, they would be doing it a favour.
He won this battle, but he ended his conference contributions by warning European cities not to buy Chinese tech or put themselves in any position where China could harm them if they stepped out of line.
The experience of Russian money in the UK tells us what will happen here. Financiers will fall over themselves to get at Chinese wealth. London libel lawyers will beg to sue journalists who investigate Chinese power. Vince Cable is already softening Chinese crimes, and trust me, there will be many more like him soon.
I am in no way endorsing the government’s irresponsible decision to send the Navy back east of Suez and entangle us in a potential war over Taiwan. Rather we need to build up our home defences, reform our libel laws to stop them being exploited by hostile foreign powers and – as the woke say – ‘educate ourselves’ about what the Chinese Communist Party wants and how it intends to get it.