Written by June Teufel Dreyer.
“United Front Work is an important magic weapon for the victory of the party’s cause.”
Xi Jinping, October 2017
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s earliest experiences with united front work ended badly. On two separate occasions, the Soviet Union-based Communist International ordered the CCP to form a united front with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Both ventures ended in disaster for the CCP, with the KMT executing many of its members, real or suspect, in what became known as the White Terror.
Escaping to the countryside, Mao Zedong later built a CCP-dominated united front. After the party’s victory in 1949, he credited the united front as one of the three main weapons for the party’s basic success, along with the army and Marxist-Leninist theory. In the early years of the party’s rule, the united front became the ideological vehicle for the formation of the People’s Democratic Leadership, which was given institutional form in the Chinese People’s Political and Consultative Conference (CPPCC), guided by party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). The CCP used the united front approach to create or, if need be, force, majority support for its policies, then taking the apparent fact of majority support as evidence of its own legitimacy. By the 1960s, although the UFWD and CPPCC continued to function there was, according to a leading scholar of the period, “hardly any pretence that it has important tasks to perform.”
With its domestic value reduced even as its institutional forms remained, the focus of united front work turned outward, becoming more active in efforts to bend foreign opinion toward espousing the policies of the party-state. Of special interest was gaining support for the absorption (“re”-unification) of Taiwan into China. Major efforts were made to draw the Chinese diaspora communities that existed in many countries into this effort, even to funding sympathetic politicians’ efforts to be elected to public office. These have recently engendered much controversy in Australia and New Zealand. In the United States, at least thirteen Peaceful Unification Committees have been identified. The committees regularly lambaste the Taiwan government, calling it a false democracy, with a woman identified as Florence Fang said to be one of the more active members. It is not publicly known, however, whether their members are being recruited to donate into the American political system to target those who might influence the course of U.S. policy toward China.
Not surprisingly, even greater efforts have been made within Taiwan. In 2005, Hsu Wen-lung, then-chairman of Taiwan’s giant Chi Mei corporation, which has large investments in China, was pressured to sign a letter entitled “In Support of One China,” “台湾和大陆属于一个中国” just before Taiwan’s presidential inauguration. According to the Taipei Times, in that same year Wang Huning, then director of the CCP’s Central Party Research Office and now a Politburo member, targeted more than twenty political figures from Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) who had been marginalized by their respective parties and invited them to serve as organizing central committee members of a new, pro-Beijing, party.
A book by exiled Chinese dissident Yuan Hongbing, The Taiwan Crisis, provided corroboration, stating that in June 2008 the Politburo had passed a political strategy for settling the Taiwan issue that listed organizing a political party in Taiwan as its most important united front tactic. In late 2017, investigators searched the residences of four prominent members of the New Party. The party, which espouses policies that echo those of the CCP, is legitimate under Taiwan law. The content of the materials seized in the raid has not been disclosed, but it has been alleged that the New Party had founded a paramilitary New China Youth Association with the goal of “wartime control.” A spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office compared the raid to Chiang Kai-shek’s White Terror and condemned the authorities for “wantonly suppressing and persecuting the forces and people who advocate peaceful unification of the two sides of the Strait.”
It has frequently been asserted, and former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui has explicitly stated, that China’s united front work in Taiwan includes sponsoring organized criminal activities to stir up inter-ethnic conflict and destabilize society. Indeed, Taiwan’s best-known gangster leader Chang An-lo, otherwise known as White Wolf, and a key member of the Bamboo Union organized crime organization, heads the Chinese Unity Promotion Party (CUPP) in Taiwan. According to the Japanese language Okinawa Times, Chang An-lo’s son Chang Wei went to Okinawa in late January for discussions with Japanese yakuza organization Kyokuryu-kai. Chang Wei described his trip as a private visit that was unconnected with the CUPP. Taiwan’s Criminal Investigation Bureau contacted Japanese authorities, seeking information about the Kyokuryu’s sources of funding, its activities in Okinawa, and its ties with the CUPP, but did not divulge the content of their discussions.
The target of China’s UFWD work appears to be the “independence by nature” generation, meaning those who came of age after the lifting of Taiwan’s emergency decrees, sometime referred to as martial law. They have no memories of life in China, have grown up under a democratic system, and see no need to declare an independence the country already enjoys. Particularly since the victory of Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party, China’s united front efforts have been stepped up. The focus is people-to-people relations, while the Taiwan government, which has ignored the CCP’s blandishments to accept an alleged 1992 consensus, is essentially being ignored.
These efforts include UFWD-sponsored “exchange” tours to China for Taiwanese students, their teachers, and principals. The UFWD has established a Student Baseball League in Shenzhen—the game being very popular in Taiwan—in which players compete against the backdrop of a large banner reading “both sides in the Taiwan Strait are one family.” At the tertiary level, students from Taiwan are offered scholarships at China’s most prestigious universities. Already, according to China’s official press agency, two Taiwanese studying at China’s highest rated institution, Beijing University, have applied to join the CCP, one of them vowing his fervent desire “to become a participant in the mainland’s joint rejuvenation.” The large number of PhDs from Taiwan universities who have not been able to find employment there have been offered jobs in China. In January, Taiwanese-born Hsieh Kuo-chun was selected to the top advisory board of the CPPCC, the non-party institutional face of the united front.
Since the bulk of Taiwan’s trade is with China, special attention has been devoted to business people. Those who endorse policies favourable to China receive appointments to PRC organizations and favourable treatment; those who do not find opportunities cut off. Often this pressure comes from China’s quasi-official Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO). When the Taiwan government refused to accept the routes for cross-strait lunar new year flights, since China had not consulted with it beforehand, Taiwanese members of the TAO placed a half-page ad in several Taiwanese newspapers entitled “I want to go back home and spend the Lunar New Year With My Family.” Pressure is also brought to bear on foreign governments Taiwan’s commercial offices in foreign cities have had to change their names: in Nigeria last year, and most recently in Papua New Guinea.
China’s combined soft power and sharp power are proving difficult to deal with. As one commentator, citing former British prime minister Winston Churchill lamented “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.” And the editor in chief of the pro-independence Liberty Times asked what is our counter-strategy?
June Teufel Dreyer is Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida. She is also a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a member of International Institute for Strategic Studies. This article is an expansion and update of the Taiwan section of the FPRI article. Image credit: CC by Buster&Bubby/Flickr.
 Lyman P. van Slyke, Enemies and Friends: The United Front in Chinese Communist History (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1967), p. 209.
 Ibid., p. 246.
 Personal conversation with Washington Post journalist John Pomfret, February 6, 2018.