In a recent report on the China threat, the French Military School Strategic Research Institute (IRSEM) identified the Chinese regime’s three-pronged attack consisting of psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare. The attack is all part of a massive propaganda campaign focused on overseas Chinese.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claims ownership of anyone of Chinese descent, anywhere in the world, and they are working hard to influence, recruit, co-opt, ostracize, or silence ethnic Chinese in other countries.
In 2017, “Xi Jinping called for ‘closely uniting’ with overseas Chinese in support of the Chinese dream.” The Chinese diaspora, including both Chinese nationals abroad (Huaqiao) and foreign nationals of Chinese heritage (Huaren), number about 60 million. Xi sees these people as being integral to achieving the “Great Rejuvenation” of the Chinese state, and China taking center stage in global politics.
Beijing’s overseas propaganda is largely carried out through a CCP arm called the United Front Work Department (UFWD), which often targets overseas Chinese communities. Much of the propaganda is subtle, just nudging foreign, public opinion in a direction conducive to the interests of the CCP. Some of it is more overt, influencing local politics, damaging media integrity, facilitating espionage, and increasing unapproved technology transfer. The UFWD also supports economic espionage and CCP influence on university campuses.
Through its propaganda programs in overseas Chinese communities, the CCP also seeks to undermine social cohesion and exacerbate racial tension, raising support for the CCP or intentionally causing divisions among the Chinese diaspora. Most Chinese diaspora do not support the CCP and do not wish to be pawns in China’s global game. But CCP propaganda serves to drive a wedge between this group and their local communities.
One of the subtle disinformation programs that the CCP ran last year was targeting the diaspora in an online campaign, linking COVID-origin theories with anti-Asian racism. Much of this campaign was focused on discrediting Chinese virologist Yan Limeng, who published a paper claiming that SARS-CoV-2 was made in a Chinese government laboratory.
One of the goals of CCP disinformation campaigns may not be to convince skeptics, but to draw attention away from more authoritative theories. It also helped to shift lab-origin theories away from mainstream audiences, relegating them to the fringes of dark web conspiracy theories.
Another tactic taken by the CCP is to spin their interpretation of news from other countries in such a fashion as to conclude that the CCP way is best. In 2018, the Party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily ran a piece, praising Xi’s “systematic elaboration” of the advantages of China’s Party system and how he has educated the world on building a better political system. Such commentary will usually be accompanied by reports of some sort of chaos or political turmoil in the United States, India, or Nigeria, arriving at the conclusion that democracy causes disorder, while the CCP system provides stability for citizens.
The Communist Party line is that Western societies do not want the Chinese diaspora to know that the CCP system is better at “providing the world with … a China solution … a better political system,” according to the People’s Daily. And for this reason, the West discredits Chinese overseas media, in order to prevent the diaspora from finding out the true benefits of a one-party, totalitarian regime.
Between April and June, the hashtags #StopAsianHate and #LiMengYan were tweeted and retweeted 30,000 times by more than 6,000 suspicious accounts, all posting the same memes with English phrases. The vast majority of these tweets were made during normal business hours, Beijing time. This campaign was identified across American social media: Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, Google Groups, and Medium, as well as non-U.S. platforms such as TikTok, VK, and a Russian amateur blog site.
Actions of the UFWD are difficult for democratic societies to address because some of the programs fall into the category of freedom of speech, while others are covert actions and espionage that are hard to detect.
Extraterritorial activities of the CCP and the UFWD often violate international law such as the abduction of Swedish national Gui Minhai in Thailand and Lee Bo, a British citizen in Hong Kong. Additionally, they regularly threaten exiled ethnic Uyghurs and Tibetans who speak out against the regime. In other examples, the CCP was aided by foreign governments in extraditing Taiwan citizens suspected of fraud in Kenya, Cambodia, and Spain.
The CCP funds overseas Chinese schools, as well as Confucius Institutes, where Party opinions are disseminated and opposing voices are suppressed. A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute determined that China News Service, the second-largest state-run media group, operates at the behest of the UFWD to influence Chinese diaspora. By controlling diaspora media, funding research at think tanks, and using WeChat and other social media to censor, surveil and control discourse, the UFWD facilitates espionage and unsupervised technology transfer.
About 70 percent of the Chinese diaspora live in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia. To win their support, Beijing offers them a variety of incentives, including money, access to education, support for their businesses, and protection for their intellectual property.
In Malaysia, where nearly 23 percent of the population are ethnic Chinese, CCP officials regularly conduct visits to Chinese communities, endorse pro-China political candidates, and attend meetings of Chinese political parties. In 2018, the Chinese ambassador supported the candidacy of the president of the Malaysian Chinese Association.
In the United States, multiple Chinese scientists have been arrested for technology theft, while thousands of other suspected instances of espionage and coercion are under investigation. In Australia, Canada, the UK, and the United States, on-campus organizations have been heavily infiltrated by the UFWD, spying on international students, suppressing academic freedom, and mobilizing students to protest in support of the interests of the CCP.
During the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in China, Chinese students and diaspora in Australia, Canada, the UK, the United States, Argentina, Japan, and the Czech Republic were told to buy out PPE and other medical supplies in local pharmacies and ship them back to China. Much of this effort was directed by the UFWD linked agency, the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese.
Buying up medical supplies in foreign countries created shortages, increasing the demand for Chinese imports, driving up prices, and ultimately benefitting the CCP economically. This also puts Beijing in the position of a “benevolent savior,” dolling out much-needed medical supplies as part of its international public relations campaign.
Read part 2 here.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.