Self-censorship and the Gleichschaltung of Sinology

The recent publication of James Leibold’s paper “Surveillance in China’s Xinjiang region: Ethnic sorting, coercion, and inducement” warrants revisiting the act of outsourced censorship that delayed it.

The paper was once expected to appear in a special issue of China Quarterly, a Cambridge University Press (CUP) journal. That didn’t happen: in 2018, the Hong Kong media organ affectionately known as the Alipaper (阿里报报) reported that “two fellow academics from European universities” had objected to their papers sharing a venue with Leibold’s, being “concerned they wouldn’t be granted visas to China”. The issue was never published.

To the best of my knowledge, the names of the “two fellow academics” were not made public at the time. Personal communications with various relevant parties and an examination of the programme of an academic event have led me to conclude that they were Matthew Erie (Oxford) and Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi (currently at Zürich).

The papers were first presented at a 2016 symposium at La Trobe University (where Leibold works). According to attendees I consulted, the participants decided to publish their papers in special issues of two journals. The programme lists only four persons “from European universities” (one of whom was highly unlikely to self-censor for a visa in 2018). People with knowledge of the matter confirmed Erie and Joniak-Lüthi were the ones who didn’t want their papers published alongside Leibold’s. Last year I emailed both to ask if this was correct; neither replied.

It’s hard to say if Erie and Joniak-Lüthi’s fears of visa refusal were justified. Their subsequent achievements, however, suggest they might continue to see self-censorship as beneficial to their careers.

In 2018, the year of Leiboldgate, Erie received a €1.5m grant from the European Research Council (ERC) for a project titled “Illiberal Law & Development: China and the World”. Unless he obtained a second ERC grant for the same amount, the project now appears to have evolved into the more harmonious “China, Law and Development”. The new title is perhaps more conducive to the exchanges Erie and his colleagues are now discussing with Tsinghua University. The Silk Road Legal Exchange and Research Network, promoted on the project’s website and presumably also funded by the grant, is even less compatible with the lack of positive energy in papers such as Leibold’s. This component of the project joins the collection of BRI-themed ‘networks’ through which the propaganda and cooption work central to Xi’s geopolitical initiative is outsourced to foreign institutions.

Joniak-Lüthi’s current project (“Roadwork: An Anthropology of Infrastructure at China’s Inner Asian Borders”), under a Swiss grant, is also BRI-themed, if less intelligibly so. At any rate, the deconstruction and connectivity it appears to involve will require Joniak-Lüthi to obtain a valid China visa. If her views haven’t changed since 2018, the project can thus be expected to meet her standards of self-censorship. Conceivably, the journal she edits enforces similar standards.

China Quarterly (affectionately known as 拆哪: Quartered) and its publisher CUP (“Censor U Poshly”) were mentioned on this blog in 2017 (“CUPped: Relevant Organs, Tudor zombies join forces, attack”). That year, CUP’s censorship of hundreds of articles its PRC partners had impugned was undone after a major scandal. (That temporary setback has not, of course, stopped the outsourcing of censorship and propaganda to Western academic publishers.) The success stories in this post illustrate mechanisms at play at a more basic level: that of individual academics and their institutions. Were CCP-coopted businesses like Springer, CUP or Brill to go bankrupt, or to discover a more profitable niche than collaboration with totalitarian propaganda, the patterns of behaviour exhibited by academics like the heroes of Leiboldgate would remain available for the CCP to exploit.

I recently wrote about the CCP’s weaponisation of mediocrity as instantiated in the cooption of think-tankers who enjoy junkets and eschew serious research. Such cooption work can reach decision-makers quickly, in obvious ways. The cooption of the field, or fields, of “China studies” likewise relies on the habits of key members of the target group. The effects achieved may be less evident, but should be irreversible within a generation or two: China experts trained in the climate of conformism and collaboration illustrated in this post can be expected to dominate the teaching and research of everything China-related by then. Just like the Gleichschaltung of Springer was remarkably easier in this century than in the last, innocuous “roadwork”, BRI networks, CASS junkets, Hanban appointments, PLA apiculture, Ronnieshop fun, the peculiar goings-on at Notts and a self-censorship omertà now dominate academia at little cost to today’s totalitarian power.

Huawei’s Christmas battle for Central Europe

[By Jichang Lulu and Martin Hála. Published on Sinopsis on 28 Dec 2018. On the Greenlandic connection, see links and tweets here. For additional Czech coverage, cf. „Ztraceno w překladu w průhonice Sokolovně“ by Hála and earlier Sinopsis pieces.]

An unusually blunt warning by Czech intelligence against the use of Huawei and ZTE products in telecommunications infrastructure was met with similar bluntness from the PRC. The embattled Babiš government, whose survival depends on the support of the country’s most CCP-friendly figures, was subjected to a pre-Christmas diplomatic ritual hyped by the state-media as “correcting” the spooks’ “mistaken” advice. After an outrage in the Czech Republic, the PM backpedalled and reiterated the NÚKIB warning was being treated “seriously”.

The Czech intelligence warning against Huawei and ZTE equipment via NeoVlivní.cz.

The Party-state’s concerted diplomatic and propaganda effort spent on awaking Czech politics from Yuletide hibernation and attempting to neutralise the intelligence warning signals the strategic stakes: a Czech Huawei ban could trigger a domino effect in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), a region still untouched by the wave of Western measures against the use of its equipment in 5G networks. Should Poland, in particular, join the Czech and Anglophone scepticism, Huawei could risk losing the region’s biggest market, and the one where it has placed its biggest 5G bet.

This post summarises some of the open-source evidence on Huawei’s background and practices behind the concerns about the company aired in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, before illustrating the PRC’s likely fears of CEE contagion with a brief discussion of the Polish case. The peculiar pre-Christmas démarche involving Babiš, the PRC embassy and the domestic and external propaganda machine is described in the context of the support Huawei frequently enjoys from state media and foreign entities cultivated through ‘friendly contact’ activity, a connection demonstrated in Australia and New Zealand.

The PR strategies Huawei has adopted, as well as its targets, overlap with those encountered in the analysis of global United Front work; the Party-state’s support for the company demands a wider discussion informed by the CCP’s international influence operations, a main focus of Sinopsis’ coverage of the Czech Republic and other locales. The Polish case neatly illustrates this connection: a local Huawei interlocutor is known as a contact favoured by the CCP’s International Liaison Department, a Comintern-inspired organ whose expansion to general political influence work we have been describing in a series of posts.

Among Huawei’s links to the Party, state and Army, its collaboration with Public Security in the PRC and, in particular, Xinjiang, could make its role in state surveillance and repression of particular interest in Central and Eastern Europe, a region that found itself on the receiving end of earlier totalitarian regimes. Huawei’s technology is among those that could fuel an upgrade of the CCP’s systems of social control to a new level of authoritarian governance; as Lenin stressed, Communist rule relies on both Party power and technological breakthroughs. For Lenin, Communism was Soviet power plus electrification; extrapolating, Xi’s New Era is orthodox Communism plus “intelligentisation” (智能化).

Huawei as a Party-state champion

Open-source information and previous statements from the intelligence community squarely back up the concerns aired by Czech cyber-intelligence.

The warning, issued by the National Cyber and Information Security Agency (Národní úřad pro kybernetickou a informační bezpečnost, NÚKIB) on 17 December, calls the use of software and hardware products of Huawei, ZTE and their subsidiaries a “threat against information security”. According to Czech press reports, the warning was originally meant as a classified document for internal government discussion. The unusual step of going public reportedly resulted from the fact that some of the intended recipients lacked the security clearance to read the report.

Besides the companies’ legal obligation to cooperate with PRC intelligence activities, the text mentions “organisational and personnel links between these companies and the state”, the agency’s knowledge about the companies’ work in the Czech Republic and the PRC’s “influence and espionage” activities there to justify fears that the presence of Huawei or ZTE products in information or communication systems could affect “the security of the Czech Republic and its interests”.

The 2017 National Intelligence Law (国家情报法) mandates “all organisations and citizens” to collaborate with intelligence work as requested. This legal obligation and the characteristics of the activity of such companies as Huawei and ZTE makes such ‘requests’ likely. As Elsa Kania notes,

[T]he trend towards fuller fusion between the party-state apparatus and commercial enterprises—and the ways in which that fusion might be leveraged to support intelligence work—should be taken into account in business and governmental assessments of risk.

Huawei’s current and previous top management includes individuals with backgrounds in the PLA, military-linked universities and the Ministry of State Security.

Huawei chairman Ren Zhengfei 任正非 was enlisted in the PLA between 1974 and 1983, after which he went on to manage Huawei using “Mao Zedong’s military thought”.

Sun Yafang 孙亚芳, Ren’s “most trusted deputy” and Huawei’s chairwoman until 2018, studied at the Radio Technology Department of the Chengdu Institute of Radio Engineering (成都电讯工程学院), then still under the joint management of the PLA General Staff Department. (The Institute’s successor, University of Electronic Science and Technology of China (UESTC, 电子科技大学), remains committed to servicing national defence and takes pride in its military research, one foot of its research “tripod”. Hacker groups linked to UESTC were allegedly behind attacks (p. 37f.) against Indian targets, including the Offices of the Dalai Lama.) After graduating, Sun did communications work at the Ministry of State Security, the PRC’s main spy agency, until joining Huawei in 1992. According to Chinese press reports, these connections helped the company obtain state support when experiencing financial difficulties.

The company’s early contracts with the PLA, while a small part of its sales, were reportedly seen as important in terms of “relationships”. Kania estimates that Huawei is “still engaged in defence-related research and development”, citing its recent participation in projects related to civil-military fusion. Adam Ni, an expert on the PLA, argues that Huawei, although a private company, depended for its success on the state’s support “through a combination of protectionist measures, cheap financing, subsidies, favourable regulations, and diplomatic support abroad”.

A recent investigation by Danielle Cave found that Huawei was “the key ICT provider” for the African Union’s headquarters, whose servers had been transferring data to China until the breach was discovered, implying that the company was either incapable of detecting, or complicit with, massive data theft.

In 2012, a US House of Representatives committee heard statements from former Huawei employees alleging illegal practices. A former employee is suing Huawei in the US, alleging the company ordered him to participate in the theft of trade secrets and retaliated against his whistleblowing. An Israeli solar-energy technology manufacturer is suing Huawei for patent infringement in Germany.

Leninism plus smart surveillance

Telecommunications infrastructure and equipment are central to surveillance, a key tool of authoritarian social control. Xi’s stress on Party control, repression and propaganda stands to benefit from emerging technologies that can take the state’s ability to monitor, analyse and shape the private behaviour of large numbers of individuals beyond the wildest dreams of his predecessors in the Leninist tradition. Propaganda, far from being drowned out by the arrival of digital and social media, has embraced it, if anything getting closer to a literal form of Lenin’s boast of having the Party’s “truth” penetrate “everyone’s head”.

Likewise, the Party-state-Army’s repressive apparatus stands to benefit from advances in surveillance technology, notably aided by artificial intelligence. Like earlier totalitarian regimes, Xi’s CCP could find a technological breakthrough empowering a ruling “vanguard” to upgrade its domination of its state and society and project social control beyond its borders, achieving what Heilmann calls “Digital Leninism”. If, as Lenin put it in 1920, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”, Xiism could be Leninism plus artificial intelligence.

The security and human-rights implications of Huawei’s “smart” and “safe city” solutions are of particular relevance to the Czech Republic. Adriana Krnáčová, mayor of Prague until last month for the ruling ANO party, displayed a special interest in PRC smart-city technology: during her 2016 visit to Shanghai, she talked about smart cities “intensively” with the local government. Krnáčová revisited the topic during a meeting with the PRC ambassador the following year. The Prague government signed an agreement with Huawei on intelligent freight transport at a 2017 event that also promoted the company’s smart-city technology. Smart and “safe” cities are among the areas the company wants to cooperate” on in the next five years.

Huawei has recently partnered with the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, aiming to guarantee the region’s “social stability”. The company signed a strategic cooperation agreement with the Xinjiang government in 2016. Huawei has partnerships with city-level public security organs throughout the country, including in Ürümqi, as well as with the national Ministry of Public Security. The involvement of companies such as Huawei and Hikvision in Tibet and Xinjiang, the CCP’s “digital Leninism lab”, further clarifies their function as tools of state policy and makes a state-subordinate role abroad even more likely.

Huawei signs a strategic cooperation agreement with the Xinjiang government. Source: Huawei.

Huawei’s exports of smart-city technology have been expanding from authoritarian and hybrid towards democratic countries. The former Soviet Union is a potentially important market, with, e.g., a smart-city project slowly progressing in Baku, a 2017 agreement in Armenia, an (aborted) deal in Kyrgyzstan and talks with local governments in Russia.

Huawei signs an agreement with the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau.

Smart-city forays farther West have arguably used the localisation tactics often deployed by PRC entities in Europe, seeking subnational-level faits accomplis by courting local officials and eschewing the attention of potentially critical national audiences.

Huawei’s ‘smart cityproject in Valenciennes seemed well received locally, with the mayor calling it “a €2bn gift to the city”.

Smart-city deals in Prague would give Huawei an upgrade from the regional successes it has seen in France and Germany to claim a capital city as it has done in Azerbaijan. It remains to be seen if the less authoritarian-friendly Czech public opinion will welcome this westward advance.

Global warnings

These circumstances have been largely known for years, and have long generated concerns among analysts, politicians and intelligence agencies in multiple countries. Only in the last few months, however, have these concerns crystallized into actual measures limiting the use of Huawei equipment, triggered by the United States and its intelligence partners rushing to exclude Huawei from 5G, the next generation of mobile phone technology.

The NÚKIB statement explicitly refers to previous warnings from Czech civilian and military intelligence. Indeed, the Czech concerns are not new: the 2013 annual report of the main Czech counterintelligence agency, the Security Information Service (BIS), called Huawei’s growing share of the local telecommunications market a “potential danger”. The use of Huawei phones at the presidential palace has generated controversy.

Since a US House of Representatives committee found in 2012 that Huawei had failed to establish its independence from the PRC state and the PLA, bad press has constantly rained on Ren’s company. That year, experts found Huawei equipment “riddled with holes”. A deal with AT&T to sell Huawei products fell through earlier this year “because of security concerns” after lawmakers from both houses wrote to the Federal Communications Commission warned about “espionage” risks. In February 2018, at a US Senate hearing, intelligence chiefs would not advise private citizens to use Huawei products.

Australia banned Huawei from the country’s broadband network in 2012. A 2016 deal to build an undersea communications cable between Australia, the Solomon islands and Papua-New Guinea was dropped over Australia’s concerns.

These difficulties pushed the company to focus on other markets, such as Europe. While Huawei has become a major player in network technology in several European countries, concerns about the security implications have been growing among analysts and security services.

Propaganda materials supportive of Huawei have used the British example to dismiss security concerns elsewhere. However, such concerns have long been present in the UK as well. In 2013, a parliamentary committee found the “self-policing arrangement” put in place to evaluate the security of Huawei equipment used in network architecture “highly unlikely” to provide “the required levels of security assurance”. Last July GCHQ downgraded their assessment of Huawei’s security, after finding shortcomings and exposing “new risks in the UK telecommunication networks”. Earlier this month, the head of the MI6 called for a “conversation” on the role of Chinese companies in the country’s 5G network, as news emerged that BT was removing Huawei equipment from its core 3G and 4G networks.

In Germany, Deutsche Telekom made headlines with a statement about “reassessing” its procurement strategy. Although the Federal Office for Information Security (Bundesamt für Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik, BSI) has explicitly denied there are grounds for a Huawei ban, some within the ruling coalition are reportedly concerned about allowing Huawei to participate in the country’s 5G network. Analysts and politicians have expressed worries over Huawei infrastructure, earlier this year in the light of the intelligence service’s public concern about cooperation between Chinese companies and PRC security services, and now specifically on the 5G issue.

The NÚKIB warning came shortly after unusually blunt statements cautioning against Huawei from the Anglophone intelligence alliance known as the Five Eyes. Intelligence chiefs from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US met in Canada last summer to discuss the risks presented to their countries by Huawei in particular, and the PRC more broadly. The meeting took the unusual step of making its concerns public. Four Five-Eyes prime ministers had earlier agreed in London to avoid becoming dependent on Huawei’s 5G technology.

A series of measures against public procurement in the Five Eyes countries followed. Australia banned Huawei and ZTE from its 5G network in August. In late November, New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau blocked Huawei from providing 5G equipment to a telecom after identifying “a significant network security risk”. The New Zealand case is especially remarkable: with the exception of the Green Party, which had already called for an investigation of Huawei in 2012, the political class had avoided criticism or explicitly supported the company’s growth in the country.

The Danish case provides a good illustration of the effect the Five Eyes’ newly militant attitude can have on European allies, giving Huawei cause to worry about a domino effect. The Danish Defence Intelligence Service (Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste, FE) advised in strong terms against giving Huawei access to the country’s infrastructure in a 2011 classified report, before changing its mind two years later to approve a deal with TDC, the country’s largest telecom. While politicians and media reports continued to raise suspicions about Huawei, the FE continued to defend Huawei’s presence, stating in 2015 that TDC-Huawei agreements had “increased the security” of telecommunications networks. As late as last February, reacting to US warnings against Huawei equipment, the FE saw “no concrete grounds to advise against smartphones from specific manufacturers of countries”. Following the MI6 head’s recent statements, however, his Danish counterpart admitted Huawei’s possible involvement in the country’s 5G network is now of interest to the security organs, explicitly referring to “the dynamics between companies in China and the Chinese state”.

Perhaps most dramatically, Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou 孟晚舟, who happens to be the daughter of the company’s founder, was arrested in Canada on Dec 1 at the request of the US. An extradition battle is now being fought at Canadian courts, with the stakes illustrated by PRC’s counter-move – the arrest of at least two Canadian citizens in China in what looks like preemptive hostage-taking. The current climate extends those concerns to a third case, and has lent media interest to the cases of several “forgotten” Canadian victims of politically motivated arrests in China, notably of Chinese or Uyghur ethnicity. Some of these cases feature the increasingly extraterritorial application of the PRC’s repression apparatus, with abductions outside the PRC’s jurisdiction and the unlawful treatment of foreigners of Chinese origin as PRC nationals—two characteristics illustrated in the case of Swedish editor Gui Minhai 桂民海, recently discussed on Sinopsis.

Huawei’s CEE front: the case of Poland

Given the very public concern about Huawei in Five Eyes countries, there isn’t much the PRC can do to counter the procurement bans there. Just like in the trade war, much of the battle is therefore taken to third countries, especially those cultivated by China recently through the BRI and related activities. The countries in former Soviet-bloc Eastern Europe targeted in the PRC’s “16+1” initiative are one of the hottest battlegrounds, sitting as it were on two chairs that keep pulling further apart: the EU and NATO memberships, actual or desired, on one side, and the “special relationships” with the PRC on the other.

The Czech warning is particularly significant as it risks setting in motion a domino effect in other Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, an important market for Huawei.

Contagion to Poland, the largest country in the region, would be especially damaging. Huawei’s Polish foray has been particularly successful. The Polish government has remained silent on the security implications of the use of Huawei products. Huawei’s way to the Polish 5G network seems unimpeded: while its French parent declines to use Huawei equipment at home, Orange Poland has begun 5G tests in partnership with Huawei. Last month, Huawei co-sponsored and took part in a debate on artificial intelligence organised by the Polish state news agency and featuring two ministers.

Recent developments show Poland’s significance within the CCP’s discourse management activities. Official caution towards the PRC has become pronounced, with PM Mateusz Morawiecki’s recent call to “maintain the proper level of deterrence, not against the forces of the free world, but against China and Russia” and, not two weeks ago, a MFA statement on industrial cyber-espionage attributed to China. Efforts to create a more friendly image of the CCP are illustrated in a full-page advert praising Xi Jinping in Poland’s leading centre-right daily, paid by an entity the paper has refused to identify. Huawei’s link to the CCP’s broader propaganda and influence efforts can be seen in the fact that one of the company’s Polish interlocutors is a senior target of elite “friendly contact”.

It was Marek Suski, the head of the PM’s cabinet, who announced last month after talks with Huawei in Shanghai that the company planned to invest in a research and development center near Warsaw. Suski is a preferred interlocutor of the CCP International Liaison Department (ILD), the organ whose ‘party-to-Party’ purview has been extended from fellow Communist parties to embrace the ‘bourgeois’ spectrum in a form of United Front work that targets foreign politicians.

Marek Suski meets an ILD deputy head before the 19th CCP Congress.

At a meeting with ILD deputy head Shen Beili 沈蓓莉 in October last year, Suski congratulated the CCP on the occasion of its 19th Congress and stated his party’s willingness to use the “joint construction of the Belt and Road” as an opportunity for cooperation. Last May, Suski made news in the country after a Polish journalist spotted him at an ILD-organised ‘dialogue with world parties’ event in Shenzhen. As Sinologist Katarzyna Sarek commented soon after the event, it was remarkable for Suski, a member of the ostensibly anti-Communist ruling Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS), to attend an event glorifying a ruling Communist party simultaneously with the celebration of Marx’s 200th anniversary (notably graced by a politician registered as an agent of the Czechoslovak secret police). To further illustrate the irony, in the very same month, the PiS government had to apologise after the police showed up at an academic conference on Marxism to establish whether a crime of propagating totalitarianism had been committed.

Friends on demand

Given the stakes, it’s hardly surprising the NÚKIB public warning against Huawei in the Czech Republic immediately led to a diplomatic showdown. In the Chinese press, the Huawei “ban” in the CR is portrayed as a litmus test of the company’s future in the “vast majority of countries in the World” (outside of the Five Eyes alliance). The CR is also relatively easy to put pressure upon, given the “elite capture” systematically performed in the last five years by, among others, the notorious CEFC conglomerate, one of whose top representatives, Patrick Ho (何志平), has just been convicted at a federal court in Manhattan on seven counts related to large-scale corruption involving senior UN officials and African politicians. Ho’s direct superior, (former) CEFC chairman Ye Jianming 叶简明, remains an official advisor to President Miloš Zeman, the most openly pro-Beijing Czech politician, despite being held for almost a year incommunicado in China by the CCP’s disciplinary organs.

Huawei has a history of employing ‘friendly contact’ and the recruitment of foreign figures for its PR efforts, intended to deflect attention from its background and practices and present itself as a ‘normal’ private company. As an high-profile entity linked to the Party-state-Army and enjoying its support, Huawei has used methods typical of the Party-state’s liaison and United Front activities, including ‘localised’ interactions targeting governments and academia. As the recent Czech developments illustrate, these efforts enjoy the backing of the PRC propaganda machine.

Despite the national ban, Huawei has continued to bid in Australia at the state level, notably winning a contract to build a railway mobile data network in Western Australia, ignoring security warnings. Years earlier, a minister involved in negotiating the deal had benefited from Huawei’s generosity during a China trip to get “an insight into Huawei’s operations”, partially paid by the company; the WA ruling party’s links with United Front figures have continued to emerge.

In New Zealand, a country noted for the degree of influence the CCP has achieved in local politics through years of United Front work, politicians have been particularly supportive of the company. Huawei has used the example of New Zealand’s “embrace” of Huawei “within their own security frameworks” in PR campaigns meant to assuage security fears. Former prime minister John Key’s support for Huawei goes back to 2010, when he personally announced its possible involvement in a broadband bid. Key defended Huawei in parliament in 2012, reportedly disagreeing with security agency warnings. Key’s “support” for Huawei, contrasting with Australia’s concerns, was recognised by PRC state media. The previous government lauded a Huawei investment last year. The current Labour-led government, which continues to refuse to address evidence of CCP influence activities in the country, reportedly hesitated before naming the PRC as the author of a global IP theft campaign. After the warning against Huawei 5G technology, the minister responsible for the intelligence services rushed to deny it was a “ban” against “a particular company or a particular country”.

Huawei has sponsored work praising its technology by the Brookings Institution, a US think tank.

Jeffrey Sachs speaks at a CEFC event with Patrick Ho in 2016. Source: 中国经济网.

Friendly ties and the state’s support for Huawei became activated as the company faced an unfavorable climate in the West. Notably, Jeffrey Sachs, an economist, published an op-ed attacking the US over the arrest of Meng Wanzhou. Challenged on Twitter, Sachs, a special advisor to the UN secretary general on sustainable development, praised “the many benefits of Huawei technologies for sustainable development” while denying he was aware of the Xi’s Xinjiang internment camps. Sachs had stated similar praise for Huawei in his foreword to a Huawei promotional brochure. Unusually for a Twitter discussion, the one involving Sachs motivated a condemnation from the Global Times.

Sachs is, in fact, linked to the efforts to install CCP discourse at the UN, recently covered on Sinopsis. As Inner City Press has noted, Sachs has been listed as an “advisor” in CEFC materials. For at least three years, he spoke at CEFC events featuring Patrick Ho, still at large, where he praised the agreement between CCP initiatives and the UN sustainable development goals. Crucially, Sachs has sat on the advisory board of former UN general assembly president Vuk Jeremić’s think tank CIRSD since its establishment in 2013. Jeremić is another of the UN officials Patrick Ho cultivated: he became a CEFC “consultant” right after leaving his post, and was paid hundreds of thousands to “open doors” for CEFC. Even though CEFC has been neutralised by the fall of Ho and Ye, CIRSD is among the organisations still active in the discourse engineering enterprise, which perhaps motivated the Chinese state-media intervention over a social media conversation. Sachs deleted his quarter-million follower Twitter account soon after these links were exposed.

Showdown in Prague

In the Czech Republic, the PRC has many “friendly contacts” to call upon. Unusually for the pre-holiday season, it only took four days after the NÚKIB warning for PM Andrej Babiš to convene the State Security Council (Bezpečnostní rada státu, BRS), a rather toothless government body, to urgently discuss the “ban”. PM Babiš has been much weakened by recent scandals around the apparent abuse of EU subsidies for his business conglomerate. In the state of almost permanent government crisis since the last elections more than a year ago, he is much dependent on political support from President Zeman. His minority government also needs the parliamentary support of the Communist party (Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy, KSČM). Zeman and the KSČM are among the most staunchly pro-CCP voices in the country.

The BRS issued a pithy statement emphasising, apparently for Chinese ears, the obvious fact that NÚKIB is independent of the government, which cannot make it revoke or revise its warnings. Among a series of brief paragraphs stating the obvious, one stands out: that the agency is not qualified to comment on the international situation or on other states’ legal arrangements. Since the main public justification for the NÚKIB warning was the legal requirement for PRC citizens and companies to assist in intelligence gathering when called upon, such statement sounds like an indirect rebuke to the document.

More importantly, the PRC side staged a peculiar diplomatic ritual when it forced a meeting between the Babiš and the ambassador in Prague, Zhang Jianmin 张建敏, on the rather undiplomatic date of Sunday, 23 December. The meeting was not reported by the government through the usual channels, but only by the embassy, on its website (Chinese, Czech) and in a Facebook post. The embassy’s account of the meeting makes Babiš appear as doing a full turn-around on the Huawei issue. He supposedly called the NÚKIB warning “a hasty decision”, caused by “a misleading warning”. The post then employs some rather arrogant language:

Ambassador Zhang pointed out that the warning issued by a Czech agency, which is not at all grounded on reality, had had a detrimental impact and the Chinese side resolutely protests against it. He said that the Chinese side acknowledges the Czech government’s effort to rectify the relevant mistakes and hopes that the Czech side adopts effective measures to prevent such events in the future and to effectively protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese firms.

The language did not go down well with the Czech public, already quite sensitive to Chinese activities in the country and the unconditional support it receives from part of the political establishment. Despite the holiday season, the FB post already generated a lot of discussion on social media, mostly highly critical. The opposition was quick to seize on it, with politicians variously stating that the Czech Republic has fallen “in the hands of servile collaborators with undemocratic powers” or that the PM’s reversal at “a meeting with representatives of a country that threatens” the country’s information security meant he was “escaping his responsibility” to protect it.

Andrej Babiš with ambassador Zhang Jianmin. Source: PRC embassy.

Such undiplomatic language, guaranteed to further undermine the PRC image in the Czech Republic, was more likely intended for international audiences, amplified through state media. The heavy-handed response by the PRC embassy seems intended to preempt a replicating effect in the region and beyond, where a similar debate about Huawei is likely to take place sooner or later.

The immediate propaganda reaction further cements the idea that the Babiš administration’s attempt to contain the effects of the NÚKIB warning followed coordinated PRC pressure. One day after the BRS statement, a story by Xinhua’s senior Prague correspondent declared the Czech government had “corrected its mistake” on Huawei. The story soon made it to the English-language Global Times, in the sloppy English characteristic of stories pushed by higher-ups in propaganda organs.

After the backlash over Christmas, Babiš resurfaced to refute the embassy’s account of the meeting.

The Chinese ambassador commented in an unusual and public way about a meeting he had urgently requested, where he stated the Chinese side’s position in a very non-standard way.

Babiš explicitly denied that the government had made a “mistake” with the intelligence warning, as PRC state media had proclaimed: “I don’t know what the ambassador is talking about”, he said, adding that “the government takes the NÚKIB’s warning seriously”. The Czech-language statement is, however, unlikely to reach the Chinese public or the larger audience targeted by the PRC external propaganda organs. The goal of ‘killing the chicken to scare the monkeys’ remains feasible, despite Babiš’ newfound sovereign zeal.

“Friendly contact” conquers all

The Party-state’s efforts to protect Huawei, from friendly op-eds to the Christmas démarche in Prague, show the usefulness of the long-term build-up of influence work. Even countries of less immediate international significance can become key assets: at a critical juncture for a ‘national champion’ desperate to keep the CEE market, politicians and commentators who have developed pro-CCP positions can be called in its defence. With a quick coordinated reaction between Xinhua and the embassy, the propaganda battle being waged in Prague can resonate throughout the region and beyond.

The PRC’s leverage over the Czech Republic, a country where its FDI has been negligible, ultimately reveals various forms of ‘liaison’ and United Front work as cheaper and more effective tools of foreign policy than trade and investment.

With thanks to Anne-Marie Brady and Geoff Wade

The CCP’s model of social control goes global

[By Jichang Lulu and Martin Hála. Published on Sinopsis, The Asia Dialogue and China Digital Times on 20 Dec 2018.]


One of the most striking aspects of Xi Jinping’s “New Era” is the rapid externalisation of systems and policies previously only applied, for the most part, domestically. This external activism is of course a reflection of the CCP’s new effort to utilise the “historic window of opportunity” in international relations, identified by Xi as one of the defining characteristics of the “New Era”. The advancement of the PRC’s global interests, in particular through Xi’s ‘Belt and Road’ and other geopolitical initiatives, includes the extraterritorial expansion of social control mechanisms once mostly reserved to the PRC. These mechanisms comprise cooptive and coercive tactics: United Front work and repression, both intensified under Xi.

The academic study of global cooptation by New Zealand academic Anne-Marie Brady has proven sensitive enough to trigger cross-border coercion: the publication of her Magic Weapons paper on global United Front work has been followed with state-media attacks and a harassment campaign. In response, we initiated an open letter in her support that gathered 303 signatures, largely from the Chinese studies community. Beyond solidarity with a researcher facing apparent retaliation for her scholarly work, the response reflects widespread concern with the CCP’s intent to project its repression mechanisms abroad, shielding its cooptive influence mechanism from expert scrutiny.

Three Magic Weapons for the three realms of control

The CCP’s Leninist model of governance applies several basic mechanisms to maximize control over a vast population by a small “vanguard” without the explicit consent of the governed masses. The model is onion-shaped, made up of three concentric layers of governance. The tools to control these three realms are, to echo a Maoist simile, “three magic weapons” (三大法宝): Party building, armed struggle (succeeded by state violence) and cooptation tactics (the United Front).

The inner realm is the Party itself, the “vanguard” of China’s working class, the Chinese people and the Chinese “nation” (民族), controlled by the party discipline imposed by its core leadership. Resuming a trend often encountered in Communist history, Xi as the Party’s “Core” (核心) has been consolidated as potentially perpetual dictator. Party discipline is mostly enforced through extra-legal bodies, notably the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI, 中央纪律检查委员会), prominent in Xi’s “anti-corruption” campaign. When these instruments are not deemed sufficient and  discipline loosens, the Party is brought under control again with periodic purges. Individual Party members enjoy various privileges and certain career paths are only open to them, but at the same time are bound by strict Party discipline that subjects them to more direct control by the Core than any other social group.

The Party leads it all. Source:

Apart from its own members, the Party also aspires to control everything else, a notion expressed by a famous Mao Zedong dictum, which Xi Jinping has quoted and added to the Party constitution: “The Party, government, Army, civilian sector and education, East, West, South, North and Centre – the Party leads it all” (党政军民学,东西南北中,党是领导一切的). [1] Xi’s tenure has also strengthened the Party’s (and thus Xi’s own) authority over the central institutions through which it controls China’s society and economy: the Army and the state. Xi’s reform of the PLA, following an anti-corruption campaign, has disbanded the general departments, seen as concentrating too much power. The restructuring after the 19th Party Congress has reduced the separation between Party and state. Party control over state-owned enterprises has increased, admonishing them not to “forget the Party spirit [党性, партийность]” and stressing the Party’s leadership and the role of Party committees. The Party’s extra-judicial discipline system, once reserved to Party members, has been extended into state administration with the establishment of the National Supervisory Commission (国家监察委员会), in practice subordinate to the CCDI.

Cooptation and coercion outside the Core

The Party may strive to control everything, but farther from the Core, the two remaining Magic Weapons are needed to rein in the two extra-Party (党外) realms: repression and United Front work.

The inner layer in the onion outside the Party core is reserved for those who do not openly challenge the Party’s dominance in the system, and can be, at least temporarily, “united” with. Such alliances are carefully managed, without absorbing them into the Party itself lest they dilute its “purity”. There is, after all, a difference between the inner and outer circles (内外有别).  The “magical” mechanism to achieve this uneven alliance is the United Front (UF) work.

UF tactics were first prescribed by the Comintern to non-Soviet Communist parties as a way to reach state power through temporary alliances, eventually in the French and Spanish Popular Fronts; later, United and ‘National’ Fronts were institutionalised to help govern Communist states in Eastern Europe and East Asia. The CCP’s variant of the concept seeks to dominate such key social groups as business, religions and the Chinese diaspora by rewarding members with positions within an elaborate system of UF organisations that institutionalises these alliances: eight ancillary parties, chambers of commerce, patriotic religious associations, Overseas Chinese groups, as well as membership of non-CCP delegates in the National People’s Congress, the national Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and their versions at lower levels of administration. These appointments, useful to their beneficiaries as marks of official support, in turn keep such influential figures under control, turning them into ‘United Frontlings’ who can help advance Party policy.

First meeting of the 13th CPPCC. Source: Xinhua.

These groups were as essential to the CCP’s revolutionary struggle as they are to its rule over today’s PRC; like his predecessors, Xi continues to repeat Mao’s adage on UF work as a magic weapon. Beyond speeches, Xi has strengthened the role of the UF system and the Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) within it, with tens of thousands of new cadres and the formal absorption of what used to be state organs.

As a third weapon, state repression can be seen as having inherited the role of armed struggle. It is reserved primarily for the outer circle in the governance model, inhabited by those deemed too hostile to be “united” with. The criteria for who falls into which circle outside the Party continue to shift, at the sole discretion of its Core. Those on the wrong side of this arbitrary divide can expect (often extremely vicious) repression.

Under Xi, persecution of lawyers and labour activists has dramatically increased. In Xinjiang, Xi’s apartheid-like policies criminalise expressions of non-Han and Muslim identity, confining hundreds of thousands, possibly over a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other mostly Muslim citizens to a network of internment camps.

Globalisation 2.0: Party control goes global

The traditional domain of the CCP’s control model is the territory it rules (the PRC), territories it aspires to rule (Taiwan and, before handover, Hong Kong and Macau), and the Chinese diaspora, target of the Qiaowu 侨务 (Overseas Chinese affairs) system.

As a natural consequence of the PRC’s increasing economic clout and Xi’s strengthening of Party power, this dual model of control is now spreading abroad. The Xiist expansion of the model globalises its domestic and diasporic version of social control, appropriating the existing political and social structures of target countries.

The tools of extraterritorial repression at the CCP’s disposal remain limited, but the PRC’s economic power continues to add new options. The crackdown in Xinjiang extends to the Uyghur diaspora, through forced repatriations, blackmail, threats, extensive  surveillance, spying and diplomatic pressure to prevent scrutiny of these activities. Threats of punishment to family members in China allows the Party to try and silence Chinese critics abroad. Direct harassment of dissidents overseas has also been documented. In Sweden, the Tibetan refugee Dorjee Gyantsan (རྡོ་རྗེ་རྒྱལ་མཚན་) was recruited by the MSS to spy on the local Tibetan community. Kidnappings beyond its jurisdiction have brought the PRC no major negative consequences, opening the door to more cases like that of Gui Minhai 桂民海, the Swedish editor abducted in 2015 in Thailand. Extraterritorial censorship, still often ineffective in the form of open threats to media outlets, works well with companies seeking business in China, as seen in the recent erasure of Taiwan from country lists on airline websites. The US government called the renaming requests “Orwellian nonsense”, but such rhetorical response did not prevent American airlines from eventually toeing the line.

Outside the overseas Chinese communities, extraterritorial coercion remains for the time being an exception, rather than a rule. Cooptation, on the other hand, encounters few impediments. The expansion of United Front work beyond its traditional domestic and diasporic domain preserves its core methods: empower friendly figures with favours, access and representation, while ostracising recalcitrant elements. Traditional UF groups, notably ‘Reunification’ councils, have seen their role expanded from the control of Chinese communities to the political and economic mainstream, as documented in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. UF organisations are instrumental in forging localised contacts with the PRC, as seen in the case of the Fujian ‘embassy’ of a Czech region. ‘Sinicised’ religion might become another way of targeting foreign societies, as already seen in state-driven contacts with Buddhism in Mongolia.

United Front worker James Wu with former Czech PM Petr Nečas. 2016.

Beyond the UF system, various organisations involved in international exchanges employ similar methods to coopt foreign elites. The CCP’s International Liaison Department (ILD, 中联部), which once mainly liaised with fellow Communist parties, has seen its purview expanded to include the ‘bourgeois’ spectrum. No less an authority than its former head Zhu Liang 朱良 has compared this rightward expansion to domestic UF work; the CCP’s ‘dialogues’ with parties from abroad indeed resemble the CPPCC. The China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT, 中国国际贸易促进委员会), linked to, e.g., recent subnational-level attempts to bypass Australia’s reticence towards Xi’s “Belt and Road”, frames its activity as “international UF work”, functioning as a sort of global version of domestic business associations.

International UF work straddles the borders between official and private, and between legal and illegal activity. The global activities of CEFC, an ostensibly private firm linked to a PLA front organisation, illustrate this ambiguity. The company’s role in the cooptation of the Czech political elite has been covered in detail by Sinopsis. Beyond the Czech Republic, CEFC was among the entities working to engineer the installation of CCP discourse at the United Nations. CEFC’s “economic diplomacy” exposed the dark underbelly of BRI: bribes were used as liberally as more traditional interactions with “friends” of the CCP. The conferral of symbolic appointments characteristic of UF work is once again encountered in CEFC’s exchange of honorary ‘advisor’, ‘consultant’ or ‘guest’ positions: the organisation’s top brass has ‘advised’, or appointed as advisors, such figures as UN General Assembly presidents Vuk Jeremić, John Ashe and Sam Kutesa, Czech president Miloš Zeman, former Georgian PM Irakli Gharibashvili or, apparently, development guru Jeffrey Sachs.

Jeffrey Sachs at CEFC’s “Sino-American Colloquium”, 2014. Source: CEFC.

More generally, the tactical logic behind UF thinking can be seen at play geopolitically. Positioning Eastern Europe as a more manageable tool for pressure on Western Europe under the ‘16+1’ arrangement and appropriating ‘South-South’ concepts to seek alliances in the Third World are among the best examples. Often subsumed under Xi’s ‘Belt and Road’ geopolitical initiative, these interactions rely on the CCP’s methods of ‘friendly contact’ and UF cooptation of malleable political groups, businesses, think tanks and, importantly, academics and their institutions.

Coercion protects cooptation

Brady’s case combines the coercive and cooptive aspects of the CCP’s activity abroad. Brady’s study of the Propaganda system and her recent work on global United Front have brought tactical arrangements only accessible through Party writings to a broader audience. In particular, her Magic Weapons paper, on New Zealand as a case study of the CCP’s global influence operations, has revealed the remarkable success of UF work among the country’s elite.

Anne-Marie Brady. Photo by Silas Zhang.

The paper wasn’t universally welcome. Since its publication, burglars have stolen electronic devices from Brady’s home and office. Her car was tampered with in ways described as consistent with intentional sabotage. The months-long investigation of these attacks reportedly involves Interpol and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service. Academics who hosted Brady in China have been interrogated by Ministry of State Security officials. State media in the PRC and New Zealand media under the CCP’s ‘guidance’ have carried attacks on Brady. It seems reasonable to interpret these events as a harassment campaign meant to intimidate Brady and others researching the CCP’s political influence. In other words, coercive measures seem directed to prevent the exposure of cooptation mechanisms.

Our letter, following a statement by a New Zealand Chinese community organisation and three other local appeals, calls for an adequate response by local authorities to this harassment, and engagement with the substance of Brady’s research, so far not exactly forthcoming in New Zealand. It thus advocates scrutiny of both the coercive and the cooptive sides of the CCP’s control mechanisms.

Preserving the integrity of political systems depends on informed analysis of UF tactics able to vitiate them. Left unchallenged, these tactics can gradually undermine democratic governance, repurposing local institutions as tools of extraterritorial control. The New Zealand case is of unique interest for research on such tactics: in this democracy noted for its transparency, a donation from a prominent United Front figure was recently discussed in connection with a parliamentary candidacy for one of his associates; among political parties, the main beneficiary of UF-linked donations has been the one to echo CCP propaganda calling internment camps “vocational training centres”.

The CCP’s effort to coerce analysts into silence greatly concerns the China specialist community, judging by the unexpected number of signatures the letter attracted. These concerns are hardly conjectural. A signatory, Feng Chongyi of the University of Technology Sydney, was detained and interrogated for ten days in Guangzhou in 2017. The Swedish NGO worker Peter Dahlin, who also signed, was detained in China 2016 and only released after a staged confession. Colleagues who expressed support for the contents of the letter chose not to sign, fearing, in one case, being refused a visa and, in another, being taken hostage in retaliation for the recent arrest in Canada of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou 孟晚舟.

Beyond solidarity with a fellow researcher and interest in New Zealand’s democracy, the extent to which the appeal has resonated within the Chinese studies community points to global concerns over Xi’s increasingly authoritarian rule and the cooptive and coercive modes of its projection abroad.

[1] In the 1962 form, “industry, agriculture, commerce, education, the Army, the government and the Party” (工、农、商、学、兵、政、党); Mao had expressed the idea in similar terms as early as 1942, and it has been frequently restated and elaborated since. The locus classicus for the now canonical form is from 1973.

Thanks to Kuan-chu Chou.

Calling the deer a horse: The CCP’s ham-fisted drive to control discourse in Sweden

[Interview with Magnus Fiskesjö posted on Sinopsis on 28 Nov 2018]

The Chinese-born Swedish publisher Gui Minhai 桂民海 was kidnapped in 2015 in Thailand during a wave of abductions of critical Hong Kong booksellers. He was later released, rearrested and forced to deliver a statement to CCP-friendly media, including Jack Ma’s South China Morning Post. Gui’s detention, as well as that of another Swedish citizen, the NGO worker Peter Dahlin, forced to endure a staged televised confession, have fueled public debate on Sweden’s relationship with the PRC. As discussed in a recent Sinopsis piece, the combative tactics implemented by a new Chinese ambassador have hardly improved the public’s appreciation of the CCP’s policies. The embassy devoted special effort to a character-assassination campaign against the still-imprisoned Gui Minhai, bombarding media outlets with a set of accusations an investigation by journalist Jojje Olsson found to be fabricated.

Days after the Swedish king’s cancellation of a China visit on short notice, reportedly because of negotiations over Gui’s fate, Sinopsis conducted an e-mail interview with Magnus Fiskesjö, one of the most prominent voices advocating for Gui’s release. Fiskesjö teaches Anthropology and Asian Studies at Cornell University. He was the director of the Stockholm Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (Östasiatiska museet).

You are among the most vocal advocates for Gui Minhai’s release. What are the reasons for your personal connection to this case?

I got to know Gui Minhai while I served as the Cultural Attaché of Sweden’s Embassy in Beijing, in 1985-88. He was one of numerous young and talented poets, writers, and artists that I knew at the time. My memories are of a very bright young man always up for a joke and a laugh, as well as for serious discussions about literature and culture.

This was in the optimistic times before the massacres of the students and ordinary Beijingers at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and before the despair and cynicism that took over China afterwards. Before the tragedy, I had already helped Gui, as well as many others, to go to Sweden to study. We had only intermittent contact: this was in the era before email, and I was away from Sweden, for years. But I knew that he completed an MA thesis on Communist historiography, as well as publishing Chinese books and articles on Scandinavian culture. And that he changed to Swedish citizenship.

Gui then moved to Hong Kong to enter the publishing industry. We met up there once, in 2012. He was still the same optimistic and jovial figure, someone whose company you would enjoy. When he was kidnapped from Thailand in 2015, and then put up for a forced confession on Chinese state TV in early 2016, it was a shock for me personally. I knew the regime could be cruel. But this kind of fake show was a truly bone-chilling horror. It was despicable for the government to stoop to such games, with no respect for human dignity. So, I felt I had to speak up, mainly by telling people, not least people in my own country, what was going on. Also, the forced confessions unavoidably became a new research topic for me (see, e.g., “The return of the show trial: China’s televised ‘confessions’”).

Voices in support for Gui Minhai in Sweden have gone beyond academic Sinology to include many journalists and others from the publishing industry. How well-known do you think his case is among the general public in the country?

Don’t forget that our elected Government has repeatedly spoken up for Gui and demanded his release, as has our Parliament (jointly, by all parties!). The Chinese embassy tries to paint the voices supporting Gui as a “handful of hostile elements” but people can see that’s total nonsense. Their critics include long lists of public figures, such as Ove Bring, our foremost expert in international law, and Björn Skala, one of our former ambassadors to China. The Chinese propagandists want to believe they are still in China, and they can decide what is the truth. But no, we are still a free country.

And, in addition to a vigorous independent press and publishing industry, we also have very good public service radio and TV. Overall, their reporting has been decent, and it has made the general public aware of the case. I say this even as I myself was mightily frustrated that it took quite some time for media to wake up to it, and also that media sometimes swallowed Chinese propaganda designs (such as the re-packaged traffic incident that the Chinese government first used to smear Gui, and to delay and confuse the response to the case; I wrote about this here).

In sum, most people now do know about Gui Minhai’s case, and paradoxically, all the new vitriol from the recently appointed Chinese ambassador has in a strange way clarified the situation for most people: China’s holding a Swedish citizen, they are lying about it, they don’t follow any laws but constantly move the goalposts. The whole affair is an insult against our country.

People in Sweden have previously had to learn about the Eritrean-born Swedish citizen Dawit Isaak, who has long been held by a pretty awful dictator in that country. And a few years ago, a Swedish tourist was held for years by an Al Qaeda terrorist band holding fort in the desert of Mali.

That’s now the league to which China belongs. Swedish people also know that China forced a second Swedish citizen, Peter Dahlin, to go through a similar ordeal; after he was released and deported, he has contributed his personal behind-the-scenes account of how he was coerced, as did Gui’s bookseller colleague Lam Wing-kee [林荣基]. After hearing these and other similar accounts, no-one can regard the official Chinese spectacle as credible in any way.

What is your assessment of the Swedish government’s actions on Gui Minhai since he was kidnapped in 2015?

Having worked as a diplomat myself, I have a lot of respect for the Swedish diplomats on the frontline that have to bang their heads bloody on those Chinese walls made of cold stone. I can appreciate the value of efforts that aren’t public, and I trust that our officials have been trying very hard to convince the Chinese regime to release Gui.

They were very cautious and only went public with rebuking China after the shockingly disgraceful mob-style re-arrest of Gui on that train in early 2018, after they had been told that he was now free to go. The shock may have been partly due to the fact that our foreign ministry would be talking to the Chinese foreign ministry, and believed that they were getting an honest deal. But of course that ministry has no real say: Chinese diplomats may well themselves have been aghast and mystified, that after they’d told the Swedes that Gui was now free, he’s suddenly dragged off the train by plainclothes men acting out a second kidnapping right in front of Swedish diplomats!

The Parliament, in May this year, instructed our government to give high priority to working for Gui’s release. They will continue to do so, however long it takes, and whichever party is the government. We will never forget a citizen languishing in detention and cruelly paraded and forced to parrot lies on camera, just because someone did not like the books he published. Giving up on him, would mean giving up the fundamental values of our democracy, and consequently giving up our country as it is.

The King has cancelled a visit to China on short notice, allegedly because of negotiations over Gui’s release. Do you think there is any substance to those rumours? Is there precedent for involving the royal house in similar negotiations?

It is possible that this is true, although the official message is that the cancellation was due to the still-ongoing post-election efforts to form a new government. (The King must be on hand to inaugurate it.)

I myself met the King several times, and he once granted me an audience in my capacity as director of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (which was once founded with the help of his grandfather). I also often listen to his Christmas speeches, and I do believe he is genuinely concerned with the wellbeing of our citizens.

It is thus quite possible that he would have been appalled by the Chinese embassy’s vicious outbursts against Gui Minhai over the last few months, including just before the visit. I have no inside knowledge about whether the King might intercede with China on Gui’s behalf, but in fact I suggested just that in an op-ed co-authored last month with Kurdo Baksi, the well-known Swedish author and activist. While the King constitutionally cannot take foreign policy initiatives by himself, the elected government can request his aid, just as they often request his aid in traveling the world to promote Swedish companies and trade, as would have been the case here as well. We argued that there is a precedent in how the King was involved in successfully freeing several Swedish engineers that had been imprisoned by Saddam Hussein, in Iraq, in the 1990s.

How do you evaluate Sweden’s China policy in general, and do you think the case of Gui Minhai has had much influence on it? More generally, has the Gui Minhai case affected China’s image in Sweden?

I think that going into the future, for a long time to come, China will be associated in Sweden with the wanton kidnapping and imprisoning of a Swedish citizen, because he published books they did not like.

Because of the naïveté and shallow understanding of China that long prevailed in Sweden, as well as in much of Europe, it took longer than expected for our government to wake up to the seriousness of Gui Minhai’s case. Part of the reason was the once-popular but now largely defunct misunderstanding that China, as it turned to (state) capitalism, would also develop decent politics. The delay was undoubtedly due to how some businessmen and other pro-Chinese people welcomed (and benefited from) Chinese business ties, and were reluctant to accept the reality that for the Chinese regime, business is politics by other means.

But I think that by now, the case has caused many in Sweden to wake up and realise that China represents a threat. We have seen concretely what China can do, and does, to our country. This — together with other grim news from China, including the new concentration camps in Xinjiang, the brutal denial of basic rights to ordinary people, the censorship and silencing of every kind of dissent — has resonated in Sweden as well as around Europe, and like others, we are now also beginning to re-assess our policies on China. This includes the questions on whether to allow Chinese ownership of key infrastructure, and so on, so as to preserve our independence and democratic political system in the face of a China seeking economic and political domination, and evidently incapable of observing international rules. This is important.

Few were paying attention when China sent warships blasting around the Baltic Sea alongside the Russian Navy, just outside Sweden’s coast. But I think that was an unmistakable sign that the threat from China is now very real.

Gui Congyou 桂从友, the ambassador to Sweden appointed in 2017 whose background has been covered, among other places, on Sinopsis, has been unusually confrontational towards media coverage of China, which has failed to engineer a pro-CCP narrative. What do you think could be the reasons behind these new tactics?

The propaganda he issues is counterproductive, and surely harmful to China’s image in Sweden and in Europe. The Chinese ambassador is probably following orders. But the ambassador, and those who sent the orders, either may not fully understand the downside,or they think they can simply treat Swedes as they would their own people: barking out orders, and expecting not only obedience, but self-humiliation. I am sure that the ambassador is sending glowing reports back home, about how many times he’s figured in the local press.

But some Chinese people in Sweden, who do understand the harm that the propaganda campaign is causing to the image of his country, choose silence.

In this context one cannot fail to think about the old saying in China, about “calling a deer a horse” [指鹿为马] — which is what the ambassador is trying to do. To summarize the original story, during the first Chinese empire, over two thousand years ago, a power-hungry top official staged a confrontation to test the subservience and obedience of his subordinates by presenting them with a live deer, but telling them this was a horse, and then demanding they speak up on this. Those who jumped up to laud the “horse” were retained; those who hesitated, or said “But… it’s a deer?” were later executed. This story is eerily relevant today: the Chinese ambassador lives in a very similar world. He even gloated on Swedish radio that he would never tell anything but the truth, if he was made to confess (under torture). This is the equivalent of the kind of official who spoke up to praise the beautiful “horse”.

Have other European nations shown sufficient solidarity with Sweden over Gui’s case? Do you think such bilateral issues should be handled at the European level?

The EU has several times demanded Gui’s freedom, in statements from the high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, and as part of its “human rights dialogue” with China, last summer. Sweden has expressed its thanks for this. As a Swedish citizen, Gui is also a European and an EU citizen, so yes, it is a very good idea to bring it up at the EU level, and in the European Parliament where it has also been raised.

On the other hand, it has not been enough, perhaps partly due to Swedish hopes — until this year — to protect its “silent diplomacy” (which I think was a mistake). And so, with the exception of Germany and a few more member countries, not many individual countries have expressed support for Sweden on this case, and in that sense, the solidarity and the attention has not been enough. Similarly, in the recent review of human rights in China, at the UN in Geneva, only some countries asked about Gui (though the constraints of the UN format were draconian).

Britain, which sadly is abandoning the Union, is the only other foreign country so far (other than Taiwan) that has seen its citizens forced to confess on Chinese TV. The victim, Peter Humphrey (see the new book edited by Peter Dahlin, Trial by Media: China’s New Show Trials and the Global Expansion of Chinese Media), is now requesting that Chinese state TV should be barred from broadcasting in Britain as a result. But we in Sweden and the British as Europeans should be standing up together to Chinese propaganda abuses, not divided.

So I think this issue brings up the whole question of the future of the EU. Some nationalistic forces want to destroy and abolish it, and they are encouraged by China and Russia, because they would like to split us, and dominate us. But then it would be so much easier for them to bully a country like Sweden, and Britain, or Germany, for that matter. As the extraordinary Mogherini argues, the EU is our best future, and we can do even better.

Besides the horror of the treatment Gui has suffered at the hands of the PRC government, what is, in your opinion, the global significance of his case? What should Western governments do to deter similar extraterritorial kidnappings of their citizens by the PRC government?

Gui’s case raises the question of how China can fit in the world, if it cannot respect the painstakingly built rules for how to be neighbors in this world, which includes respecting the citizenship and rights of others. In the case of Gui Minhai, China’s government is imposing its own whims, in lawless fashion: kidnapping Gui, lying about it, denying him consular visits, and so on. Unfortunately, his case is not isolated, but part of an ominous trend where China imposes its wishes unilaterally, claiming to own people on racist grounds, while ignoring even its own laws on citizenship.

For other nations, the only way to deter this is to insist on international law, and to defend and strengthen this system.

But it is weakened, and not strengthened, when powerful countries like the US practice secret renditions, torture, and black jails, itself setting aside international law as it did for years, during its so-called War on Terror. Such practices embolden China’s regime, by providing convenient reference points for them: “If they can do it, so can we?”

Introduction and interview by Jichang Lulu.

New Zealand: United Frontlings bearing gifts

[Posted on Sinopsis on 16 Nov 2018]

When Todd McClay, foreign affairs spokesperson for New Zealand’s largest parliamentary party, repeated propaganda points on Xi Jinping’s policy of ethnic-based internment in Xinjiang, the CCP’s cultivation of his National Party proved it was worth the trouble. The National Party’s indifference towards torture and apartheid, which Labour, the senior partner in the ruling coalition, has not challenged, must come as a welcome display of solidarity with the totalitarian state’s propaganda machine as it fights mounting global criticism of Xi’s gulag.

The incident will not surprise those following New Zealand affairs. Each major party has a United Front-linked MP, ensuring CCP-friendly views are represented regardless of election results. Their numbers may soon increase: not a month ago, a recording emerged in which National’s leader can be heard discussing a further pro-CCP, seat in connection with a large donation from another United Frontling. Nor are New Zealand endorsements of Xiist policy new. The leaders of both major parties sent congratulations to the latest Party Congress. Both were represented at the CCP International Liaison Department’s December “Dialogue” with foreign political parties, a fact that went unreported in New Zealand.

The donation scandal has triggered media interest in the CCP’s influence, after a year of largely ignoring the local academic who exposed it. She has, however, consistently attracted attention from other quarters. A police investigation, involving Interpol and a national security unit, has been looking into break-ins in her house and office; it’s now also handling the case of the apparent “sabotage” of her car. Coincidentally, CCP-‘guided’ Chinese-language media has launched an attack on both her and New Zealand-Chinese democracy activists.

Internment camps as “vocational training”

McClay’s remarks were the National Party’s response to Harrison Christian’s story on Uyghur New Zealanders whose relatives have been detained in Xi Jinping’s network of “re-education” camps. His statement echoed the euphemisms currently used by the PRC government:

“Abuses of human rights are a concern wherever they occur. [H]owever, the existence and purpose of vocational training centres is a domestic matter for the Chinese [g]overnment.”

As shown in the next part in our series on the CCP International Liaison Department (ILD), McClay represented his party last December in Beijing. The ILD’s “dialogue” with Barbarian political parties reached a consensus:

The new consensus for the future of mankind was then enshrined in the “Beijing Initiative (北京倡议)”. It “applauds” Xi‘s “full and rigorous governance” of the Party, improving its “ability to govern and lead” and generate “historic achievements” and other desirable effects. Attendees called for “win-win cooperation” before expressing their “heartfelt appreciation” for the ILD.

The ruling Labour party was represented by its president Nigel Haworth, noted for his comments on Xi’s “wise leadership”, who praised Xi’s speech for state media to see. While Labour’s Xiist tribute was shown to the whole world by exoprop organ CGTN, McClay’s presence seems to have gone unreported in English.

At a session titled “Jointly pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative: role of political parties” (共建“一带一露”:政党的参与和贡献), McClay told China Central Television that the ILD “Dialogue” was an “opportunity for leaders of political parties from different countries to discuss global issues”. McClay estimated that “the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by China not only benefits countries” along it, but also “builds a platform for developing a broader dialogue between countries”.

Readers of our coverage of the CCP’s drive to impose Xiist language at the UN, notably aided by former New Zealand PM Helen Clark, will recognise such language as similar to that prescribed in propaganda writing on Xi’s pet geopolitical initiative. National’s further endorsement of Xi’s ethnic gulag can thus be seen as the natural next step in the CCP’s discourse engineering work.

The road to Parliament, paved with $100k

In a recorded conversation (warning: coarse language), National Party leader Simon Bridges discussed with fellow MP Jami-Lee Ross a NZ$100k donation from local businessman Zhang Yikun 张乙坤. The exchange, secretly recorded by Ross, revealed that a dinner with the donor had included discussion of two Parliament seats, including one for Zhang’s associate Colin Zheng (郑时佳).

Bridges: [G]ood work though man, that’s a lot of money.
Ross: Yeah they’re good people. Now there’s no catch or anything to it. You may recall at the dinner they did discuss candidacy, and another Chinese candidate.
Bridges: Two MPs, yeah.
Ross: Colin Zh[e]ng? The younger one, he’s put his name in for Candidates’ College and so I assume he’ll get through and we’ll make some decisions as a Party further down the track as to what we want to do with candidates.

National claim the donation hasn’t yet reached them, but, according to Ross, Zhang already paid: he told Bridges that the money was “sitting in a Botany electorate account”. Meanwhile, Zhang’s associate’s ascent to Parliament remains unimpeded, indeed with the Party president’s “encouragement”. Two further members of the CCP-linked group he leads have been made justices of the peace.

A card-carrying United Frontling

Zhang Yikun’s United Front credentials are unimpeachable. His CCP links were first reported on a microblogging website by Geoff Wade, me and others, soon followed by a comprehensive Chinese-language article by Chen Weijian 陈维健 (an English translation is now available).

These links span several major components of the United Front (UF) system. He was a delegate at the Hainan provincial committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) for two sessions (2007-2018), and served on its Standing Committee during the second one. Until at least 2017 he was a member of the Chinese Association for Promoting Democracy (中国民主促进会), one of the eight ‘democratic parties and groups’ ancillary to the CCP (cf. Groot, p. 103f. et passim), and on its Hainan committee as early as 2002. Zhang and his association have exchanged visits with the Zhigong Party, another para-CCP group with significant New Zealand contacts. Zhang was a vice president of the Hainan Federation of Industry and Commerce and later an executive member of its national version, the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce (ACFIC). The ACFIC and other industry and commerce associations form an essential part of the UF system. The ACFIC is often effectively treated as a ninth ancillary party in official documents and meetings.

Zhang was the founding chairman of the Chaoshan General Association of New Zealand (新西兰潮属总会) and remains the chairman of its board; he also chairs the Teochew International Federation (国际潮团总会). Like many hometown associations worldwide, the ones Zhang leads are under the CCP’s aegis, the result of decades of Qiaowu 侨务 (Overseas Chinese affairs) work aimed at coopting diaspora groups. There can be little doubt about Zhang’s association’s subordination to the CCP, manifested in frequent interactions with Qiaowu and other cadres, notably United Front Work Department deputy head Tan Tianxing 谭天星, as well as in his being chosen to organise a world Teochew convention.

Like Yang Jian 杨健, the National MP whose background in PLA intelligence was revealed last year, Zhang is also linked to the Party’s Army. He was in the PLA Navy in Hainan in the ’90s and is also the honorary chairman of the New Zealand PLA Veterans Association.

Zhang Yikun signs the PLA flag at the NZ PLA Veterans Association 2017 New Year gala. Source.

Colin Zheng, whose induction into Parliament was discussed in one breath with the $100k donation, is an associate of Zhang’s. He has held leadership positions at the Chaoshan Association since its establishment and currently serves as its chairman. He’s Zhang’s business partner, frequently seen with him in public appearances, including at meetings with officials. Last November, it was Zheng who welcomed Xu Yousheng 许又声, then Party secretary of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and now vice head of the United Front Work Department, with a speech invoking Engels’ passing remark on Shantou (New York Daily Tribune, 18 Nov 1858) and the ‘New Era’ heralded by the 19th Congress of the CCP.

Frontling money hits the news

Ross made the recording public after accusing Bridges of attempting to conceal the donor’s identity by splitting the donation into amounts below the reporting threshold. Although the recording fails to yield evidence of that, and it remains unclear if the donation was made at all, media reporting initially focused on the scandal as a political dispute within the National Party. Indeed the saga did not lack media fodder: bullying and harassment allegations against Ross, his admission of extramarital affairs with a fellow MP and a member of Bridges’ staff, his involuntary confinement to a mental health facility for a few days, and indeed Bridges “speaking inappropriately”, to his mother’s dismay.

The elephant in the room, viz., the apparent offer of Parliament seats to a UF-linked donor, was slow to attract media attention. This is in line with the previous record of most New Zealand media outlets. Scandalous though it might seem, the Zhang Yikun donation saga simply adds to a defining trait of contemporary New Zealand politics: the widespread, though underreported, influence of the CCP.

UF-linked donations, mostly to the National Party, were documented in Anne-Marie Brady’s Magic Weapons paper, published more than a year ago. Although the paper doesn’t discuss Zhang Yikun, it covers earlier UF-linked donations to National, which Brady estimates total at least NZ$1.38m, as well as to Auckland mayor Phil Goff (formerly with Labour), who earned NZ$150k at a fundraising dinner by auctioning a signed copy of Xi Jinping’s book On the Governance of China I (the tome is often given away for free, and its contents are available online). Although some salient aspects of Brady’s paper (and the attacks against her) were covered by the local press, notably Matt Nippert and more recently Harrison Christian, the structural links between United Front entities and New Zealand politics received scant attention.

Between racists and Xi Jinping Thought

The Zhang Yikun case did, however, lead to increased coverage. After initial reporting narrowly focused on the Ross-Bridges dispute, more substantial coverage and analysis began to emerge. Branko Marcetic provided the first serious treatment (warning: profanity in the title) of Zhang’s UF links in English, including original reporting. Tze Ming Mok’s New Zealand Herald op-ed recounts her experience of “wonks […] extremely concerned” about PRC influence who “can’t say much publicly” lest they imperil “their own Chinese government-linked funding”. Debate is precluded by “a wall of silence” whose “chilling effect is harming Chinese people in New Zealand”, “trapped between knee-jerk racists and Xi Jinping Thought”.

As a fitting illustration, the Herald refused to print Mok’s mention of Zhang’s UF links (which were by then firmly established based on public, official PRC sources). These were, however, covered by other local media outlets; Charlotte Graham-McLay’s reporting for the New York Times brought them to a global audience. Brady, largely ignored by local media since the publication of her report, was now sought by major media outlets, including for a half-hour interview with state broadcaster Radio NZ. Even state-owned network TVNZ devoted a podcast to the CCP influence issue. A petition by Freeman Yu demands Parliament “inquire into foreign influence in New Zealand politics”. Yu has faced attacks from pro-CCP voices, which, through such outlets as local state-media partner Skykiwi (天维网), tell “anti-China Chinese people” they are “not welcome in New Zealand”. (Propaganda Department vice head Sun Zhijun 孙志军 once visited Skykiwi to provide “guidance” to “tell China’s story well”.)

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the Planet…

The cultivation of politicians by individuals associated with United Front organisations is not restricted to New Zealand. Under Xi Jinping, the work of these groups, once primarily focused on the Chinese diaspora, is now targeting those with “political influence, economic power and social prestige” in foreign societies at large, in an attempt to use community organisations as tools of political influence. The case of Australia made global headlines when donations from the leader of a peak United Front body were linked to support for China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

In the Czech Republic, the case of James Wu (吴瑞珍), covered by Sinopsis and Hlídací pes, shows remarkable parallels with that of Zhang Yikun. Like Zhang, Wu leads several hometown associations. Both have had extensive contacts with the Qiaowu system. Wu was a member of a city committee of the CPPCC, and a non-voting delegate at the Fujian province CPPCC. In 2013, he helped organise a Prague visit by its chairman. According to a former business partner, Wu was always interested in political contacts, and indeed managed to become the ‘Fujian representative’ of Olomouc region. In other words, the interests of a Czech local government were represented in China by someone with posts within the CCP’s political system. In New Zealand, Zhang Yikun has established a close relationship with Southland District mayor Gary Tong, who indeed was in China as a “guest” of Zhang at the height of the donations scandal. Although Wu’s political influence bears no comparison to Zhang’s, he did try to fly higher than Olomouc: he managed, at least, to be photographed next to former PM Petr Nečas.

James Wu gets his picture taken with former PM Petr Nečas. 2016.
James Wu gets his picture taken with former PM Petr Nečas. 2016.

Repurposing the system

Despite the degree of attention, politicians from the major parties keep ignoring the issue. Given Zhang Yikun’s cultivation of links with both major parties, it’s hardly surprising that PM Jacinda Ardern continues to defend the country’s “transparency”. Four fifths of the donations to Ardern’s party between 2011 and 2017 were anonymous (a similar figure applies to National, which has maintained a similar proportion in the last year; Labour has admittedly improved).

The CCP’s long-term efforts to make New Zealand’s high politics serve its foreign-policy goals have successfully neutralised the country’s famed transparency. As a forthcoming ILD piece will continue to argue, tools Lenin and Stalin conceived with disruption in mind have been optimised to repurpose, rather than destroy, democratic political systems.

Confined discourse management and localised interactions in the Nordics

[Also posted on Sinopsis.]

Some of the challenges the CCP faces in managing public discourse in democratic societies can be overcome by insulating interactions at the local level. The decentralisation often seen in Western administrations gives local officials high levels of decision power, making them an ideal target for “friendly contact” efforts. Foreign debates over interactions with PRC entities often feature critical views, what writing on propaganda often calls the “China Threat Theory” (), generalising PRC reactions to the use of the phrase in the US in the 1990s. Xi Jinping’s rule features a global expansion of Party work, notably propaganda and United Front efforts that can help engineer environments favourable to CCP policies. The installation of Xiist concepts at the United Nations is a discourse-engineering success story, illustrating the use of multiple state and private entities and methods ranging from propaganda to bribery. Lesser endeavours, such as specific investment projects, have no access to the resources demanded by large-scale discourse management, but are just as relevant to national strategic goals. At the local level, perceptions of the potential benefits of engagement with Xi’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative are often remarkably optimistic, and knowledge asymmetry can help avoid scrutiny of the more controversial political or military aspects of cooperation projects. In such cases, localisation can let interactions reach successful outcomes within low-level jurisdictions, creating faits accomplis before national media attention can trigger critical (“threat”) narratives.


May the China Opportunity Theory (中国机遇论) defeat the China Threat Theory (中国威胁论). Source: CRI.

The following examples, drawn from Sweden, Norway and Greenland, illustrate the risks posed to localised interactions when information management fails to confine them to the local domain. In all three cases, PRC actors enjoyed a largely positive reception from local decision makers before public scrutiny took them to a more critical discourse environment.

Sweden: a creature of Perestroika Panic guides public opinion

Sweden is a challenging environment for the CCP’s discourse management activities. The media frequently covers Chinese topics with expert insight, including original reporting from China. Public discussion regularly features local China experts, often with critical views on CCP policies. A number of incidents have hurt the PRC’s image. Publisher Gui Minhai 桂民海, a Swedish citizen, was kidnapped in 2015 in Thailand in one of a series of PRC abductions of critical Hong Kong booksellers; he was later released, rearrested and forced to deliver a statement to CCP-friendly media, including Jack Ma’s South China Morning Post. Another Swedish citizen, the NGO worker Peter Dahlin, was detained in 2016 and only released after a staged televised confession. Dorjee Gyantsan (རྡོ་རྗེ་རྒྱལ་མཚན་), a Tibetan refugee recruited by the MSS, was sentenced to a year and ten months in jail in 2018 for spying on the local Tibetan community. Public criticism led to the closure of three of Sweden’s four Confucius Institutes (in Stockholm, Karlstad and Karlskrona) between 2015 and 2016, leaving only Luleå, itself the target of some criticism; a new, less ambitious one is planned in Borlänge, with a small local government rather than a university as partner, and called ‘institute’ despite apparently being expected to cater to secondary-school students, is already controversial.


Gui Congyou, then director of the Department of European and Central Asian Affairs of the Foreign Ministry, at the Russian embassy in Beijing, 2016. Source: Sina.

The current approach to media management, while possibly beneficial domestically, is not improving China’s image in Sweden. A new ambassador, Gui Congyou 桂从友, was appointed in 2017, before which he had never visited Sweden or had any contact with Swedes. After working at the CCP Central Committee’s Policy Research Office (政策研究室) in the early 1990s, his career had a post-Soviet focus: he worked in Russia and at the MFA’s Department for Eastern European and Central Asian Affairs (欧亚司). In 2014, he conveyed to Russian media the PRC’s support for Russia’s position in the Ukrainian crisis. Gui’s formative years at the Policy Research Office amid post-Tian’anmen Perestroika panic and lack of acquaintance with Western media environments (and even the English language) perhaps made him the right person to implement a new set of aggressive media-management tactics to pacify Swedish media. They have failed to yield positive results.

The embassy’s loud responses to unsympathetic coverage, including attempts to smear Gui Minhai and direct verbal attacks against media and journalists, notably Jojje Olsson, have mostly generated negative publicity in Sweden and abroad. Fittingly, Gui Congyou’s PR strategy triggered associations with the former Eastern bloc when a commentator invoked Olof Palme‘s speech calling Gustáv Husák’s repression apparatus ‘minions / henchmen [lit. cattle; etymologically, ‘creatures’] of dictatorship’ (diktaturens kreatur). His Excellency’s attacks on Olsson, whom he advised to rename his website inbeijing.seInChineseTaipei’ to reflect his current residence, failed to silence the journalist, resulting instead in local and international support for him and even prompting a rare Swedish government reaction. The embassy’s campaign to discredit Gui Minhai has only increased support for him, which has included public appeals, demonstrations and, most recently, a book and events at the Gothenburg and Frankfurt book fairs. Last month, the embassy had to perform a lama drama over the Tibetan leader’s latest visit, while solemnly defending a tourist tantrum and fighting a satire show.

These actions are consistent with the intensification of a tantrum-based approach to diplomacy, featuring in-your-face attempts at extraterritorial censorship, from Australia to Denmark and Spain. these activities have proved counterproductive in terms of guidance of public opinion (舆论引导). By triggering constant media discussion of the PRC’s human rights situation and extraterritorial ambitions, such an approach has likely made local public opinion only less favourable to cooperation with China. Xi’s geopolitical initiative could, however, fare better if BRI projects are sheltered from such an adverse media environment.

“Lysekina”: a Swedish municipality meets a PLA-linked United Frontling

Last November, officials in Lysekil, a municipality with a population below 15,000, were approached by a group of consultants with an investment plan that included a new deep-sea port, an expansion of the existing one, road infrastructure and even a health resort “with Michelin-star restaurants”. The local authorities were given ten days to respond. They found the proposal “interesting” and commissioned a feasibility study from the same consultants who had proposed it.


Prompt answer demanded. From the presentation to Lysekil officials. Source: Jojje Olsson on Scribd.

The consultants were representing Sunbase (新恒基, a Hong Kong company owned by Gunter Gao (Gao Jingde 高敬德), with the backing of state-owned China Communications and Construction (CCCC, 中国交通建设). That much was made known to the Lysekil officials.

The consortium’s background was less obvious. Gao is a prominent figure in Hong Kong United Front organisations. He is in his sixth term as a member of the national CPPCC. He was the founding chairman of the Hong Kong Association for the Promotion of the Peaceful “Reunification” of China (HKAPPRC, 中国和平统一促进会). His seniority within UF structures is evidenced by his participation in meetings with high officials, such as Du Qinglin 杜青林, then head of the United Front Work Department, in 2009. Besides his membership in United Front organisations, Gao openly supports the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB, 民主建港协进联盟). At a DAB fundraising event in 2016, he paid HK$18.8m for calligraphy (ultimately alluding to a Zuozhuan 左传 passage) by Zhang Xiaoming 张晓明, then head of the Central Government’s Liaison Office, which plays a central role in United Front work and political influence in Hong Kong (Loh, p. 229 et passim). His company used to share an address with eight groups entitled to vote for “functional constituency” representatives at the Hong Kong Legislative Council. Pro-Beijing media channelled his support for the authorities during the 2014 Occupy Central protests.


Gunter Gao as Hong Kong representative at the 8th meeting of the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, Beijing, 2009. Source: 中国统促会

Gao has close links to the PLA. As his company’s website puts it, he has “generously supported the publication” of various “valuable books with the intent of promoting the glorious image of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a civilizing and a powerful force and of spreading the superior tradition and revolutionary spirit of the PLA”, some published by the pro-CCP Wen Wei Po publishing house and one with a foreword by Jiang Zemin. One of his companies has been managing the PLA’s land in Hong Kong since 1997. Its other customers include the Liaison Office and Xinhua.


The calligraphy specimen by then Central Liaison Office head Zhang Xiaoming that cost Gunter Gao $18.8m at a DAB fundraiser. Source: HK01

CCCC’s role in port building fits within the PRC’s strategic goal of becoming a ‘maritime great power’ (海洋强国). CCCC has been involved in projects in Chinese ports in Gwadar and Colombo. The planned Lysekil investment can be seen as a sign of a more general interest in global port infrastructure. Deep-sea port projects of potential interest to China have been discussed in the Arctic region (Finnafjörður in Iceland and Kirkenes in Norway), although concrete Chinese investment proposals have not yet been made public.

Open media discussion of this background had the potential to derail the project. The consortium’s demand for a quick response from the local authorities suggests they were aware of this risk. Indeed, news about the port plans leaked, leading to local and national media coverage and public criticism. It was nicknamed “Lysekina”, punning on the Swedish word for China. Gao’s United Front and military links were soon brought up, by the author on a microblogging website, and by Olsson (Swedish, English), the journalist later targeted by the embassy’s fury. Concerns emerged about its security implications, mentioning, in particular, the case of the Darwin port in Australia. The ‘China threat theory’ had indeed been triggered.

The prospective investors dropped the project in January 2018. Although it faced other hurdles, such as a landowner who refused to sell or lease, the investors’ representatives cited the public controversy as a reason.

Greenland and the two faces of Arctic propaganda

Greenland has a unique role to play in China’s Arctic strategy. Its mineral deposits match some of the goals of medium-term national planning on mining, specifically concerning rare-earth minerals. The island is an important location for scientific research; senior scientists and officials have repeatedly stressed the national-interest motives behind PRC Arctic and Antarctic science, “directly related to a nation’s ability to turn polar natural resources into commercial resources” (《极地国家政策研究报告》(2013-2014), quoted in Brady, p. 102). Organs under the Ministry of Land and Resources (since restructured into the new Ministry of Natural Resources) have driven geological research in Greenland, also promoting its findings to the mining industry and acting as the Greenlandic government’s main interlocutor. The country’s natural resource needs were invoked by a government-linked think tank promoting the first exploration project in Greenland in 2009, as well as by the research institute behind the only serious Chinese investment in Greenland to date. Plans for a permanent research station in Greenland were seen as a priority already in 2015; one of the locations discussed, at 83°N, would be the world’s northernmost settlement on dry land. Beyond natural resources, the Arctic is central to China’s national defence, both as part of its global maritime strategy and due to the region’s importance for nuclear security, since the shortest ICBM trajectories between China and the US cross the Arctic (Brady, p. 79).

An independent Greenland with China as its main trading partner and investor would be geopolitically advantageous to the PRC. The extreme asymmetry of the relationship could make it relatively easy for China to negotiate for Greenland’s support in discussions on Arctic governance. China’s efforts to cultivate the smallest of the currently independent Arctic states, Iceland, have already yielded a remarkable partnership: Iceland was the first European country to sign a free trade agreement with China and the first to award a Chinese SOE an Arctic oil and gas licence (since relinquished); recent Icelandic contributions towards the CCP’s global discourse-management goals include former president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson’s praise for aspects of China’s “leadership”, foreign minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson’s China Daily oped last month and a Reykjavik meeting to discuss ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ (or the weather, depending on who you ask) covered on Sinopsis. Given a generally positive attitude towards engagement with China among Greenland’s political elite, an independent Greenland would be even more receptive than Iceland to PRC economic and political influence. Indeed, the current attitude has emerged at little cost to China: despite China’s realistic medium-term potential to become the main investor in Greenland’s mining sector, only one serious investment exists so far, worth less than US$5m.

The PRC’s interests in Greenland are controversial, especially in Denmark. Greenland’s independence would mean the loss of Denmark’s status as an Arctic state. China may become a competitor for influence. In 2016, General Nice Group (俊安集团), a private company that owns an iron mining licence of no significant commercial value in the short term, attempted to acquire a derelict naval base in Kangilinnguit (Grønnedal). The plans were hard to construe as a commercial investment in Western terms: General Nice, a private iron trader plagued by debts and court cases, could hardly want such an asset except, assuming no state entities recommended the purchase, to make itself relevant to national interests as a form of ‘insurance’. The deal, approved by the Greenlandic authorities, was quietly blocked by the Danish government which soon rediscovered the site’s worth as a “strategic and logistical base”. The dreaded ‘China Threat Theory’ emerged in 2013, when controversy over potential Chinese investment in the Isua iron mine led to the fall of a government. A possible bid by CCCC to take part in airport projects generated concerns in Denmark and, reportedly, the US, leading to an agreement where the Danish government will help fund construction work at two airports. The Danish intervention was not to the liking of a junior party in the ruling coalition, leading to the collapse of PM Kim Kielsen’s third cabinet and the formation of a new minority government, still under Kielsen. The second government change caused by discussions of PRC interest was a net win for Kielsen’s government, putting it unexpectedly closer to getting Danish (and vaguely described American) funding for projects the Danish PM was sceptical about not a year ago.

The fact that mere talk of China deals has caused two government changes in a country without much actual PRC investment illustrates the sensitivity attached to China’s interests in Greenland; an awareness of this sensitivity informs the PRC’s messaging. While the Danish government tends to avoid identifying China on the record as a motivation for such moves as the agreement on airports, Danish reporting and analysis widely discuss the PRC’s potential ability to capitalise on Greenlandic independence ambitions, which a local writer sees as “life-threatening” to the Danish realm. The Danish intelligence service openly warns about the implications of PRC investment in Greenland, which could lead to “dependence”. The Greenlandic political elite’s commitment to developing infrastructure projects with uncertain profitability prospects, while actively inviting PRC participation, make discussion of a debttrap’ scenario predictable. (No PRC infrastructure loans to Greenland are known to have been discussed, but Chinese financing is expected for mining projects.) Accordingly, the PRC has been cautious to avoid any perception of support for Greenland’s independence. Protocol arrangements clearly treat Greenland as a subnational entity, at times in contrast to the Greenlandic government’s own communications; when necessary, the Chinese MFA has not hesitated to remind Greenland it “should follow the foreign policy upheld by Denmark”. In China, emerging academic discussion of Greenland’s independence still avoids discussing its consequences for the PRC’s geopolitical goals. Appeals to China’s well-known opposition to a universal self-determination principle are a poor explanation: as Gui Congyou, now the ambassador to Sweden, once told Russian media, the PRC is “against independence declarations by any nationalities through referendums, but this doesn’t apply to Crimea”. Rather, any perceived support would generate opposition, and Chinese non-action (无为而治) can simply let Greenland approach Beijing’s orbit of its own accord. China already buys, by one estimate, around 40% of Greenland’s seafood exports (seafood makes up 94% of the island’s total exports). The head of the Greenland Business Association claims to have discussed the possibility of a free trade agreement with the PRC ambassador during a recent visit to Greenland. After years of opposition from local authorities, Chinese workers were finally allowed last year to work at state-owned Royal Greenland’s fish processing factories. 62 workers had already been hired to work in Greenland as of a few months ago; mining projects will require at least hundreds. Local politicians are often receptive towards cooperation with the PRC; as the fall of the third Kielsen cabinet shows, Danish interests can generate more opposition. A low profile and the proper messaging towards Greenland can continue to increase the PRC’s economic and political leverage with little need for the Party-state to invest actual (monetary or political) capital.


Guidance of public opinion. Source: Guangming Daily.

External propaganda (外宣, ‘exoprop’) turns attention away from Greenland’s importance within PRC policy; this strategy benefits from a lack of expertise on China among prominent commentators. Last January’s Arctic White Paper, a document for foreign consumption, does not even mention Greenland. This is in line with the general duplicity of the PRC’s polar communications towards internal and external audiences, which strictly follow the ‘insiders and outsiders are different’ (内外有别) principle, applied to both endo- and exoprop (Brady, p. 269 et passim). In English-language materials and state-supervised interactions with foreigners, PRC entities stress the country’s interest in scientific research while omitting its subordinate role to national economic and military needs.

The effectiveness of discourse-management tactics is enhanced by a frequent disregard for Chinese-language sources in publications about the Arctic, in what one may call the misère des études arctiques. A lack of Chinese skills (“in Chinese, the word for ‘sea’ literally translates to ‘vast, expansive space’” (misquoting Schottenhammer; cf.GSR 732h, Schuessler s.v. 洋, STEDT #6403, Serruys)) doesn’t deter scholars from discussing “how China sees the Arctic”. The 2018 Arctic White Paper, an exoprop product that mostly reaffirms known policies in general terms, was read as a strategy document and used to draw conclusions about China’s “main policy goals”; in a sign that reactions matched propaganda goals, an exoprop organ relayed Western remarks that the word “military” doesn’t occur in the paper (“and that’s maybe positive”); its discussion of a ‘Polar Silk Road’, by then a yearsold concept, was treated as novel (as for my own comments on the paper, they had some innocuous parts plagiarised by the People’s Daily’s English website). One think-tank report derived the “organizing principles” of the PRC’s Arctic policy from the White Paper and the English version of a speech at an international event. Another one, again ignoring original-language sources, overestimated Chinese FDI stock in Greenland by three orders of magnitude; a revised version, published after receiving my (unacknowledged) corrections, gives a smaller, though still erroneous, figure, and its lead author has continued to rely on calculations in which $2bn (overestimated FDI) is 11.6% of $1.06bn (underestimated GDP). While these examples of alternative maths and intellectual laziness are certainly not universal in writing about China and the Arctic, they illustrate the standards of scholarship and analysis in English-language writing about the region. As in other domains, China-illiteracy makes exoprop work easier.

The surreptitious “launch” of a satellite station project

In May 2017, a project to set up a dual-use satellite ground station in Nuuk was “officially launched” on Greenlandic soil. The ceremony was attended by Cheng Xiao 程晓, the leading remote sensing expert in charge of the project, and a hundred Chinese visitors, including retired PLAN Rear Admiral Chen Yan 陈俨, former political commissar of the South China Sea fleet and NPC delegate between 2003 and 2008. A Beidou pioneer with a military background spoke at the event. The trip to Greenland was also used to fly the first Chinese remote-sensing drone in Greenland, the Jiying 极鹰 3. Although these events were reported in Chinese, the Greenlandic government remained unaware of the project months after its official launch. First mentioned in English on my blog, the project’s existence only became known to the Greenlandic public and their elected representatives after it was covered in a story by Andreas Lindqvist for the local paper AG, using my translations from Chinese sources. My full account, including the background of the main individuals in attendance, was posted in December.


The project illustrates the PRC’s double messaging in the Arctic. It was possible to organise a discreet event with a hundred participants in a town with a population of 493 by bringing them as a tour group. After the event, the tourists continued on an eight-day cruise of eastern Greenland. The tour was organized by Souluniq, a high-end tour operator long associated with communicating the importance of the polar regions to China’s national interest. The fact that the Chinese public for the event was a tour group attending this ‘launch’ as a patriotic-themed attraction, after lunch in a restaurant, was not disclosed in Chinese media accounts: indeed, the phrasing allowed readers to imagine a joint ceremony with the Greenlandic government, marking the actual start of the station’s construction. In fact, no date had been fixed for the actual construction of the station, a 7m antenna to be installed outside Nuuk; the required authorisation had not been sought with the Greenlandic authorities. To a Chinese audience, this was the launch of a major project in Greenland; for the locals, it was just another group of Chinese tourists. The project’s local partner saw its leader as just a fellow scientist, a perception that can help the project’s chances with the local authorities. Relevant Chinese audiences, on the other hand, have been made aware of Cheng Xiao’s key role in China’s polar strategy. A global network of satellite receiving stations is of strategic importance to the PRC; in the Arctic, one opened in Kiruna, Sweden, in 2016, to be followed by another one in Sodankylä, Finland. The dual-use Beidou satellite navigation system, in particular, needs more ground stations. The military aspect of the PRC’s polar strategy is clear to Cheng, who warns that “China’s threats come from the Arctic” and, according to a participant, discussed the military significance of the project during the Greenland tour.


RAdm Chen Yan 陈俨 in 2011~2012. Source:


RAdm (Ret) Chen Yan aboard the Sea Spirit cruise in Greenland, after the ‘launch’ ceremony.

This dual-propaganda feat was achieved thanks to a relationship Cheng had built with Karl Zinglersen, a database expert at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (Pinngortitaleriffik / Grønlands Naturinstitut). Cheng offered Zinglersen a satellite map of Greenland, made from American open-source imagery, as a gift, through the PRC Ministry of Science and Technology. Zinglersen had, by his own account, spent “decades” waiting for such a map from the Danish authorities. Talking to the Chinese press, Cheng has explicitly referred to this exchange as an example of engagement with Arctic populations through higher education and research institutions, since as “unofficial” entities they are able to “effectively counter the ‘China Arctic threat theory’.”


Greenland Institute of Natural Resources database scientist Karl Zinglersen receives a satellite map from Cheng Xiao. Source.

Reactions followed reporting on the project’s discreet launch. In Greenland, the chair of the parliamentary foreign affairs and security committee found the surreptitiousness of the launch “a bit worrying,” while warning against getting “scared every time there is a Chinese project.” In Denmark, the head of the Defence College (Forsvarsakademiet) noted that the host government would need to have “full access” to data collected by the station, or otherwise it could “obviously also be used for intelligence gathering and military goals”.

Had it remained confined to the local domain, the project might have proceeded smoothly, perceived as cooperation between fellow scientists, then presented as a fait accompli for the approval of the local authorities. Its exposure, attracting the wrong kind of attention, could complicate its prospects. No further information on the project has emerged since its ‘official launch’ was revealed and it remains unclear when it will be built.

Knowledge asymmetry: all aboard the Shanzhai Choo-Choo

The effectiveness of the localisation approach depends on high levels of knowledge asymmetry. Among local decision makers, a general familiarity with American, European and in some cases Russian society and culture contrasts with a lack of knowledge of and interest in the PRC political system, despite ritual statements on the importance of relations with China. An expertise vacuum also provides a propitious environment for the CCP’s ongoing discourse engineering endeavours: often with CCP-linked support or incentives, think-tanks and other entities can help install a perception of the PRC as a munificent benefactor and the adoption of Xi Jinping’s geopolitical initiative as inevitable. A final Nordic example may illustrate this favourable environment.

Last January, the Värmland-Østfold Cross-Border Committee, an organisation that seeks cooperation between some of the municipalities on both sides of the Swedish-Norwegian border, hosted a Chinese delegation to discuss a possible $21bn investment in a high-speed railway line between Oslo and Stockholm. The host organisation’s leader and its partners are involved in TENTacle, a partnership between government and regional entities in nine countries in the Baltic region that seeks to develop transport infrastructure with EU funding; they often advocate Xi’s Belt and Road initiative. The head of the delegation, Huang Xin 黄新, gave a talk on “Bridging Scandinavia with China through the new Silk Road”. The railway proposal was welcome as an improvement over Norway and Sweden’s disinterest in building “modern railways”; the news was reported in both countries.


Source: Grensekomiteen Värmland-Østfold.

Local prospective partners and journalists without China expertise failed to notice that the proposal came from a “rogue” entrepreneur whose authority to negotiate such a high-profile infrastructure investment was rather doubtful. As was quickly noted on social media, both organisations Huang Xin presumably represented have been reprimanded by the PRC government (he has also been a Huarong employee but wasn’t identified as such in accounts of the Norway visit). One, the China Association for Promoting International Economic and Technical Cooperation (CAPC, 中国国际经济技术合作促进会), which has seemingly been engulfed in a leadership dispute, was suspended for three months in 2017 for the misuse of the terms “civil-military fusion”, “Belt and Road” and “China” by one of its subsidiary entities. A name used by the other one, the China Overseas Investment Union (COIUN, 中国海外投资联合会), occurs on an official list of “rogue” or fake (shanzhai 山寨) entities.


Huang Xin with COIUN boss Zheng Shuai 郑帅. Source: COIUN.

The bubble burst when the issue attracted the attention of national media in Sweden. Hanna Sahlberg, the state broadcaster’s Beijing correspondent, contacted CAPC, who denied even knowing Huang or his Oslo mission.

Cursory due diligence would have raised red flags about Huang Xin: whatever their legitimate activities and evidence of Party-state connections, both organisations he was said to represent seemed to be on the wrong side of the government not long before the encounter; when asked, one of the organisations denied even knowing the envoy. An American or European visitor of unclear affiliation would have hardly been taken as a serious interlocutor for a multi-billion project without further inquiry, and such suspicious signs as the ones surrounding Huang would have probably paused any discussion. Blind faith in BRI prodigality (‘the scattering of monies’), however, makes people forget the need for due diligence.

Influence for free: leverage without investment

The uncritical reception even a seemingly “rogue” entrepreneur can expect from some local partners shows how fertile the ground is for the localisation approach. Especially in societies where propaganda efforts have not yet succeeded in engineering a sufficiently favourable climate, the administrative decentralisation typical of Western countries can be exploited to compartmentalise interactions, confining them to more manageable locales. Although projects like “Lysekina” have faced difficulties once they spilled into the larger media environment, the potential for localised success is clear throughout the region.

In an example of a positive attitude, the head of a company owned by Sør-Varanger municipality in northern Norway, whose seat is Kirkenes, recently interpreted the Arctic White Paper as a sign that “the Chinese state” supports their development “vision”, including long-discussed plans for an “Arctic railway” to Finland that should turn the coastal town into “the Rotterdam of the Arctic”. Local officials have indeed adopted Xi’s “silk road” vocabulary.

The Nordic examples in this piece illustrate the potential of localisation tactics for the success of Xi’s geopolitical ‘Belt and Road’ strategy. The scenario is, however, not specific to Nordic locales. In a French example, Huawei’s ‘smart cityproject in Valenciennes seemed well received locally, with the mayor calling it “a €2bn gift to the city”. Beyond Europe, local government enthusiasm is easy to find, for example, in New Zealand, where an interesting example is provided by the links between Southland Mayor Gary Tong and noted United Frontling Zhang Yikun 张乙坤, noted for his political donations.


A New Zealand council welcomes a local Xiist lobbying group and ‘their’ BRI. Source: NZCC.

In the Nordics, a degree of success is already visible in the form of local-level interest in BRI, even before a concrete case for the initiative as beneficial to local communities can be made based on concrete Chinese plans. The importance of discourse engineering is demonstrated by cases where a reigning perception that Xi and his initiative might bring large investments has been effective in the absence of actual economic leverage. ‘Positive energy’ (正能量) on BRI gives the CCP influence over foreign societies essentially for free. The ‘normalisation’ of Norway, achieved despite the PRC’s inability to exert real economic pressure after the Nobel prize to Liu Xiaobo, remains the best example. A Finnish minister’s nervous hesitation (29:54) when asked if the PRC is a dictatorship during an interview on vague cooperation plans could be a sign of things to come.

In the long term, Xi’s global expansion of United Front and propaganda work should successfully cultivate political and business elites, media entities and, crucially, the next generation of China scholars, in order to engineer favourable environments at the national and European level as well. In the meantime, localisation tactics offer considerable potential for the implementation of Xi’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative and other CCP strategies.

[Thanks to Chris Button, Magnus Fiskesjö, Andreas Bøje Forsby, Nadège Rolland, Matt Schrader, Geoff Wade and Andréa Worden]


A new Comintern for the New Era: The CCP International Department from Bucharest to Reykjavík

[By Jichang Lulu and Martin Hála. Also published on Sinopsis and China Digital Times.]

The CCP’s efforts to cultivate foreign political parties and generate an appreciative consensus around Xi Jinping’s policies have now reached Iceland. During a visit by the CCP International Liaison Department (ILD, 中共中央对外联络部), Icelandic MPs had a chance to learn about “Xi Jinping Thought” and pose for pictures with a copy of Xi Jinping’s magnum opus The Governance of China.


MPs including Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir (with Xi Jinping’s book), Smári McCarthy and Ari Trausti Guðmundsson meet ILD vice director Wang Yajun. Source: ILD.

Two weeks ago, an ILD delegation headed by Wang Yajun 王亚军, one of its vice directors, visited Iceland, as part of a three-country tour that also visited Nepal and Cyprus. The following account of the meeting appeared on 2 August on the ILD’s official website:

At the invitation of Iceland’s foreign ministry, ILD vice-chair Wang Yajun led a delegation to visit Iceland between 31 July and 2 August, meeting with the chairman of the Independence Party [(Sjálfstæðisflokkur)] and minister of finance and economic affairs, Bjarni] Benediktsson, former president [Ólafur Ragnar] Grímsson, [and] the chair of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, [Áslaug Arna] Sigurbjörnsdóttir, deepening exchanges with the various main political parties, and promoting and introducing to persons from various sectors of society Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and the situation of the Chinese side’s implementation of the spirit of the 19th Congress [of the Communist Party].

Xi Jinping Thought or weather talk

While the ILD was quick to propagandise the success of the trip, no public announcement of it was made in Iceland. News about the visit spread among ‘China watchers’ on social media after a few days, originating with the Party Watch Initiative’s Weekly Report, which regularly covers the activities of the ILD and other Party departments.

News eventually reached the Icelandic press. Only after Icelandic journalists had started to work on coverage of the visit did an announcement emerge on the website of the Icelandic Cabinet, a full week after the ILD’s own account.

Representatives of the Communist Party of China, CPC, visited Iceland a few days ago and requested a meeting with Bjarni Benediktsson, the Minister for Finance and Economic Affairs. During the meeting, the CPC representatives explained the party’s ideas for increased cooperation with other countries.

At the meeting, the Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs reviewed the state of the Icelandic economy, developments since the 2008 economic crisis and a comparison with other OECD countries.


Iceland’s minister for finance and economic affairs Bjarni Benediktsson with ILD vice director Wang Yajun. Source: Stjórnarráð Íslands.

DV then reported on the visit, with quotes from participating MPs. Their recollection of the “exchanges” with the CCP cadres differed from the ILD’s official account. None of the parliamentarians mentioned Xi Jinping Thought or the spirit of the 19th Congress. Smári McCarthy of the Pirate Party (Píratar) talked of a “diplomatic reception” with “much talk about the weather”.

Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir, secretary of the Independence Party and chair of the Althing’s foreign affairs committee, told DV that she “spoke openly” to the ILD officials about “the importance of human rights in Iceland’s foreign policy”. The answer she recalls, with the ‘out-of-poverty’ trope, will be familiar to our readers. The CCP’s long-time efforts to dilute the concept of human rights follow the age-old ‘look, puppies!’ recipe: economic growth exists, the people benefit, and any human rights abuses are irrelevant. At the UN Human Rights Council, of which Iceland is now a member, the PRC has garnered the support of governments from Eritrea to Venezuela to pass resolutions advocating the concept of “human rights with Chinese characteristics” Áslaug was likely told about. If anything, Áslaug’s satisfaction that she raised human rights with the ILD visitors only serves to validate the CCP’s claim to hold a ‘dialogue’ where the voice of rights abusers drowns that of the victims.

Unusually for someone concerned with human rights, Áslaug Arna chose to pose for a picture with writings by the head of a human rights-abusing regime. Under Xi Jinping’s apartheid-like security crackdown in Xinjiang, possibly over a million Uyghurs are interned in ‘reeducation’ camps.

Áslaug did not reply to a request for comment.

The finance ministry told Kvennablaðið that human rights were not discussed in Bjarni’s meeting with the ILD. The conversation was about Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, among other topics.

Roads of influence

On the same day that news about the ILD meeting reached the Icelandic public, Björn Bjarnason, a journalist and Independence Party politician who was a minister under six cabinets, published an op-ed on China in Morgunblaðið. Titled “Chinese pressure, near and far”, the article calls on Iceland to maintain its indepndence in the face of pressures it can expect once it assumes the Arctic Council chairmanship next year.

Björn’s piece notes China’s interest in becoming a ‘polar great power’ (极地强国), officially proclaimed at Xi Jinping’s 2014 speech in Hobart. He discusses the case of Greenland, where certain aspects of the PRC’s interests, such as CCCC’s possible involvement in airport development and General Nice (俊安集团)’s attempt to buy a derelict naval base, have led to Danish and American concerns. In Iceland, he points to the long-delayed Kárhóll Chinese-Icelandic Aurora Observatory project, predicting its eventual opening will attract international attention as a sign of China’s assertiveness in the Arctic. Kárhóll will give China “an important foothold” in Iceland.

Björn places the PRC’s Arctic interests within the context of a push for global influence, and mentions the newly introduced anti-interference legislation in Australia.

The CCP’s influence activities in Australia are not, in fact, disjoint from the ILD’s Reykjavík lesson in Xi Jinping Thought. A central role in political influence operations is being played by the United Front (UF) system. A Leninist creation originally imposed on the CCP in the early 1920s, this set of cooptation tactics eventually developed into a major institutionalised area of the PRC political system. Under Xi Jinping, it has gone global. United Front activities are being studied in an increasing number of locations. To mention just three: Hamilton and Joske’s 2017 parliamentary submission provides an overview of United Front groups in Australia; Anne-Marie Brady’s Magic Weapons proposes an influence ‘template’ illustrated in the New Zealand case; Sinopsis and Jichang Lulu’s ongoing collaboration on the CCP’s influence activities in Central-Eastern Europe has described a piece of the Czech United Front puzzle.

The United Front is not, however, the only avenue for Xi’s extension of the CCP’s domestic and diasporic control tactics to the global domain. The Propaganda system seeks to obtain global ‘discourse power’ through tactics that range from attempted extraterritorial censorship to overt and covert propaganda outlets. (An Icelandic version of the latter once attracted some attention.)

From Stalin to Xi

The ILD is another tool of foreign influence. Like other core areas of the political system, the ILD traces its origins to the Soviet management of the world Communist movement. One or more departments governing relations with fellow Communist parties (in power or not) are a feature of Leninist systems. The ILD is similar in name to a secretive Comintern intelligence agency (Отдел международных связей). Post-Comintern, its Soviet analogue was Stalin’s International Department (Международный отдел). The predecessors of the Chinese ILD were Party sections that conducted relations with the Comintern, and later an office whose functions included “researching the revolutionary potential” of Eastern countries and the diaspora. The Department was formally established in 1951. The Sino-Soviet split made it focus on aggressively countering the USSR, supporting splinter groups against orthodox pro-Soviet parties. After the Cultural Revolution, it turned to restoring relations with an expanding circle of Communist and, since the mid-1980s, non-Communist parties. As the DV piece remembers, Geng Biao 耿飚, once an envoy to Scandinavia, visited Iceland in 1979 as vice premier, months after leaving his post as head of the ILD.)


Vísir, 8 June 1979, one day before the end of Geng Biao’s visit. Source: Tímarit.

True to its nearly centenary history, the modern ILD still maintains especially close relations with Communist parties, in particular those in power. The current ILD chief, Song Tao, is often involved in high-level contacts with North Korea. While contacts with mainstream politicians are increasingly frequent, the ILD continues to nurture relations with even insignificant foreign Communist parties, such as the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), whose vice president was invited to Karl Marx’s 200th birthday party in Shenzhen, organised by the ILD.

Contrary to the impression some Icelandic MPs seem to have received, the ILD’s functions go beyond weather talk. Shambaugh’s classic study of the ILD lists among its tasks “collecting current intelligence“ on the politics and societies of foreign countries. Brady lists the ILD among the main Party-state organisations recruiting intelligence agents abroad. Gitter and Bowie note the role of the ILD and its front groups in efforts to “constrain” Taiwan’s diplomacy. A candid view of the ILD’s intelligence role was provided in the Czech intelligence service BIS’s 2015 annual report:

In 2015, the dominant Chinese intelligence force in the Czech Republic was military intelligence, whose activities supplemented the efforts of a specific Chinese intelligence organisation, the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party. This is an agency under the Central Committee of the CCP, whose remit includes, besides foreign relations, intelligence activities.

This assessment has not deterred many Czech politicians from making the ILD their main point of contact during visits to the PRC.

The rise of the New Comintern

Xi’s global expansion of the CCP’s toolkit is accelerating the ILD’s embrace of foreign ‘bourgeois’ parties. However, not everyone wants to play along; in the West, each ‘friendly’ contact achieved with the political mainstream, like the Reykjavík meeting, is still significant. In Western Europe, post-Communist and other leftist parties are still the ILD’s best friends. Last July, ILD director Song Tao and vice director Qian Hongshan 钱洪山 received a delegation from the Party of the European Left, led by Gregor Gysi of Die Linke who heaped praise on the CCP as a model for European left-wing parties to learn from.

In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), managed by the same ILD bureau as the post-Soviet space, old Communist ties still survive to some extent and provide a basis for the rightward growth of ‘friendly contacts’. The ILD’s favourite interlocutor in the Czech Republic is the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM, Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy). Last year, the Party’s current Chairman, Vojtěch Filip, listed as an agent under the cover name “Falmer” in Communist-era Secret Police (StB) files, even posed for a picture with ILD head Song Tao 宋涛 for a promotional calendar distributed by the PRC embassy in Prague that highlighted major achievements in the newfound Sino-Czech Friendship.


Czech Communist leader Vojtěch Filip (“Falmer”) with ILD head Song Tao in 2016. Source: PRC Embassy in Prague

Like in Iceland, the ILD’s visits to the Czech Republic are sometimes only reluctantly publicised. In November 2016, ILD sent their “assistant minister” (部长助理) Li Jun 李军 to the annual China Investment Forum in Prague, after PM Li Keqiang abruptly cancelled his visit over the growth of local anti-CCP sentiment that followed a series of embarrassing incidents. His sudden appearance was not publicly announced, and even the event organisers were at loss as to his status, apparently not figuring out in the protocol that he was now the most senior Chinese visitor, far above the Chinese ambassador.

Similarly, when Jan Hamáček of the Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), who as Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies is the fourth highest constitutional figure, attended the ILD-organised “Meeting of Political Parties from China and CEE” (中国—中东欧政党对话会) in Bucharest the following year, there was no public record of him even leaving the country. Only after Sinopsis broke the story did sketchy details emerge.

The Bucharest gathering was also interesting in other respects. It was already the second such meeting bringing together representatives from various CEE political parties and ILD cadres. The first one took place in Budapest, Hungary, a year earlier. The Bucharest meeting was attended, on the Chinese side, by Liu Yunshan 刘云山, at that point the 5th-ranking CCP Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of ideology. (He has since been sidelined.) On the CEE side, there was a mixture of parties ranging from the usual (post-)Communist suspects to more opportunistic friends, such as the Polish People’s Party (PSL, Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe).

All hail humankind‘s shared New Era

Neither “16+1” meeting of political parties was much publicised. They were, in fact, rehearsals for the big-time event, the “World Political Parties Dialogue” held by the ILD in Beijing in December 2017 under a somewhat clumsy title: Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting (中国共产党与世界政党高层对话会). This was, in essence, an ILD coming-out party, showing its power to convene representatives of, supposedly, 300 political parties from 120 countries (a full list was never made public). A previously secretive organization came out into the limelight.

The purpose of the meeting was to reach nothing less than a consensus on the future of humankind. That task apparently went smoothly, with a healthy dose of lecturing on the spirit the 19th Congress. Participants got copies of Xi Jinping’s book. The new consensus for the future of mankind was then enshrined in the “Beijing Initiative (北京倡议)”. It “applauds” Xi‘s “full and rigorous governance” of the Party, improving its “ability to govern and lead” and generate “historic achievements” and other desirable effects. Attendees called for “win-win cooperation” before expressing their “heartfelt appreciation” for the ILD.

Two Antipodean visitors to the Dialogue may provide a taste of humankind’s brave new Shared Future. From New Zealand Labour Party president Nigel Haworth, noted for his praise of Xi Jinping’s “wise leadership”, spoke highly of Xi’s “very brave step” as he tries to “lead the world”. Former Australian Labor politician Bob Carr, who now heads a CCP-‘optimistic’ institution set up with UF-linked donations, was also there.


Bob Carr with then ILD assistant director Wang Yajun on the sidelines of the CPC “dialogue”, 2 Dec 2017. Source: ILD.

The “summit” illustrated the ILD’s innovative concept of “friendly contacts” without ideological constraints. Unlike its Soviet and Maoist predecessors, the facelifted ILD will not just make friends with Communist and revolutionary parties. In the “New Era”, it will work with whoever implicitly recognises the CCP’s role in a “Community of Shared Future for Humankind”, without necessarily understanding what that actually means. Cooptation tactics become truly universal, with the ILD as a central hinge.

Beyond intelligence gathering and ‘weather talk’, the ILD plays a role in the CCP’s efforts to shape global discourse and build an international consensus endorsing its authoritarian political system. Foreign political parties, from Bucharest to Reykjavík, aren’t its only targets. As the next piece in this series will show, the ILD’s purview within the Xiist discourse-management enterprise extends well beyond professional politics. The propaganda goods Iceland’s MPs delivered to the ILD fall, however, within a newly-normal genre: what Gitter calls “push[ing] China’s vision of the future” with politicians both in power and opposition, building up “reserves of foreign influencers” able to ensure long-term CCP-friendly policies.

All the world’s a stage

After news of the ILD visit became known, Björn Bjarnason wrote a post on his blog, intended as a “supplement” to his Morgunblaðið article on Chinese “pressure”. Comparing the ILD’s official account of the meeting to the explanations by Icelandic participants, Björn notes that the latter might not have been aware that they were “actually taking part in a scene staged on behalf of the Communist Party”. What they saw as a “courtesy visit where they talked about the weather” was presented in China as “promoting Xi Jinping Thought to Iceland’s political parties”.

Plays so staged that foreign and local audiences may perceive them differently are the Party’s trademark. For years, the CCP has sustained such differential messaging in the Arctic, exploiting a general lack of familiarity with China and its political system. If Iceland and other countries in the region intend to preserve their interests in asymmetric relations with China, their political, business and scientific élites may wish to understand their counterparts better. As long as only the CCP knows what’s going on, ‘win-win cooperation’ will mean it wins twice.

[Thanks to Geoff Wade and Anne-Marie Brady]


UN with Chinese Characteristics: Elite Capture and Discourse Management on a global scale

[By Sinopsis and Jichang Lulu; also published on China Digital Times]

The PRC’s involvement in UN affairs has been on the rise in recent years. It has become one of the largest contributors to the organisation, in terms of both funds and soldiers. Now it wants influence. 

True to its attention to propaganda, the CCP has made it a major goal of its UN work to maximise its ‘discursive power’ at the organisation, seeking to redefine ‘human rights’ and get Xi Jinping’s pet initiatives institutionally endorsed by an international body. These goals, repeatedly stated by authoritative sources, are being pursued through both diplomacy and other means. 

Specialised CCP organs like the United Front Work Department and party-linked entities like CEFC employ some unorthodox tactics. These tactics, including elite capture and bribery, are applied both locally in vulnerable countries, and globally at the world’s foremost multilateral body. Some actors flawlessly span the whole range from individual East European and African states all the way to top UN officials. Evidence from recent court cases suggests a pattern of global interference combining both local and global “political work”.


The UN talks the Xi-Talk

Growing Chinese influence has made UN officials more and more willing to explicitly support the CCP’s political, economic and purely propagandistic projects. The PRC has managed to pass two resolutions at the Human Rights Council (HRC). The most recent one, in March, promoted “mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights”together with such illustrious champions of said field as Eritrea, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela. The first resolution invoked a favourite concept of Xi Jinping’s, the “community of shared future”, thus officially making  Xi-speak (习语) part of the UN lingo.

Controlling discourse at the UN human-rights system has been a priority for the CCP since the PR-debacle it suffered post-Tian’anmen. Tactics to impose “human rights with Chinese characteristics” have ranged from usual diplomacy to more characteristic intimidation. A central goal is to obstruct the work of NGOs within the UN system, embedding the CCP’s abhorrence of civil society into a new global ‘human-rights’ normal. 

In what a former HRC special rapporteur has called a “Trojan horse”, the vague ‘win-win’ language in the UN resolutions channels a state-centric approach that sees human rights as primarily the rights of rulers. Not long ago, the CCP had to rely on a few bizarre characters to promote its ‘human rights’ redefinition: from Tom Zwart, a Dutch academic who finds talk of repression “unfair to the progress in human rights under Xi”, to a mysterious  “Human Rights Co., Ltd” of New South Wales. The HRC is now part of that club and this language infiltrates its resolutions. The US withdrawal from the Council will further accelerate this process. 


The PRC joins like-minded states in the pursuit of mutual benefit. Source: UNHRC.

Xi Jinping’s ‘discursive power (话语权)’ isn’t limited to the human-rights system. International endorsements of Xi’s pet ‘Belt and Road’ initiative (BRI) are a major goal of propaganda efforts involving media, domestic and foreign like-minded think tanks, and various multilateral organisations. “Multilateralist” language has indeed been recognised as a tool to “dispel misgivings” about Xi’s geopolitical project. When conducting “external propaganda [对外宣传, exoprop]”, instead of haranguing countries to “participate in the construction of the ‘Belt and Road’”, implying a leading role for China, one should call for countries to “cooperate” in such construction: with China, but also “with each other, multilaterally”. China’s Belt and Road should not be called “China’s Belt and Road”; “let us stress ‘us’, not ‘me’”. The predilection for the term ‘initiative’ over ‘strategy’ in external propaganda reflects this: although we don’t deny that the Belt and Road is part of the national strategy, when “propagandising and explaining it” abroad we can’t call it “a national strategy led by one country”: “would a country want to participate in another’s national strategy?” In this quest for multilateral-sounding backing, the UN was the big prize.


Discourse management at the UNDP

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) provided a suitable avenue. In early 2015, in a journal under the State Council Development Research Center (DRC, 国务院发展研究中心),  Wang Yiwei 王义桅, a senior BRI-proselytising academic with his own column on the People’s Daily theory website, advocated “integrating the Belt and Road into the [UNDP] Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, implementing the 18th Party Congress ‘Five-in-One’ [五位一体] concept” and “building a green Silk Road”. Propaganda portal Zhongguo wang 中国网 reposted Wang’s article on 4 May, coinciding with a Beijing visit by the head of the UNDP, former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark. Talking to state media, Clark was at that point still non- committal about BRI. She was more receptive towards efforts to associate BRI with the UNDP 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Less than a month after the Agenda’s adoptionshe told Xi and others in Beijing that China’s “commitment” to his BRI project helped make the country “a major contributor to development co-operation”. 

On the same trip, she had a chance to discuss BRI and an attendant discourse-management endeavour, the Silk Road Think-Tank Network (丝路国际智库网络), at the signature of an agreement with the DRC.  By early 2016, an SIIS paper was already celebrating the expected propaganda milestone: the convergence between BRI and the Sustainable Development Agenda “helps China obtain more discursive power and influence within the new international system of development governance and even the entire global governance architecture.” Mid-year, Xi himself linked BRI to the Agenda at a meeting with secretary general Ban Ki-moon. The Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), a UN department described by a European diplomat as “a Chinese enterprise”, endorsed the BRI-Agenda link in a study commissioned by the PRC State Information Center (SIC, 国家信息中心) and written by a DESA employee who began his career at the SIC’s predecessor entity. 

In September, now campaigning for UN secretary general, Clark signed a memorandum with the National Development and Reform Commission “to enhance collaboration” for the “implementation” of BRI and the Agenda, this time literally pledging the organisation’s “support for the Belt and Road Initiative”. Clark praised Xi’s Initiative, a “powerful platform” that “can serve as an important catalyst and accelerator for the sustainable development goals”. Clark would later deny any connection between her support for BRI and her campaign for the top UN job, during which her successor as New Zealand prime minister helpfully opined she was “recognised as a friend of China”. She lost (ironically blocked by, among others, China), but the winner, António Guterres, endorsed BRI at the 2017 Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Post-Clark, UNDP has preserved her Xiist legacy.


Li Wei 李伟, head of the Development Research Center of the State Council, and then UNDP Administrator Helen Clark oversee the signature of an MoU, October 2015. Source: DRC.

Guterres’ promotion of BRI as a useful tool to fight poverty blissfully disregards multiplestudies warning that the Initiative can lead poor countries into a “debt trap”. Perhaps the same logic lies behind his praise for the PRC’s diplomatic efforts in solving the Korean crisis, despite its violation of UN sanctions by shipping oil to North Korea.


CEFC at work locally and globally 

The CCP presumably owes these propaganda victories at the UN to good old diplomatic horse trading, sheer economic size and some harassment. But its growing influence has also been accompanied by a striking, unprecedented phenomenon: a series of corruption scandals reaching to the top levels of the organisation. Surfacing cases of bribery raise suspicions that China is effectively buying the UN, top down. 

This approach appears to mirror at a global level the PRC’s tactics in its bilateral relationships with individual states, especially the more vulnerable ones in Africa, Latin America, SE Asia and Eastern Europe. “Elite capture” in many of these countries has been accompanied by reports of and court indictments for outright corruption at the highest political level. Moreover, reported cases of global and local corruption intertwine, linked by specific actors operating both at the level of nation states and the UN system. Among these, perhaps the most curious is a mysterious Chinese conglomerate called CEFC. Various parts of the company have been connected with elite capture in Eastern Europetop-level political corruption in Africa, and bribery at the UN headquarters in New York. 

The director of CEFC’s non-profit subsidiary, former Hong Kong official Patrick Ho (何志平), was indicted last year in the US, accused of bribing several African politicians, including Ugandan foreign minister Sam Kutesa, former president of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Coinciding with his arrest, CEFC donated 1 million USD to the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA, the UN organ described as “a Chinese enterprise”). Just a day after Ho’s arrest, both the UN secretary general and UNGA president excused themselves from attending the ceremony to award a $1m DESA grant with “funding support” from CEFC. But DESA still kept the money.

According to the indictment, Patrick Ho had 500 000 USD wired to an account chosen by Kutesa, months after making CEFC chairman Ye Jianming, Ho’s boss, his “special honorary advisor” as UNGA president. (Kutesa denies the allegation.) Ho has been quoted as claiming that the case is not just against him, but against CEFC and the Belt and Road.


Sam Kutesa, UN General Assembly president, CEFC chairman Ye Jianming and his second in command, Chan Chauto 陈秋途 at Ye’s appointment as advisor. August 2015. Source.

Earlier that year, in April 2015, Ye had been appointed “economic advisor” to Czech president Miloš Zeman. (Except for one news item on the Chinese internet, Ye’s Czech appointment would remain unreported until September that year.) Ye Jianming is currently being held by the Chinese authorities at an unknown location.


Vratislav Mynář, head of the office of Czech president Miloš Zeman, Ye Jianming and Chan Chauto at Ye’s appointment as advisor. April 2015. Source.


Serial Corruption at the UNGA

Remarkably, these accusations against CEFC are already the second case of a UNGA’s president bribed by Chinese entities. Last May, Macau tycoon Ng Lap Seng 吴立胜 was sentenced to 4 years in prison for bribing Kutesa’s predecessor as UNGA president, the Antiguan John Ashe, and a Dominican deputy ambassador to the UN, Francis Lorenzo. The indictment claimed that Ng spent more than $1.3m to get the UN to support the construction of a large UN conference centre in Macau; in exchange for bribe money, Ashe and Lorenzo submitted to the UN secretary general a document stating that the conference centre would “support the UN’s global development goals”. In other words, Ng’s bribery had similar goals to those pursued by the PRC through usual diplomatic channels (with the addition of direct profit for Ng’s company). Ashe died while awaiting trial. Ng claimed the case was politically motivated. He was found guilty on all counts.

At the time he bribed Ashe and Lorenzo, Ng was a sitting member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), an advisory body part the United Front system that did not expel him despite his arrest. He was not reappointed last January.

CEFC also interacted with Ashe. In 2014, DESA and CEFC’s think tank co-organised an event about China’s urbanisation plans, with PRC academics as speakers, Patrick Ho as moderator and Ashe as “officiating guest”. An announcement for the event published by DESA, written in a style somewhat resembling Ho’s own, asserts CEFC’s dedication to “the post-2015 development goals”. The event was hailed by PRC state media. Not three months earlier, Ashe had attended a CEFC-organised “Luncheon talk” in Hong Kong, where he delivered a speech titled “The Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage!”. 


UNGA president John Ashe, bribed by CPPCC member Ng Lap Seng, with CEFC chairman Ye Jianming at a CEFC event in Hong Kong. April 2014. Source.

CEFC has also cultivated Ashe’s predecessor, Vuk Jeremić, former Serbian minister of foreign affairs. After he left office in 2013, the Chinese company hired him as a consultant. His cooperation with CEFC included “[d]iscussing […] China and the New Silk Road” with Patrick Ho, who lectured at Jeremić’s think tank on BRI and the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda. Jeremić also moderated a CEFC event with Wang Yiwei, the BRI-UN harmonisation advocate cited above, and a Silk and Road forum with DRC director Li Wei as keynote speaker. Serbian media claim CEFC has donated money to Jeremić’s think tank.


The Australian connection

Two consecutive UNGA presidents being bribed is hardly a coincidence. Moreover, the Ashe and Kutesa cases are personally linked: Kutesa’s wife was a board member at the Global Sustainable Development Foundation, an organisation used by Sheri Yan (严时玮), the “Queen of the Australia-China social scene”, to bribe Ashe “in exchange for official actions […] to benefit several Chinese businessmen”. The arrangement, which began before Ashe’s presidency, and continued through and after it, involved Ashe’s appointment as (remunerated) “honorary chairman” of the Foundation and its later reincarnation, the Global Sustainability Foundation. She pled guilty in 2016 and was handed a 20-month sentence.

In China, Yan’s Foundation enjoyed a disproportionate degree of access given its novelty and vacuity. Two months before Yan’s arrest, Chinese media reported, the Foundation bestowed an appointment to a former Shenzhen propaganda chief and counsellor to the State Council at no less a venue than the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. Sheri Yan was there, accompanying not Ashe but his successor Kutesa. Yan has used her CCP connections to facilitate Australian access in China, and, allegedly, vice versa: an Australian media investigation claims she “introduced an alleged Chinese spy to her Australian contacts”.

Yan’s Ashe-pampering included arranging for the dignitary to attend a private conference in his official capacity, hosted by “a real-estate developer” whom the indictment names only as “C[o-]C[onspirator]-3”, who was not himself charged. “One of [CC-3]’s companies” paid Ashe a $200k fee for his attendance. Although it doesn’t name him, the indictment (p. 33 ff.) provides sufficient information to identify CC-3. As open, authoritative sources show, the date for the conference (17 Nov 2013), where Ashe “gave a speech”, points to the event held at a venue provided by Kingold Group (侨鑫集团), owned by Chinese-Australian billionaire Chau Chak Wing 周泽荣. Its official agenda, in Chinese and English, shows both Ashe and Chau spoke at the event; the official Kingold website also bilingually summarises his speech. The event was widely reported online by state media, in Chinese (CCP News) and English (China Daily). In short, if the quotes in the US indictment are correct, CC-3 is indeed Chau. 

Chau has sued local journalist John Garnaut for defamation over a piece that reached similar conclusions. Based on the reasoning above, however, Chau’s identification, which Garnaut claims to have confirmed with additional sources, can only be called solid journalism. Moreover, Andrew Hastie, chairman of the Australian parliament’s joint intelligence and security committee, recently confirmed he had learnt “from US authorities” that CC-3 is Chau, and that he had not been indicted for “reasons that are best not disclosed”. Chau, whose links to the United Front system are well-documented, has generously donated to both sides of Australian politics, as well as to various causes. 

As quoted in the US indictment, “CC-3” seemed to share the PRC’s interest in UN affairs: Ashe’s “sincere friend” in Guangdong “has the pleasure to offer you a permanent convention venue for the UN meetings on the sustainability and climate changes [sic] in the efforts to fully realize the Millennium Development Goals.”


New world a-comin’…

Despite charges of high-level bribery, the non-profit subsidiary of CEFC, China Energy Fund Committee, 中华能源基金委员会), still holds the title of special consultant to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC), whose current chair is Czech diplomat Marie Chatardová.

Czech President Zeman has supported Chatarodová both for the ECOSOC position and as possible minister for minister of foreign affairs in discussions on cabinet formation. Zeman, known for his pro-Beijing stance, has not dismissed his own honorary advisor, the ex-chairman of CEFC, Ye Jianming, who is now detained by the Chinese authorities at an unknown location. Similarly, the non-profit wing of CEFC remains in ECOSOC even as its leader Patrick Ho lingers in US custody on corruption charges. 


ECOSOC chair Marie Chatardová with Czech President Miloš Zeman. New York, September 2017. Source.

Chatardová and other high-ranking UN officials had been declining to comment on the situation despite repeated requests from Inner City Press, a project specialised in investigative journalism within international institutions such as the UN or the World Bank. 

After repeated inquiries from both Inner City Press and Czech media, the UN finally released a statement on June 5 explaining that Chatardová could not have done anything to dismiss CEFC, as that power lies with member states. Further communication with the Czech mission at the UN clarified that the corruption charges against one of their associates have not even been discussed at ECOSOC. The only official body interested in the corruption at the top of the UN seems to be the FBI.

It is hard not to see a connection between the corruption cases in the United Nations and the rise of China’s “discursive power” in the organisation. As top UN officials get arrested for corruption by Chinese actors, the global body increasingly adopts Beijing’s narrative on a new “Globalisation 2.0”, epitomised by the Belt and Road Initiative. The strange happenings at the UN could indeed offer glimpses of this new world coming. 

[Edit (Nov 28): Fixed typo in the name of the NDRC. Thanks to Twitter user @LeniDiamond.]

My name is Wu, James Wu: The United Front in the Czech Republic

[By Sinopsis and Jichang Lulu]

The Czech president’s bromance with CEFC has most saliently illustrated the intensity of CCP influence in the country’s high politics, teeming with links to the Party’s International Liaison Department (ILD). However, in the shadow of this high drama, the United Front (UF) system, famous for its Antipodean prowess, is also active in the Czech Republic, cultivating lower-level decision makers below the media radar. There are many foot soldiers in this more pedestrian side show, but one in particular stands out. His name is Wu. James Wu.

Czech president Miloš Zeman famously appointed CEFC chairman Ye Jianming 叶简明 as his ‘advisor’. Ostensibly a private businessman, Ye has been linked to CAIFC, a ‘friendly contact’ organization under the Central Military Commission’s Liaison Department. CEFC has since fallen out of favour, in what some interpret as a move to prevent international bribery allegations involving the company from reaching the Party itself (‘forsaking a soldier to save the general’ (舍率保帅) was the idiom chosen by Chinese writer Yu Jie 余杰). CEFC’s Czech creditors and CITIC, involved in its nationalization, are now fighting over its local assets. (Oblivious to the debacle, Zeman still officially keeps ‘friendly contact’ Ye at his advisory post, without clarifying what advice can possibly be sent from an undisclosed location where the Chairman is now held for internal Party investigation.) Apart from Zeman’s peculiar choice of advisors, the Party’s International Liaison Department (ILD) can also boast of friendly exchanges with the Czech political élite.

The ILD’s friendly Czech liaising with political elites have left the United Front with smaller fish to fry, but its role within the CCP’s foreign policy shouldn’t be underestimated. Discreet contacts with local organizations attempt to make ties and deals faits accomplis before the media notices, thus preempting what Beijing’s propaganda officials call the ‘China threat theory’ (中国威胁论). In decentralized administrations and free media environments, such local work can provide better results than the kind of high-level engagement seen in Cambodia, Chad or at Prague Castle. Top level politicians get voted out of power; grassroots links often tend to prove more durable.

A discussion of UF tactics in the Czech Republic  can hardly avoid acknowledging the common Stalinist heritage. After some reluctance, the CCP came to like the UF policy imposed on it (cogently expounded by Stalin in 1927). It greatly expanded it, turning it into a tool to co-opt not just the political parties typical of the Leninist concept, but also business groups, religions and secret societies. Meanwhile, Czechoslovakia also got its ‘national front’ as a gift from Uncle Joe, as an increasingly Communist-led coalition after the war, destined to eventually demote its non-Communist partners to an ancillary role. Despite Mao’s claims that the CCP had become independent of the Comintern by the mid-’30s, as late as 1947 he wrote to Stalin about his wish to “study the work of the national front” in Eastern Europe. In the Czech Republic and elsewhere in the region, Beijing’s UF work just brings back home a tactic that should sound vaguely familiar. The Xiist ‘Community of Common Destiny’ (命运共同体) Czech politicians recently signed up for at the ILD’s invitation could perhaps be better called a ‘Community of a resurgent Comintern’.


Making friends in Olomouc

Olomouc, a city of 100 000, is mainly known for its historical landmarks. Less well-known is the flourishing of a provincial version of the Czech-China druzhba that brings together local Czech politicians and Chinese businesspeople with colorful connections. In cooperation with the independent media outlet Hlídací pes, Sinopsis has mapped a web of local connections all going back to one man, James Wu (Wu Ruizhen 吴瑞珍). Strange things happen. Town squares in Prague get blocked from protestors. Provincial “embassies” of the region are being opened in China.


Olomouc “embassy” to Fujian. Source: CECDC.

The first time Wu, originally from Fujian province, appeared in Czech media was in 2008, when he lost his goods to a fire at an Asian market in Prague. His name resurfaced again in 2016, when one of his “trade” organizations booked prominent public spaces during Xi Jinping’s visit in Prague, thus effectively blocking protesters from meeting the general secretary face to face. Wu founded the Czech-Chinese Trade Association in 2009, but left it two years later and established another organization, the China-Europe Cooperation and Development Center.



A presentation on the Olomouc office in Fujian, by Roman Spáčil and James Wu.


The Office was run at the Czech end by an Olomouc businessman, Roman Spáčil. He was  introduced to Wu by a senator ) for SPO, a party based on personal loyalty to President Zeman. He was also behind the establishment of an Olomouc “embassy” in Fujian, an institution with the stated primary goal of strengthening the cultural and trade relations between the two provinces. All with the financial and political support of the local government.


Roman Spáčil with James Wu. Ca. 2015. Source: CECDC.

Wu and Spáčil had big plans for the institution, but for no clear reason (all parties give different explanations) nothing came out of it and today there is only scarce information about what the Center is actually working on—if anything. The local government is unable to name any benefits of the above mentioned “embassy” or its current activities, three years after its establishment. According to Spáčil, it is Wu who is still responsible for the institution, now using the name Economic and Trade Coordination Centre of Olomouc Region. In his own words:  “It is all about making contacts. Also, there is no concrete project we could cooperate on.” At the same time, Wu claims to be the representative of Olomouc government in Fujian province in his own bio.


Good relations are the key

Wu’s main quality seems to be his ability to make contacts, as his former partner confirms:

“James has very good, even excellent long-term relations with top-level Fujian officials. I have started working on my other projects and we parted our ways,” says Spáčil. He also adds that Wu demanded as much access to Czech politicians as possible and to get pictures taken with them, which Spáčil rejected.


James Wu gets his picture taken with former PM Petr Nečas. 2016.

Excellent relations with top-level Fujian officials are also mentioned in documents prepared for the founding of the “embassy”, quoted by Hlídací pes.

Wu’s bio on the website of the European Confederation of Fujian Associations (欧洲福建侨团联合总会) can shed light on his prominence in United Front activities. Out of more than twenty members of the institution, Wu boasts the longest CV (most of the others only have photos next to their names). Only Dong An 董安, the chairman of the German Fujian Association, comes close.


Navigating the diaspora

James Wu graduated from Jimei University (集美大学) in Xiamen with a degree in maritime navigation. After school he worked at a Hong Kong logistics company, Orient Overseas Container Lines (OOCL). In 1997 he moved to Prague and entered the luxury furniture and shoe businesses. Since 2006, he has been “participating in events” organized by the the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council (OCAO, known by its abridged Chinese name Qiaoban 侨办), first at its Shanghai branch and later at the national and other regional levels. The Qiaoban, which, like many state organs, exists at the national, province and municipality levels, coordinates Overseas Chinese affairs (Qiaowu 侨务) across the PRC government.

Qiaowu is a major domain of CCP policy, dealing both with PRC citizens living abroad and foreign nationals of Chinese ancestry. James To, the author of the most complete study of the subject, describes Qiaowu as “a massive operation involving incorporation and co-optation of the [Overseas Chinese] at every level of society, and managing their behaviour and perceptions through incentive or disincentive to suit the situation and structural circumstances that the CCP desires”. Qiaowu is also a major aspect of United Front work: the United Front Work Department (UFWD) has always had a central role in guiding diaspora policy, now undergoing further institutional consolidation. Under Xi’s ongoing restructuring of the Party-state, the Qiaoban will cease to exist as a government organ to be absorbed into the UFWD, a Party department.


United Front tour on the way to the Expo

In 2010, Wu led a delegation of Czech businesspeople to the Shanghai Expo. “Along the way” they visited several local offices of the Qiaoban, the UFWD and the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce in Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Fujian. Everywhere they “established friendly cooperation relations”.

The UF system’s official recognition of Wu’s role came soon afterwards, through the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The CPPCC, a major UF body with committees at multiple levels of administration, has an “advisory” role to the government, and mostly consists of representatives of extra-Party groups vetted by the UFWD. Between 2012 and 2016, Wu was a member of the city-level committee of the CPPCC in Ningde 宁德, a municipality of 3 million in northern Fujian that includes his hometown.

His CPPCC role did not, however, stop at the city level. In 2013, he helped organize a visit to the Czech Republic by Zhang Changping 张昌平, then chairman of the Fujian province CPPCC. Wu’s bio claims he himself attended the Fujian CPPCC three times as a non-voting delegate, an important recognition. In an endorsement of his work in the Czech Republic, last year Yang Gensheng 杨根生, a vice chairman of the Fujian CPPCC, and the PRC ambassador attended the opening of the Czech-Fujian Association (捷克福建同乡会) presided by Wu.


Fujian CPPCC vice chairman attends the opening of the Czech-Fujian Association presided by James Wu. Prague, May 2017. Source: Ningde Qiaoban.

Wu himself says that he is now mainly focused on projects in Fujian through the China-Europe Cooperation and Development Center, but at the same time willing to help with culture exchange and other activities beneficial to Czech-Chinese friendship.


An accomplished networker

Wu keeps getting awards, praise, invitations and appointments from the Chinese authorities. Last January, his bio claims, he received an award for extraordinary individual contribution at the Belt and Road International Talents Award Ceremony from the hands of former vice-ministers of commerce and foreign affairs. The same month, he was invited to a Chinese New Year Celebration for senior retired officials and PLA officers, co-organized by popular spirit brand Kweichou Moutai.


Martial entertainment at a booze-themed VIP gala attended by James Wu. Beijing, January 2018. Source: Moutai.

Months ago, Wu appeared to jump across the division of labour among Sino-Czech influencers, rising from his United Front world to approach an orbit around CEFC. According to his bio, in February he became vice-chairman of the World Fujian Youth Organization. Another prominent Fujianese active in the Czech Republic, Chan Chauto (Chen Qiutu 陈秋途) was appointed chairman of the body. Chan was president of CEFC, a corporation plagued by corruption scandals at the UN and in Africa, until apparently falling from the CCP’s grace in recent months.

CEFC president Chan Chauto, Fujian CPPCC chairman Zhang Changping and James Wu.  Xiamen, September 2016. Source.

Before Ye Jianming’s fall, Wu claimed plans to cooperate with CEFC and praised its “grand” projects. He was looking for “the right time and the right project”; they just never came. Now that the tide has turned against CEFC, he might choose his words more carefully. As the CEFC saga has taught us, the CCP’s highest awards are no guarantee of permanent favour. Chairman Ye, disappeared since last winter, could surely confirm that. If CEFC’s flamboyance had a role in its undoing, United Frontlings like James Wu might want to stick to their more discreet approach.

great minds think alike: the People’s Daily (mis)copies Lulu

An early April story by Kou Jie 寇杰 for the English-language People’s Daily website (“Breaking the ice: China’s entry in the Arctic region”) displays remarkable similarities with my early February piece for CPI Analysis (“The Arctic White Paper and China’s Arctic Strategy”). Viz.,

me, February:


An Arctic strategy document had long been expected. Internationally, China’s silence contrasted with Arctic policy papers published by fellow non-Arctic players: South Korea’s 2013 Arctic Strategy Master Plan (북극정책 기본계획), the Arctic sections of Japan’s 2013 Ocean Policy Master Plan (海洋基本計画) and the 2015 Arctic Policy (我が国の北極政策), the German and Italian Guidelines, among others.


Peep’s Deli, April:


The document had long been expected, as China’s non-Arctic players, including South Korea and Japan, established the Arctic Strategy Master Plan in 2013 and Arctic Policy in 2015 respectively.

—and again:

Lulu, Feb:


Proper emphasis is placed on opening trade routes and exploiting natural resources, recapitulating two known pillars of Chinese polar policy.

Peep’s, Apr:


In the document, China has emphasized its interests in opening trade routes and exploring natural resources as well as recapitulating two known pillars of its polar policy which are in line with the needs of many Arctic countries.

It will not escape the astute reader that the august Peep’s chose to steal the most innocuous bits of my piece, rather than its substance, which mostly deals with aspects of the PRC’s Arctic policy the January white paper doesn’t discuss. Another topic was the paper’s reception among those relying on exoprop materials, of which Kou’s less-than-fully-original article is itself a specimen.

The journalistic standards of exoprop media are well known, which makes ‘expert’ reliance on them even more telling. An interesting example of cheating readers and interviewees involves a China Daily op-ed attributed to a person who didn’t write it. But cheating higher-ups on the successes of propaganda efforts is also common. Memorious readers will remember this case at China Radio International I described in 2015 (“China’s state media and the outsourcing of soft power”, CPI Analysis):

In the 2009 article quoted above, CRI head Wang Gengnian bragged about how during the previous year the state broadcaster had “received more than 2.7 million letters and emails from listeners in 161 countries and regions.” At least for those countries and regions served through the Finland-based affiliate, that figure might not be entirely reliable: a Danish former employee wrote that, short of the reader reactions CRI demanded to see about their 2008 ‘Two Sessions’ coverage, the outfit’s staff simply penned a few themselves and submitted them to Beijing.

Indeed, the entire ‘borrowed boat’ / fake-foreign-reporter business is only successful as a charade meant to entertain the internal exoprop bureaucracy. Its actual propaganda value is negligible or negative, as these exercises often backfire. A recent example, the ‘eye-roll of the century’, was recently described in some length by Victor Mair in a guest post for this blog.

In another incident, China Daily online editor-in-chief Han Lei 韩蕾 reported last year in a piece posted on the website of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC, 国家互联网信息办公室) that the outlet had recruited nearly 200 foreign think-tankers to write “more than 300” op-eds “to influence more overseas audiences and explain China’s story well” (CAC, April 2017; partial translation by C.A. Yeung posted to a microblogging site). Such prowess had been achieved through “cooperation” with foreign think tanks, including the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. However, no evidence of such op-eds by Lowy-affiliated scholars could be found besides the fabricated piece referred to above, and a person from the institute, responding to Leung, called Han’s claims “[f]alse”.

Even more instructive is an incident involving higher-level authorities, the Confucius Institutes, a dubious ‘survey’ and the universally loved China Daily, resulting in multiple reports in English and Chinese repeating some remarkable linguistic claims. (The following paragraphs are an edited form of my earlier comments on Language Log, where the incident was discussed.)

A recent post by Victor Mair (“The language impact of the Confucius Institutes“) enigmatically proposed a list of pinyin words and phrases from a China Daily article. These had supposedly become known among foreigners, but the list included some Xiist Newspeak items that even people with some exposure to Chinese couldn’t recognise. As it emerged in the comments, the whole exercise was a manifestation of internal processes of the exoprop bureaucracy: a rather peculiar ‘survey‘ had been produced to prove the success of “people-to-people exchanges” mandated by Central Committee injunction (《关于加强和改进中外人文交流工作的若干意见》). The ‘survey’ was in turn used to produce positive-energy news stories that eventually reached the China Daily.

This involved writing, presumably with a straight face, that a Mandarin term sometimes translated as ‘Sincerity, Practical Results, Affinity and Good Faith’ (zhēn-shí-qīn-chéng 真实亲诚) enjoys 10.3% awareness in the Anglosphere, and is in fact better known among English speakers than the word for ‘dumpling’. To obtain such auspicious results, the “survey” was blended with online media searches. Another remarkable item: fèng 凤 ‘phoenix’ (36.7% awareness in India). What sort of “survey” can make toneless pinyin feng (as opposed to fenghuang (fènghuáng 凤凰)) recognisable as ‘phoenix’? Once you get 0 ‘awareness’ of feng=phoenix from a (hypothetical) survey with actual (hypothetical) people, how do you even design a biased online search to raise that to 36.7%, specifically in India? The Xi-speak item Mingyun gongtongti 命运共同体 (now officially translated as ‘community of shared future’; recently discussed by Nadège Rolland (“Beijing’s vision for a reshaped international order“)) has no less than 8.0% Anglosphere awareness. (A personal favourite, Ass Theory (驴论), didn’t make it to the survey, as it’s a Xiism only meant for domestic propaganda (endoprop).)


The theoretical framework for the report invoked no less an authority than peculiar ‘million-word’ business the Global Language Monitor (and its honcho Payack) to the effect that Chinese has been the main source of loanwords into English since 1994. The Monitor has been discussed on Language Log, and Payack had some interesting ‘exchanges’ with Zimmer, Pullum and Nunberg. There’s precedent for Payack being quoted in propaganda pieces (“Chinese puts in a good word for the English language“).

Quite likely, no one involved in the process believes these claims, but incentives are such that concocting the mock survey and attendant articles is easier and more fun than asserting this exoprop task has failed.

I look forward to reports to Relevant Honchi up the exoprop echelon on the Relevant Lulu ‘contributing’ to ‘telling China’s story well’ in the Arctic ‘new frontier’. Meanwhile, those following Arctic (or other) affairs are advised to take ‘analysis’ primarily relying on exoprop with a catty of salt.