'Cultivating friendly forces' report
The Chinese Communist Party’s influence operations in the Xinjiang Diaspora
Lin Li and James Leibold
This report explores community groups and individuals in the Xinjiang diaspora that are linked to the CCP’s united front system, as well as the methods and tactics used by that system to activate and guide them.
The authors draw on open-source materials (chiefly Chinese-language media reports, government documents, and social media posts) to track groups and individuals who are promoting the party’s Xinjiang narrative and policies overseas, and then places their activities within the wider context of the CCP’s overseas influence operations.
The report presents four case studies to pull back the veil on the activities of Xinjiang-linked community organisations in Canada, Australia, Central Asia and Turkey, and their ties to the CCP’s united front system.
Over the last decade the free world has watched the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with growing alarm. Its use of mass extrajudicial interment, intrusive surveillance and coercive brainwashing has fundamentally altered the human and physical geography of the region and its indigenous Uyghur population.
Yet the complex ways in which the Chinese Communist Party is exporting this repression abroad have received less attention. Here understanding the CCP’s united front system is a crucial starting point.
United front work: understanding the system
United front work aims to create temporary—even disposable—alliances with non-party groups and individuals in order to co-opt support and marginalise the party’s critics. It isn’t restricted by national borders, nationality or ethnicity, but rather targets people who can help advance the party’s agenda. United front work is systematically guided from the top reaches of the CCP and then down and throughout the entire party-state structure.
This is what the party calls the ‘united front system’ (统战系统): a vast network of decentralised party, state and civil society entities that conducts united front work both inside China and abroad. United front work among the overseas Chinese is known as qiaowu (侨务), literally, ‘overseas Chinese affairs’.
Whom to influence: remaking ‘Xinjiang’
Under the CCP’s systematic campaign of settler colonialism, the human and physical geography of the Uyghur homeland has been steadily remoulded as the Han population increased from around 5% in 1947 to 42% in 2020. CCP officials project Xinjiang’s current diversity backwards in time, declaring the region an ancient melting pot of different peoples with ‘Chinese’ rather than Uyghur culture at its core.
By employing the term ‘Xinjiang’ or ‘Chinese’ as a broad and imprecise identity marker, people’s cultural, religious and ethnic identities are erased, and pro-CCP voices from Xinjiang can claim the legitimacy to speak on behalf of others with links to the region, regardless of their authenticity.
In other words, the Han coloniser can speak on behalf of the colonised Uyghur (after all, they’re both from Xinjiang), and the colonised Uyghur must seek solidarity with the Han coloniser (as they’re both ‘Chinese’ from ‘Xinjiang’).
Methods of influence: love, money and intimidation
United front work involves a range of methods. In general, they include emotional manipulation (highlighting heritage bonds with the motherland), material incentives and inducements, and offering political honours and prestige status to members of the Xinjiang diaspora who are willing to advance the CCP’s versions of ‘China’ and ‘Chineseness’.
Yet, ultimately, if sentiment and inducements are insufficient, the CCP authorities can resort to more coercive methods of direct interference such as harassment, blacklisting and even physical attacks against hostile elements.
Tactics of influence: information, culture and co-option
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, united front work has increased in size, scope and strategic ambition. United front agencies have developed a range of strategies and mechanisms for guiding, influencing and ultimately leveraging overseas ‘Chinese’ communities in support of the CCP’s domestic and international agenda. Some key tactics include:
Database of Xinjiang Diaspora
Party officials in Xinjiang have been building a series of databases of former and current Xinjiang residents with overseas connections since 1997. They collect detailed personal information, including ‘political inclinations and attitudes towards the motherland’ and ‘the methods and consequences of the efforts by hostile foreign forces to co-opt this group’, and then use that information to develop qiaowu (‘overseas Chinese affairs’) influence strategies.
Cultivating overseas community leaders
Winning allies for the CCP’s agenda is crucial to united front work, and here psychological manipulation and material inducements play an important role in co-opting overseas community elites. Party operatives often hide their real intentions behind colourful platitudes, such as ‘win–win cooperation’ and ‘mutual benefit’, in order to win over as many people as possible and get them to wilfully do the CCP’s bidding.
Inviting in and going out
The strategy of ‘inviting in and going out’ (请进来，走出去) means sending qiaowu officials overseas to carry out united front work while cultivating united front targets by inviting them to China. Going out activities facilitate information gathering and exerting CCP influence in diaspora communities.
Cultural events, which link CCP officials with overseas community groups and individuals, have been described as an important ‘carrier’ (载体) of qiaowu work by senior united front officials. ‘Embrace China’ (亲情中华) and ‘Cultural China—Charming Xinjiang’ (文化中国·魅力新疆) are two of the most prominent touring cultural performances used by Xinjiang united front officials. These events allow CCP officials to meet local community leaders and politicians in order to establish relationships that can later be activated to advance the party’s agenda.
Language schools and root-seeking camps
The CCP’s united front agencies place great importance on cultivating future generations of the Xinjiang diaspora to ensure their alignment with the CCP’s political agenda. Qiaowu officials are told to actively ‘guide’ (引导) and ‘foster’ (培养) this new generation of migrants in order to ‘nurture friendly forces for China’.
This cultivation work is commonly conducted through youth-focused cultural activities, such as Chinese-language instruction and root-seeking summer camps in China, which aim to inject and nurture affection for the participants’ ancestral homeland and condition them to the CCP’s world view.
Tapping into business networks
United front agencies in Xinjiang have set up business associations to draw in returned entrepreneurs with foreign citizenship and Xinjiang natives with overseas business links. The associations go beyond facilitating business networking for members and are expected to actively promote CCP policies at home and aboard.
Offering political honours
The conferring of political honours is another tactic the CCP employs to lure prominent individuals in the Chinese diaspora, including those from Xinjiang, into the party’s political orbit and its agenda. Delegates are also told to enthusiastically propagate China’s achievements in their home countries and proactively foster friendly people-to-people interactions between China and foreign countries.
Through its united front system, the CCP is actively collecting intelligence on the Xinjiang diaspora. That information is used not only to harass Uyghurs and other minorities living overseas but also to cultivate a range of pro-CCP community organisations and individuals in the Xinjiang diaspora. The CCP uses these organs as conduits for the spread of propaganda about the ‘harmony, prosperity and happiness’ of people in Xinjiang while deflecting and denying international criticism of its well-documented human rights abuses in the region.
Despite its abstruse nature, the party’s influence operations can be highly effective, especially when they go unnoticed and operate in a conducive environment. In countries where public scrutiny is possible and the corrupting and corrosive nature of the CCP’s influence operations can be exposed, their impact in the short term can be counteracted; yet, in other countries, where democratic protections and transparency are lacking, its efforts can quickly alter public opinion, export the CCP’s repression overseas, and undermine domestic sovereignty.
Our recommendations for policymakers, researchers and civil society includes a call for governments, law enforcement and civil society groups to more actively disrupt the CCP’s ability to interfere in sovereign countries and co-opt ethnic Chinese community groups and individuals. States should employ countermeasures such as enhanced public transparency, legislative reform, capacity building and law enforcement. Transparency is ultimately the best weapon for safeguarding the ability of citizens of all backgrounds to engage in public life free from outside interference and counteracting the hazards of the CCP’s united front system.