Operatives from a secretive arm of the Chinese Communist Party are on a mission to infiltrate and influence almost every aspect of Australian life, from politics and business to the media.
That’s the conclusion of a shocking new report about the work of agents and their recruits, whose goals range from the commercial to the downright sinister.
Analysis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) examined the operation of the United Front, which Chinese President Xi Jinping once described as his “magic weapon”, whose tentacles already spread through our universities, corporations and parliaments.
“United Front(’s) work encompasses a broad spectrum of activity, from espionage to foreign interference, influence and engagement,” ASPI report author Alex Joske said.
“The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) attempts to interfere in diaspora communities, influence political systems and covertly access valuable and sensitive technology will only grow as tensions between China and countries around the world develop.”
A POWERFUL MONSTER
The United Front Work Department (UFWD) in Beijing is run by one of President Xi’s closest allies, Wang Yang, the fourth-ranked member of the Politburo, the Communist Party’s command.
It has existed in some capacity for almost a century, but its purpose has evolved and expanded over recent decades.
So too has its power, both at home and globally.
President Xi has supported United Front work more than his predecessors and elevated its status five years ago as a body of great importance to the country’s goals.
In a speech at a meeting of United Front Work Department leaders in Beijing in 2015, President Xi praised its work in “strengthening the Party’s ruling position”.
He described it as “an important magic weapon for realising the China Dream of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.”
The current scope of United Front has continued to evolve, reflecting the CCP’s growing global ambitions, Mr Joske wrote in his analysis.
“Today, the overseas functions of United Front include increasing the CCP’s political influence, interfering in Chinese (expat communities), suppressing dissident movements, building a permissive international environment for a takeover of Taiwan, intelligence gathering, encouraging investment in China, and facilitating technology transfer.”
It does this by funding, directing and supporting a mammoth number of community, business and student organisations around the world – who rarely disclose their close links with Beijing.
“For example, the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification – which has chapters in at least 91 countries or territories around the world – and the China Overseas Friendship Association are both directed by the UFWD,” Mr Joske wrote.
And those affiliated groups can be mobilised quickly if the need arises.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the work of United Front networks overseas, he said, with groups in Australia tasked with gathering “increasingly scarce medical supplies from around the world and (sending) them to China”.
Last month, Australian Border Force revealed it had intercepted a massive shipment of medical supplies, including masks and other personal protective equipment.
GROWING POLITICAL INTERFERENCE
Australia’s intelligence agency ASIO has warned governments of the growing dominance of United Front here in recent years.
When former Labor Senator Sam Dastyari warned Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo that he was under surveillance, it ultimately led to the downfall of both men.
Huang was targeted by the Australian Taxation Office and his permanent residency was revoked by the Immigration Department.
Mr Dastyari resigned from politics in disgrace.
But that wasn’t before Huang had built significant influence with political figures from both sides of the spectrum, having met with former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull.
Huang’s donation of $100,000 to the NSW Labor Party, dropped off at its state office in an Aldi bag, is now the subject of an Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry.
Mr Joske wrote in his analysis that the work of United Front is “often covert” and those who interact with it “typically deny any links”.
“Australian-Chinese businessman and political donor Chau Chak Wing, for example, claimed he had never heard of the UFWD, despite mentioning it in a speech and being pictured meeting with its officials,” he wrote.
Liberal MP Gladys Liu was embroiled in controversy shortly after entering parliament at the last federal election when it was revealed she had been closely connected with a number of organisations with United Front links.
Ms Liu had served as a council member of the China Overseas Exchange Association and was an honorary president of the United Chinese Commerce Association of Australian.
Both have strong links to the United Front Work Department in Beijing.
In September 2018, just several months before she won the seat of Chisholm in Victoria, Ms Liu was appointed honorary president of the Australian Jiangmen General Commercial Association, which has United Front links.
After initially saying she could not recall being part of the China Overseas Exchange Association, Ms Liu later said her involvement was honorary and negligible.
She denied having any knowledge of Communist Party links to any other organisations she was part of and insisted her involvement was purely for the benefit of her local community.
The extent of further political interference in Australia by United Front operatives is unclear, but Mr Joske pointed out that a number of business identities with links to the group have sought to build networks in politics at a state and federal level.
And the interference in Chinese communities in Australia by United Front operatives makes “genuine and independent political participation by ethnic Chinese” individuals extremely difficult.
It also presents a risk for Australian politicians who unknowingly associate with them.
“In countries such as Australia, where United Front work is quite mature, it’s proven difficult for politicians to avoid associating with United Front groups and implicitly legitimising them as representatives of the broader Chinese community,” Mr Joske wrote.
Candidates from both major parties at the last federal election had either been members of groups linked to United Front, or had travelled on United Front-sponsored trips to China.
And both contenders for leadership of the NSW Labor Party in 2019, following the election defeat, had attended events organised by United Front-linked groups.
ESPIONAGE ON AUSTRALIAN SOIL
United Front is a key part of work conducted by Chinese intelligence agencies around the world.
“The networks, status and relationships built through United Front work, as well as information gathered through it, facilitate intelligence activity,” Mr Joske wrote.
One group, the China Association for International Friendly Contact, is a United Front-style unit run by the Liaison Bureau, which is the political warfare arm of the People’s Liberation Army, he said.
It “seeks to build ties with foreign groups and individuals” abroad.
“Those it has interacted with include an Australian mining magnate, a former Australian ambassador to China, a new-age religious movement in Japan, and retired generals and bureaucrats from the US,” Mr Joske wrote.
Again, what espionage goals United Front seeks to assist with is unclear.
However, Australia’s intelligence agencies have warned of growing cyber attacks on Australian business, industry and government.
A significant breach of Australian National University in Canberra was linked to China, as too was a digital attack on Parliament House.
On technology, Mr Joske wrote that the United Front system is a “central component” of China’s legal as well as illicit “technology transfer efforts”.
Legally, it seeks to harness the sharing of tech and expertise developed in Australia with China. On the illicit front, China has been accused of intellectual property theft in the past.
Overseas Chinese students have “long been a target of United Front work”, Mr Joske wrote – both while abroad and when they return home.
“This was reiterated in 2015 when Xi Jinping designated them a ‘new focus of United Front work’.”
Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA) exist around the world and provide a useful function for people studying overseas.
But Mr Joske wrote that they are “the primary platform for United Front work on overseas students … (and) most operate under the guidance of Chinese embassies and consulates”.
“A 2013 People’s Daily article describes Australian CSSAs as ‘completing their missions … under the direct guidance of the Embassy’s Education Office,’” he wrote.
CSSA executives are tasked with organising rallies and promotional events, but also with reporting on dissident Chinese students.
A protest at The University of Queensland last year in support of Hong Kong was gatecrashed by hundreds of pro-Beijing students.
Violence broke out in the crowd and the police had to be called.
Organisers of the pro-Hong Kong rally – meant to be a peaceful sit-in at the campus – claimed the troublemakers were sent by the Consulate and that most weren’t students at UQ.
Confucius Institutes established within universities around the world have been the source of growing controversy – including in Australia.
Billing themselves as academic promoters of Chinese culture and history, they have been accused of attempting to suppress academic freedom.
Mr Joske claims Confucius Institutes are “overseen with heavy involvement from the UFWD”.
A PROPAGANDA MACHINE
China’s obsession with propaganda and controlling the public narrative in its own country is well known.
The media is censored, outside information is monitored and any public demonstrations are swiftly stamped out.
But United Front provides a way for Beijing to also direct propaganda abroad, Mr Joske wrote.
“Embassies hold meetings with local United Front leaders where (they) receive directions to influence public opinion, such as by co-ordinating rallies in support of Chinese Government policy or visiting officials,” he said.
When a Chinese navy vessel arrived unannounced in Sydney Harbour last year, sparking a frenzied diplomatic incident, a group of Chinese expats were there to greet it with professionally made banners.
That’s despite no one – including some government officials, it seems – knowing the ship was coming.
President Xi has said in previous public addresses that those who leave China to study, work or live abroad remain integral parts of the country’s future prosperity and goals.
This edict is evident in the United Front’s work to “wedge the party between ethnic Chinese communities and the societies they live in, expanding the party’s control of those communities’ channels for representation and mobilisation,” Mr Joske wrote.
“Members of Chinese communities who want to participate in community activities may unwittingly become associated with United Front groups,” he said.
The UFWD in Beijing directs substantial resources for propaganda efforts targeting Chinese expat communities, including Australia’s Pacific Media Group, Mr Joske wrote.
He said that 26 WeChat accounts run by nine Chinese media organisations around the world are registered to a subsidiary of China News Service, the Communist Party’s largest media outlet.
“The accounts operate in all Five Eyes countries, the European Union, Russia, Japan and Brazil,” he said.
“They include accounts registered to … Pacific Media Group, indicating that they may all belong to companies supervised by the UFWD.
“Many of the accounts appear to have tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of followers.”