GROWING concerns about the security of sensitive national infrastructure projects involving Chinese firms are well founded, says University of Adelaide Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies Dr Gerry Groot.
“The Communist Party is always interested in leveraging its companies and people to serve its economic, strategic and military interests as it seeks to make China more powerful and eventually eclipse the United States,” he says.
It’s a key element of Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ of national rejuvenation.
The Communist Party, which Xi runs, has an additional advantage. It controls an international network of seemingly innocent representative bodies that inevitably weave their way back to Beijing.
And the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department is a two-headed hydra, Dr Groot says.
At home it has the public face of being a conduit between Chinese society and the Party’s leadership. Compulsory united front associations are established everywhere, to represent everything and everyone.
This includes religious groups, trade groups, sporting organisations — and Chinese managers working in international businesses.
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China’s United Front is being used as a means of enforcing State control, Dr Groot says. Each association monitors and reports on the behaviour and performance of its members
“This organisation is yet one more means by which the Party can reach out to, work with or coerce otherwise private Chinese-owned businesses through industry associations and chambers of commerce,” he says. “However, because there is much to be gained by being on the good side of the Chinese government, many business people are only too happy to be seen as supporting it.
“If you want to get anywhere, then you have to be in the related official organisation. And if you want a leadership role, you have to be approved by the United Front department.”
Through these United Front associations, the Communist Party’s influence now extends to international corporations and organisations within China.
“They’ve targeted Chinese managers in foreign companies and joint ventures,” Dr Groot says. “They also target every new industry that pops up. They soon start organising an association for them, and (if you’re Chinese) you either have to be in that association or you’re going to get into trouble. It’s quite invasive.”
Details about these groups and their members — whether within China or without — are funnelled up the Communist Party chain.
“There is also the Party’s increased emphasis in recent years, of forming Communist Party organisations within Chinese companies and China-based foreign companies with numerous Chinese employees,” Dr Groot says. “This means that there is probably no such thing as a major Chinese company which is free of Communist Party influence. To believe that companies would be willing, let alone able to refuse Party orders, is asking a lot of them.”
It’s the all-pervasive reach of these various Party controlled associations that should make us think very carefully before giving Chinese businesses access to major infrastructure projects, Dr Groot says.
“The reason is those companies must listen to the Party. They must have Party committees at the highest levels. And anyway most of the bosses are patriotic — and if ex-military people run them, what do you expect? Moreover, it is always a good idea to have the Party onside, business is more successful that way. “
Dr Groot says the United Front’s international presence is all about maintaining control over those it regards to be its citizens, promoting Beijing’s agenda — and generating Party-positive perceptions.
This applies to business people and students studying abroad — as well as exiled Tibetan communities and Uyghur ethnic group refugees
“Interestingly, one of the reasons we’re not hearing about what’s happening to the Tibetans and Uyghurs, in particular, is the success of the United Front Department in shutting down these disparate critics abroad. They’ve even turned up in Adelaide to do their work,” Dr Groot says.
“Australia’s Falun Gong community will often tell you that they’re getting surveilled and that they’re getting nuisance phone calls in the middle of the night.”
A simple ‘chat’ with a United Front representative is often enough to do the job, he says.
“They work for the United Front or the Ministry of State Security, and they can go around in Australia and talk to people. They can say ‘oh, I can help you if you really want to go and see your parents. I can help you do this, or solve that problem’. It’s carrot-and-stick stuff.”
Chinese consulates also serve this dual role, he says.
“Consulates are another Communist Party arm. Business people like consulates because they make business easy, that’s true. But they have other responsibilities. They still have to carry out Party policy, which includes looking for enemies, looking for Chinese democracy activists, Falun-Gong or other religious dissidents — Tibetan splittists, Uyghur splittists …
“I think it’s very interesting these communities have been very quiet in Australia for a long time. There’s been very little peep out of these groups. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”