In a quiet move that largely flew below the radar of Western media outlets, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) issued an updated version of the CCP United Front Work Regulation (中國共產黨統一戰線工作條例) on December 20, 2020. This regulation was accompanied by a circular from the CCP Central Committee that was sent to all the regions and units, ordering them to abide by the newly issued regulations. The issuance of the new regulation was publicly announced by the state-run Xinhua News Agency on January 5, 2021. This release was preceded in May 2015 by a “trial implementation” (試行) version of the regulation—representing the first substantive effort by the CCP since the establishment of the United Front in 1920s to centralize a bureaucratic system dispersed among party, state, and military organs engaging in political warfare both domestically and since the 1990s increasingly overseas. A significant portion of the new regulation is focused on codifying the mission of United Front work towards socially stratified sectors and institutionalizing the authorities among central, provincial, and local organizations. Most notably, the new regulation highlights the United Front’s expanding foreign influence missions, including its “overseas United Front work” and “overseas Chinese work,” as well as its efforts to target “overseas Taiwanese compatriots.”
United Front work boils down to two lines of efforts that are increasingly intertwined. As a 2018 Congressional study highlighted: “To carry out its influence activities abroad, the UFWD [United Front Work Department] directs ‘overseas Chinese work’ […] while a number of other key affiliated organizations guided by China’s broader United Front strategy conduct influence operations targeting foreign actors and states.”
Taiwan and Hong Kong
Three articles in Chapter 9 (of 14) of the regulation are focused on Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Specifically, Article 35 describes the mission of United Front work towards Taiwan as:
Implementing the CCP’s Central Committee’s work on Taiwan, adhering to the “One-China Principle,” broadly uniting Taiwan compatriots at home and abroad [廣泛團結海內外台灣同胞], developing and strengthening Taiwan’s patriotic reunification [sic] force, opposing Taiwan’s secessionist activities, and continuing to promote peace in the motherland for the process of reunification and jointly realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation with one heart.
The new regulation clarifies the 2015 language from “broadly uniting Taiwan compatriots” to “broadly uniting Taiwan compatriots at home and abroad.” In doing so, it emphasizes that the CCP’s United Front targets are expanding to include not only Taiwanese persons in the PRC and Taiwan, but those living overseas as well.
Consistent with the trial version, the newly released United Front regulation also covers efforts targeting Hong Kong. Specifically, Article 34 of the new regulation stipulates that the main objective of United Front work in Hong Kong and Macao is to:
[F]ully and accurately implement the principles of “one country, two systems” [一國兩制], “Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong” [港人治港], “Macao people administering Macao” [澳人治澳], by the guidance of a high degree of autonomy; adhere to and improve the “one country, two systems;” […] safeguard the safe development of national sovereignty and national security; and to maintain the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macao, and ensure the stability and long-term practice of “one country, two systems.
Taking stock of the significant political unrest in Hong Kong over recent years, the new regulation represents a notable shift in tone and makes explicit the United Front’s purpose for ensuring national security. The new regulation adds “safeguarding the safe development of national sovereignty and national security” (維護國家主權安全發展利益) as an objective of United Front work in Hong Kong, which did not appear in the previous version. This suggests that there will be enhanced coordination and integration between United Front work and the security services operating in Hong Kong.
Overseas United Front Work and Overseas Chinese Work
Chapter 10, which includes two articles, centers on overseas work and overseas Chinese work. Specifically, Article 37 of the regulation states that the mission of “overseas United Front work” (海外統一戰線工作) is to:
[S]trengthen ideological and political guidance, enhance the love of overseas Chinese and students studying abroad and their understanding of the CCP and socialism with Chinese characteristics […] to contain the separatist forces such as Taiwan independence, to safeguard core national interests; to play a role as a bridge and link to promote Sino-foreign friendship, and create a good international environment.”
Distinguishing such efforts from more general overseas United Front work, Article 38 of the new regulation stipulates the task of “overseas Chinese work” (僑務工作) as “focusing on the theme of cohesiveness and concerted efforts to share the Chinese dream, strengthen the work of representatives of overseas Chinese, returned overseas Chinese and overseas Chinese dependents, gather the hearts of overseas Chinese, gather their wisdom, exert their strength, and safeguard their interests.”
The regulation specifically states as one of its objectives in engaging with overseas Chinese is to “protect the legitimate rights and interests of overseas Chinese, care about the survival and development of overseas Chinese, and promote the construction of harmonious overseas Chinese associations.” Perhaps in an acknowledgement of the growing number of instances wherein United Front mobilization efforts have provoked social conflict in foreign countries, the regulation includes a provision to “educate and guide overseas Chinese to abide by the laws of the country where they live, respect local culture and customs, and better integrate into the mainstream society.”
Interestingly, the new regulation appears to draw a distinction between the missions of “overseas United Front work”—which includes ethnic Chinese who are foreign nationals—from “overseas Chinese work” focusing on PRC nationals. This represents a departure from the 2015 trial version, which combined Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, and overseas United Front work into one chapter. Moreover, the trial version only referred to overseas work with a focus on overseas Chinese without distinguishing between PRC and non-PRC nationals. Such ambiguities raised concerns by analysts analyzing the applications of United Front work. As noted in a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment study: “In geographic terms, the United Front is tasked to form ‘an alliance of two perimeters’ that extends from the mainland to Greater China and beyond. All Chinese nationals and ethnic Chinese, wherever they may reside in the outer perimeter, fall within the scope of United Front operations.”
The scope of United Front operations continues to include both Chinese nationals and ethnic Chinese overseas, but the new regulation appears to—at least on the surface—make a distinction in terms of how the CCP views these two groups. It is worth noting that the new regulation spells out in great specificity the CCP’s guidance for United Front work targeting both groups. While this distinction is conceptually significant, its practical effects remain to be seen. Realistically, it will likely have little impact on how the CCP utilizes the United Front, especially in terms of its covert activities. Indeed, while the United Front had once been primarily domestically focused, this has radically changed, as Alex Joske, an analyst with Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), observed in his study “The Party Speaks for You”:
United front work encompasses a broad spectrum of activity, from espionage to foreign interference, influence and engagement […]. There’s no clear distinction between overseas and domestic work. Premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來), one of the PRC’s founding revolutionaries and a pioneer of the CCP’s United Front, advocated ‘using the legal to mask the illegal; deftly integrating the legal and the illegal’ (利用合法掩护非法，合法与非法巧妙结合), ‘nestling intelligence within the United Front’ (寓情报于统战中) and ‘using the United Front to push forth intelligence’ (以统战带动情报).
According to the state-owned Xinhua News Agency, “the revised regulations are of great importance as they bring together the will and strength of the people to fully build a modern socialist country and realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.” While the issuance of the new regulation does not signal any significant, previously unknown new measures, it confirms the expansion of the foreign influence mission of United Front that has become more visible in practice since General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) assumed power in 2012. On Hong Kong, it has become more overtly hardened, while its campaign against Taiwan has expanded in scope. The elevated importance of the foreign influence mission of the United Front presents a unique challenge to the United States and other democracies, including Taiwan.
The main point: The updated United Front Work Regulation highlights its expanding foreign influence mission in terms of “overseas United Front work” and “overseas Chinese work,” as well as efforts targeting the “overseas Taiwanese compatriots.”