As the CCP increasingly tries to narrow the space between party and state, and as President Xi erases the line between himself and the party, it will be more important than ever for critics to draw a distinction between the Party and the Chinese people.
Academics and journalists in the past year have begun to uncover activities by China that seek to undermine democratic institutions worldwide. As various aspects of Beijing’s United Front activities abroad are made public, and as governments begin to take the threat more seriously, the Chinese government’s response — and that of many Chinese — has been to depict those investigative efforts as racist, xenophobic and ultimately “anti China.”
The accusations of racism and xenophobia, of a supposed anti-China sentiment, however, are for the most part unfounded. Through studious accounts of the agencies and organizations involved, the authors of the reports, documentaries and articles that have drawn attention to China’s intense influence operations have drawn a clear distinction between the agents of influence and ordinary Chinese, both in China and as part of the Chinese diaspora. In several cases, the authors are married to a Chinese partner and developed a deep affinity for the Chinese people through years of academic research or journalism in the country. (Admittedly, report titles and news headlines often refer to “China” and “Chinese influence,” and we should work harder to find ways to make it clear that this is shorthand for specific agencies in China and not the Chinese in general.)
Therefore, it can be said with certitude that something other than xenophobia or hatred has animated the individuals who have spearheaded this research. In most cases, what has driven them is a sense of alarm at the effects that China’s influence operations — a mix of co-optation, pressure, surveillance, infiltration, censorship, agitation, legal action and threats — have had on our open societies, and the relative passiveness of our governments in responding to this threat to our way of life.
The principal agency behind all this is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whose vast United Front Work (UFW) network has benefited immensely from the lack of awareness in the West of its ideology, aims and activities abroad.
Speaking at the University of Ottawa earlier this month, Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS in London, and I both went out of our way to underscore that our problem lies with the CCP, and not with the Chinese people. I made similar remarks this past weekend during the Asia premiere of the documentary “In the Name of Confucius,” which looks at the controversial activities of the Confucius Institutes (CI) in Canada (see trailer below). When we alert our societies of the negative impacts of our relationship with China, we point fingers not at Chinese society, but at Hanban, UFW departments, intelligence-linked front organizations, “think tanks,” associations, chambers of commerce and individuals that are part of the CCP’s architecture of influence, whose exercise goes well beyond what is commonly understood as “soft power.” It is the coercive, corrosive and corruptive aspects of those activities that interest us, and it is clear that behind all those lies the CCP and its ideology.
Making a distinction between the CCP and the Chinese people isn’t simply political correctness: it also ensures that as we document Chinese influence, our own societies do not begin ostracizing the millions of Chinese who are part of our national experiment and who contribute to our multicultural nations.
Faced with greater scrutiny, the CCP has responded with accusations that the authors of those studies have a “cold war mentality,” or that they are racist, xenophobic, anti-China and so on. In other words, rather than be singled out, the CCP wants Chinese to believe that those exercises target all of them, wherever they are. The CCP doesn’t want the distinction that researchers have insisted upon: it wants a Party that is inseparable from those whom it governs. It wants an “us” versus “them,” and in doing so it seeks to destabilize societies and pressure democratic governments in pluralistic societies that are highly sensitive to accusations of racism.
The CCP doesn’t want the distinction that researchers have insisted upon: it wants a Party that is inseparable from those whom it governs. It wants an “us” versus “them,” and in doing so it seeks to destabilize societies and pressure democratic governments in pluralistic societies that are highly sensitive to accusations of racism.
Worryingly, that strategy has had some success. Part of this stems from the strong nationalism that the CCP has been cultivating for decades, a form of indoctrination, begun at a very early age and sustained through rigid censorship, that constantly reinforces highly paranoid notions of “China as victim.” That success is also made possible because the CCP — in this case via embassies and consulates — lies and misinforms its own people abroad by mobilizing them (with financial incentives) to protest against supposed affronts to China, Chinese culture, and the Chinese people. Only when we take these two factors into consideration can we understand why so many non-CCP members abroad, among them students, parents, artists and Netizens, will carry out, often unwittingly, the work of the CCP. This explains why ordinary Chinese who have emigrated to the West will take part in rallies to “save the CIs,” claiming that opponents of the Institutes are against Chinese culture and, even more absurdly, that they do not want children to learn the Chinese language. Some are evidently unaware of the real reasons why they are at a protest; others probably do know why and choose to do so because if you’re a businessman in a largely Chinese community, maintaining cordial ties with the CCP pays off (conversely, a diplomatic source informs me that Taiwanese businesspeople abroad have become wary of participating in Taiwan-related events as doing so can have a detrimental impact on their businesses due to Chinese retaliation).
This also explains why Chinese students on school campuses in the West — again with prompting and financial support from the local Chinese embassy or consulate — will mobilize whenever a Falun Gong practitioner (e.g., Anastasia Lin), the Dalai Lama, or a Taiwanese official is invited to give a talk. Although there is a high likelihood that some professional students acting on behalf of the CCP are in their midst, it’s hard to imagine that most of the students, parents and ordinary Chinese are card-carrying CCP members. And yet they feel compelled to take action, and invariably do so to defend their country against a perceived affront to their honor or a Western plot to keep China weak. In most cases, they do not seem to know (or refuse to consider) the reasons why we, the West, push back.
All of this, of course, leaves out the millions of Chinese in the Diaspora who do not take part in such activities; men and women who have built new lives in their country of choice; men and women who do not agree with the CCP and its ideology. It also leaves out the millions of people in China who stay out of politics, who lie low or are silent because in the current atmosphere being vocal in one’s criticism of the CCP carries a heavy cost. As the CCP increasingly tries to narrow the gap between party and state, and as President Xi Jinping erases the line between himself and the party, it will be more important than ever for critics inside China and abroad to draw a distinction between the Party and the Chinese people. Terrible things will happen if we play into the CCP’s game and give it the ammunition it needs to convince the Chinese public that “we” are against “them.”
There is hope yet for a more benevolent, open and peaceful China. That hope does not lie with the CCP. It lies with the Chinese people. Therefore, as we expose the excesses of the Party, we must redouble our efforts to reach out to — not alienate — the men, women and children, activists, academics, journalists, lawyers, students, workers, artists and others who, like us, see nothing good coming from an all-powerful, expansionist and repressive CCP with the ability, now, to flex its muscles on a global scale.