Shanghai skyline (by MasaneMiyaPA via Wikimedia Commons)

In a recent interview, Tesla CEO Elon Musk praised the Chinese government, calling it “sensitive” to public opinion. “When I meet with Chinese government officials, they’re always very concerned about this. Are people going to be happy about a thing? Is this going to actually serve the benefit of the people?”, Musk said. “It seems ironic, but even though you have sort of a single-party system, they really actually seem to care a lot about the well-being of the people. In fact, they’re maybe even more sensitive to public opinion than what I see in the US.”

Musk’s statements were soon picked up by the Chinese government for propaganda purposes. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a press conference that the praise from Elon Musk was “objective”, and that his conclusion “reflects the real situation”, adding that “China welcomes more foreign friends to visit and get a comprehensive, correct impression of the nation,” the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) newspaper Global Times reported on January 8.

Elon Musk, who as of April 2021 was worth $172.6 billion, has made similar comments over the years. For instance, in July 2020 he said in an interview: “China rocks in my opinion. The energy in China is great. People there – there’s like a lot of smart, hard working people. And they’re really — they’re not entitled, they’re not complacent, whereas I see in the United States increasingly much more complacency and entitlement especially in places like the Bay Area, and L.A. and New York.”

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In December 2014, Lu Wei, the Director of China’s Cyberspace Administration, toured the United States and met with a number of prominent American business people, including Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, and Timothy Cook, the head of Apple. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, showed Lu the company’s office. During the visit, Zuckerberg reportedly pointed at a copy of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s book “The Governance of China” which was lying on his desk. He told Lu that he had bought the book for himself and co-workers to ensure that they understood “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.


In November 2020 The New York Times reported that a number of companies, including Nike, Coca-Cola, Apple, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Campbell Soup Company, Costco, H&M, Patagonia, Tommy Hilfiger and others, lobbied Congress to water down the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which was aimed at barring US companies from relying on the forced labour of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region. The companies argued that the ban was too broad and would disrupt the global supply chain.

In September 2019, US billionaire Michael Bloomberg told Firing Line‘s Margaret Hoover that Xi Jinping “is not a dictator” and that he has to “satisfy his constituents”. He also argued that Chinese Communist officials “listen to the public”. Bloomberg’s media company has been criticized in the past for self-censoring in order not to upset the Chinese government.

These are only some examples of how susceptible corporations are to the influence of the Chinese Communist regime. Ties with the corporate world are only one aspect of Beijing’s wide-ranging influence operations aimed at promoting its interests and at shifting public opinion in favour of the CCP.

It is remarkable how silent corporate America is on human rights issues. The aforementioned statements, if taken at face value, paint a picture of China’s political system that is remarkably different from the reality.

Freedom House categorizes the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as “not free” in its Freedom in the World 2021 report.

China’s authoritarian regime has become increasingly repressive in recent years. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is tightening its control over the state bureaucracy, the media, online speech, religious groups, universities, businesses, and civil society associations, and it has undermined its own already modest rule-of-law reforms. The CCP leader and state president, Xi Jinping, has consolidated personal power to a degree not seen in China for decades, but his actions have also triggered rising discontent among elites within and outside the party …

New evidence indicated the massive scale of projects involving the forced relocation of rural residents, the forced sterilization of Uighur women, the mass detention of Uighurs in “political reeducation” centers, and the imprisonment of tens of thousands of others by the courts …

The authorities continued a years-long crackdown on independent civil society, with new arrests and criminal prosecutions of journalists and activists, as well as onerous scrutiny of foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Authorities also increased restrictions on religious practice by Chinese Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims …

The space for independent academic discussion and research reached new lows, with professors and students facing reprisals—in the form of censored writings, travel restrictions, demotions, arrests, or imprisonment—for expressing views that were deemed critical of CCP governance.

The CCP has also dismantled Hong Kong’s freedoms and civil liberties in violation of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.

As the PRC’s economic power grows, so does its ability to influence governments, media, think tanks, universities and companies around the world. The enlisting of individuals and groups to serve the CCP’s interests is referred to as the “united front” policy, a strategy that dates back to the 1920s and has evolved in recent decades to suit the needs of the regime’s state-led market economy and authoritarian self-preservation.

Table of Contents

  1. The Origins of the United Front
  2. The United Front After Mao – Coopting Capitalism

The Origins of the United Front

The CCP was founded in July 1921 in Shanghai. The main objectives of the party were the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat and an alliance with the Third International, also known as the Communist International (Comintern), an organization of national Communist parties set up in 1919 under the control of the Soviet Union.

Maring, the Comintern agent in China, pushed the CCP to implement the Manifesto issued by the Second Comintern Congress, which argued that the Communist parties around the world could not seize power on their own and needed to seek alliances with “enlightened bourgeois democratic” elements.

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The CCP decided to pursue an alliance with the Guomindang (Chinese Nationalist Party), the party funded by Sun Yat-sen. Although Sun’s ideology was different from that of the Communists, he believed that the Soviet Union’s opposition to Western imperialism could help China’s quest for independence from colonial powers. He also admired the Soviets’ political and military organization.

The Guomindang and the CCP forged a united front which lasted from 1923 to 1927. Starting from the Guomindang-controlled base in Guangdong province, the two parties launched a military expedition that defeated regional warlords and unified a large area of China.

However, the new leader of the Guomindang, Chiang Kai-shek, was a staunch anti-Communist who viewed the CCP as an existential threat. As soon as Guomindang troops occupied Shanghai, Chiang ordered a crackdown on the Communists which started on 12 April 1927. The final break in the united front came on 15 July, when the Guomindang decreed that its members could not concurrently be CCP party members, and ordered them to renounce their allegiance to Communism (see Dillon, M. (2010). China. A Modern History, Chapter 8).

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After Chiang took over China’s government, he continued to pursue his fight against the Communists, and he came close to winning it. In the 1930s the CCP was on the brink of collapse. After having been defeated by the Guomindang armies, the Communists retreated to Yan’an in a perilous nearly 10,000-kilometre-long journey which came to be known as the Long March (October 1934-October 1935). Communist forces had been reduced from 80,000 to just around 9,000 (Groot, G. (2004). Managing Transitions: The Chinese Communist Party, United Front Work, Corporatism and Hegemony, chapter 1).

However, Chiang’s obsession with destroying the Communists was out of touch with public opinion. In 1931 the Japanese had invaded China and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo in the Northeast. Many Chinese, including within the Guomindang, wanted to focus the nation’s efforts on repealing the foreign aggressor (Dillon 2010, chapter 9).

In 1935, the CCP published united front appeals following a resolution of the Comintern’s 7th Congress which called for an anti-fascist united front. After it had failed to gain broad support with far-left slogans, the CCP changed its strategy, focusing on patriotic resistance to Japanese invasion and on democracy. The CCP sought to cooperate with other parties and groups, while at the same time undermining the position of the ruling Guomindang (Groot 2004, chapter 1).

In December 1935 Communist leader Mao Zedong gave a speech titled “On Tactics Against Japanese Imperialism“, outlining the new CCP strategy:

The Party’s new tactics of a broad united front start from the two fundamental facts that Japanese imperialism is bent on reducing all China to a colony and that China’s revolutionary forces still have serious weaknesses. In order to attack the forces of the counter-revolution, what the revolutionary forces need today is to organize millions upon millions of the masses and move a mighty revolutionary army into action. The plain truth is that only a force of such magnitude can crush the Japanese imperialists and the traitors and collaborators. Therefore, united front tactics are the only Marxist-Leninist tactics.

If our government [in the CCP-occupied areas] has hitherto been based on the alliance of the workers, the peasants and the urban petty bourgeoisie, from now on it must be so transformed as to include also the members of all other classes who are willing to take part in the national revolution.

At the present time, the basic task of such a government should be to oppose the annexation of China by Japanese imperialism. It will have a broader representation so that it may include those who are interested only in the national revolution and not in the agrarian revolution, and even, if they so desire, those who may oppose Japanese imperialism and its running dogs, though they are not opposed to the European and U.S. imperialists because of their close ties with the latter.

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On 12 December 1936, Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped by his own generals, an event known as the Xi’an Incident. His troops demanded that he stop the civil war against the Communists and launch a campaign against the Japanese. Chiang relented (Dillon 2010, chapter 9).

The willingness of the Guomindang to cooperate with the CCP set the stage for the second united front, which allowed the Communists to pursue a strategy that would lead to their ultimate triumph: using patriotic slogans and promises of democracy and social justice to gain support; undermining, weakening and delegitimizing the Guomindang and other adversaries; obtaining enough power to eventually install a dictatorship.

In January 1940 Mao gave a speech titled “On New Democracy“, in which he advocated for cooperation with all groups who wanted to join the fight against “imperialism and feudalism”. But he also explained that the liberation of China was only the first step towards a socialist revolution:

Without a doubt, the present revolution is the first step, which will develop into the second step, that of socialism, at a later date. And China will attain true happiness only when she enters the socialist era. But today is not yet the time to introduce socialism. The present task of the revolution in China is to fight imperialism and feudalism, and socialism is out of the question until this task is completed.

The united front, as envisioned by the CCP, was a means to an end, a way to weaken adversaries, strengthen itself, and gradually impose its agenda. As Groot explained:

To accomplish the dramatic changes its revolution demanded, the CCP set out to destroy the legitimacy of existing ideologies and their economic and philosophical underpinnings. Party ideology would fill the vacuum and communist hegemony, in the form of an historic bloc, would be complete. A major aspect of CCP political education was the united front principle of uniting with allies in order to eliminate enemies one-by-one. With each victory, ‘clear lines between reactionaries and revolutionaries,’ and between progressives and moderates, were redrawn.

(Groot 2004, chapter 4)

The CCP succeeded in coopting other parties and groups, and in exploiting the Guomindang’s weaknesses to seize power in 1949. But after its victory, the CCP began to move the goalpost further and further to the extreme left, launching a series of ideological campaigns and creating an unprecedented system of brainwashing. As Mao’s personality cult became increasingly radical, the united front strategy lost its relevance, replaced by the ideological and factional strife of the Cultural Revolution.


The United Front After Mao – Coopting Capitalism

During the Reform and Opening up era initiated by Deng Xiaoping, united front tactics were resumed and adjusted to the PRC’s drive for economic modernization. At the 15th National United Front Work Conference held between December 1981 and January 1982, the CCP recognized the importance of expanding united front work to target groups outside the Party (Groot 2004, chapter 8). The united front strategy was thus utilized to seek the support of entrepreneurs, professionals, scientists, and “patriotic” individuals in Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas Chinese.

Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, Beijing has expanded the assertive foreign policies initiated by his predecessors. These policies aim to redefine the PRC’s role in the world and create a “China option” narrative which presents the PRC as a more efficient developmental model than liberal democracies (Diamond, L. and Schell, O. (eds.) (2019). China’s Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance, Introduction).

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The PRC has been seeking to expand its influence abroad through various methods that risk to undermine democratic processes. The purpose of these influence operations is to sway, infiltrate and coopt a range of groups and institutions, including Chinese communities and Chinese students abroad, foreign civil society organizations, academic institutions, think tanks, and media. Some of these methods are normal diplomatic efforts as pursued by other countries. Others, however, involve coercive and corrupting strategies to pressure individuals and groups.

The CCP increasingly views liberal democracy as a threat to its own efforts to justify and defend its political legitimacy. By exploiting liberal democracies’ openness, Beijing can wage an asymmetric struggle in which it can advance its own aims, while it prevents foreign citizens to engage with China on a reciprocal basis.

The PRC seeks to promote views sympathetic to the Chinese regime and to suppress alternative opinions, as well as to coopt individuals and groups to support Beijing’s foreign policy goals and economic interests. “Except for Russia, no other country’s effort to influence American politics and society is as extensive and well-funded as the PRC’s” (ibid.).

The PRC’s party-state apparatus leverages a number of actors ranging from institutional organs such as the United Front Work Department, to private sector companies and organizations, which in the context of the PRC are not clearly distinguishable from the state itself.

Beijing seeks to identify and cultivate rising politicians. Chinese entities employ prominent lobbying and public relations firms and cooperate with influential civic society groups. In some cases the PRC has used private citizens and companies to exploit loopholes to circumvent foreign contribution laws (ibid.).

We have already mentioned some examples of Beijing’s united front influence strategies at the beginning of the article, but there are countless more.

For instance, on April 27 Germany’s Deutschlandfunk reported that the conservative lawmaker and vice president of the federal legislature, Hans-Peter Friedrich, said that “China is not a dictatorship, China is a state where basically one party, namely the Communist Party, rules. We just need to acknowledge that.”

Friedrich is chairman of “China Bridge” (China-Brücke), an organization that seeks to promote “dialogue” with China. Its members’ list is secret, but representatives of Chinese corporations such as Huawei and Alibaba have seats in its executive committee.


In 2020, Chinese companies like ByteDance, the parent of video app TikTok, Alibaba Group Holding, and Tencent Holdings, the operator of the chat app WeChat, spent $2.61 million, $3.16 million, and $1.52 million respectively to lobby the US Congress. Although these figures are low compared with the sums American companies spend, this shows the weakness of the US system and the huge potential for foreign influence.

On April 22, China’s foreign vice minister Xie Feng met with the chairman and president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, as well as with representatives from major companies including General Motors, Ford, Disney, Delta, United Airlines and the United Parcel Service (UPS).

“US businesses are stakeholders in cooperation between China and the US,” he said. “We hope that everyone will exert active influence to push the US government to cancel its tariffs on China, to stop its ‘decoupling’ efforts, and to stop unreasonably suppressing Chinese businesses, providing a fair, just and non-discriminatory environment for Chinese businesses in the US.”

China has been pursuing unfair trade pactices for decades.

When foreign companies openly defy the CCP’s bottom line, Beijing has been willing to engage in “aggressive forms of economic statecraft”, which include denying access to foreign companies, discriminating against them or organizing boycotts (Diamond, Schell 2019, chapter 7).

In March of this year, major Western clothing brands faced a boycott after they voiced concern over the use of forced labour in Xinjiang to produce cotton. Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily called for the boycott of the brands, which included big names such as H&M, Nike, Calvin Klein and Adidas. Soon they were pulled from major e-commerce websites in China and blocked by several search, review and rating apps. Chinese celebrities cancelled contracts and threatened to cut ties with them. The CCP’s totalitarian system can marshall the full strength of the state, the media and society to harm private companies if it so chooses.

In 2017 Beijing orchestrated a boycott of the South Korean conglomerate Lotte after the company approved a land swap deal that allowed the government in Seoul to deploy a controversial US missile defence system which the CCP opposed.

The Chinese government also routinely harasses companies that refuse to endorse its territorial claims over independent Taiwan. In April the bureau of planning and natural resources in Shanghai summoned representatives of H&M and urged them to change the categorization of Taiwan as a country on the company’s website. CCP mouthpiece Global Times reported:

During the talk, the regulators pointed out the company’s violation of Chinese laws and regulations and ordered it to operate the website according to law. The regulators said they will carry out supervision and inspection in the future.

In addition, they asked the company to study Chinese law about cybersecurity, map management and relevant regulations carefully and informed the company that they must “use maps properly without any mistakes.”

“Problematic maps” mainly refer to maps endangering national sovereignty and unity, territorial integrity, security and interests, according to the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources.

According to the Global Times reporter’s search, now provides choices of location to customers with “Mainland China,” “Hong Kong SAR” and “Taiwan Region,” among other countries and regions.

In August 2019 the brands Coach and Givenchy, Asics, Calvin Klein and Fresh issued apologies after Chinese netizens launched online campaigns against them for implying that Taiwan and Hong Kong are not part of China on company websites and on T-shirts.

The stories of Western companies having to apologize and bow to Beijing’s political agenda and territorial expansion are simply too numerous to be listed here.

Apart from direct economic pressure, the CCP enlists witting or unwitting foreign individuals, who become agents of Beijing’s propaganda and interests.

In a Jan. 24 interview with The Wire China, Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, refused to acknowledge Beijing’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and deflected by attacking the US.

“We have huge human rights abuses committed by the U.S. on so many fronts that the first thing we need to do is think of Jesus’s admonition: Why do you look at the mote in the other’s eye, and not the beam in your own?” Sachs said.

This narrative perfectly aligns with the CCP’s strategy of using whataboutism to deflect from criticism, and of depicting the US as a monolithic entity rather than as a community of individuals with different ideas.

Similarly, Martin Jacques, an author who has shaped the Western perception of the PRC with his bestselling book “When China Rules The World“, has emerged as a propagandist for the CCP.

In the 1980s, Jacques was the editor of the pro-Communist magazine Marxism Today.

The PRC’s influence operations are particularly dangerous because they are backed up not only by the country’s economic might, but also by its bureaucratic apparatus which spreads the message of the CCP leadership and attacks opposition figures.

The PRC has a plethora of organizations responsible for its domestic and foreign influence measures. The most important are the Foreign Affairs Commission, the External Propaganda Leading Group/State Council Information Office, the CCP Propaganda Department, the CCP United Front Work Department (UFWD), the CCP International Liaison Department, and united front departments inside the People’s Liberation Army (Diamond, Schell 2019, Annex I).

The UFWD has become prominent as a symbol of united front work. The UFWD focuses on building support for the CCP and its policies among domestic ethnic groups, religious groups, the eight “democratic parties“, the Chinese diaspora, and political, economic and social elites in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

Although the functions of the UFWD are limited, the term “united front” has come to include the CCP’s strategy of influencing individuals and groups that can be enlisted to support its policies and interests (ibid.).

Resources and coordination allow the CCP to carry out active measures similar to those of Putin’s Russia, and potentially even more insidious. Beijing has begun setting up its own think tanks in the US and has sought to influence existing ones (ibid.). It has a network of English-language media outlets that take advantage of liberal democracies’ open internet. It can also potentially acquire media companies directly or indirectly. For example, in 2019 the Chinese tech giant Tencent invested $150 million in the popular internet aggregator Reddit. Reddit’s communities such as r/Sino have become platforms for CCP propaganda.

Another tool used by the CCP is its vast army of internet trolls, which is engaged in a “struggle to control online public opinion.” As Ryan Fedasiuk wrote:

[I]n addition to 2 million paid internet commentators, the CCP today draws on a network of more than 20 million part-time volunteers to engage in internet trolling, many of whom are university students and members of the Communist Youth League (CYL; 共产主义青年团, gongchan zhuyi qingnian tuan). [A]lthough internet commentators are primarily concerned with shaping China’s domestic information environment, they are growing in number, and the scope of the Party’s public opinion war (舆论战; yulun zhan) is broadening to include foreigners.

Putin’s regime’s meddling in the 2016 and 2020 elections, its active measures campaigns and cultivation of ties with US individuals showed to the world the fragility of liberal democracy. If a foreign regime, one that is wealthier, mightier and more efficient than Russia, should succeed not only in influencing public opinion and recruiting propagandists, but also to control powerful corporations and flood the zone with dark money, then democracy itself may this time not come out as the winner.

Thank you for reading!

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