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The United Front in Britain: Tactics that go unnoticed

The Security Service’s (MI5) alert on Christine Lee, reportedly a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spy, operating in the Houses of Parliament should have sent shockwaves across the country, resulting in more media attention about her various connections and networks. It has been pointed out that Lee’s activities are aimed at the cultivation of relations with influential figures, reportedly undertaken in coordination with the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD), with funding provided by foreign nationals located in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Hong Kong.

However, apart from such blatant elite capture in direct cooperation with the UFWD, a more subtle, wider influence is being exerted in the form of the CCP’s United Front strategy. The operation of the United Front strategy does not need to directly involve the United Front Work Department, and once its narrative tools are formulated, they are frequently propagated by people unaware of the existence of either the UFWD or the strategy. 

In essence, the United Front strategy enables the CCP to mobilise all resources to discursively isolate and destroy its enemies, through swaying the opinion of a ‘wavering middle’ that does not yet hold strong favourable or adverse views of the PRC. Those who speak out against the CCP, accurately and on relevant topics, in a manner that may have bearing on its survival, are seen as enemies. As such, many voices that superficially may even appear to be criticising the PRC can in fact be vital assets.

United Front strategy: Key tactics

Such ‘critics’ are often merely pushing sophisticated distractions. Directing attention to minor or irrelevant problems that are shared by most societies is one tactic. Pushing false analogies in order to create comparisons between the PRC’s more serious problems and the free world is another common tactic. Examples include presenting narratives whereby the ‘People’s Republic’ appears much like any other country, dealing with a plethora of minor challenges. Such challenges could include animal welfare issues, domestic violence, growing divorce rates, and an ageing population. 

In reality, however, the PRC is governed by an openly hostile regime engaged in ethnic cleansing, slave labour, commercial organ harvesting and mass surveillance – in short, it is a ‘systemic competitor’. Should anybody have the backbone to bring up ethnic cleansing in PRC occupied regions, one can be confident that a well-prepared range of false analogies such as Black Lives Matter, American internment camps for Japanese civilians during the Second World War, and so on, will immediately surface.

Among other common tactics are relentless gaslighting and guilt-tripping through sometimes centuries-old pseudo-historical fake grievances, as well as more contemporary victim and oppression narratives. These are often carefully curated depending on the political leanings of the targeted demographic. It is almost inconceivable that any Chinese citizen would be genuinely upset by the First Opium War in the year 2022, much as a Cornish person would not fret over the Barbary slave trade.

Many tactics within the United Front strategy operate on the level of culture, and individual and interpersonal psychology. United Front narratives target opinion-formers, such as British politicians, academics and academic administrators, journalists, and key players in the business and commercial sectors. Influence may begin taking shape from an early stage in their career; having the ‘correct narratives’ at times even helps people get where they are. Over time, these narratives penetrate British society at all levels and spread in every direction – bottom-up and top-down –  for example, by people who resent their position in society and are too ignorant to grasp the true implications behind soundbites like the ‘China model’ and the ‘China Dream’. At the same time, CCP narratives are often articulated by people with personal financial or professional interests related to the PRC. In between both ends of the spectrum lies a territory of careless, complacent ‘virtue-signalling’, viewing ‘all cultures as equal’, and all disparity as signs of oppression.

Therefore, not all those engaged in spreading United Front narratives need to be supporters of the CCP, nor are they always aware of the implications of their words. Through correct social positioning, it is possible to be amoral or even dislike the CCP, and yet aid it in its objectives.

How Britain should respond

One of the traditional targets of the United Front strategy has been the Chinese diaspora. Lee is the daughter of a Hong Kong immigrant who moved to Northern Ireland in 1974 during her childhood; this implies that she may not have come to the United Kingdom (UK) as a CCP spy, but may have been radicalised by the CCP’s narratives. Such narratives suggest that due to the disproportionate oppression that Chinese people have supposedly experienced, ‘overseas Chinese’ should work to revive the greatness of China (as the ‘People’s Republic’), with the CCP at its core through the CCP’s appropriation of Chineseness. A vigorous ethno-nationalist chauvinism, a type of Chinese national socialism, has fully emerged from the undercurrents in recent decades.

Along with the above, for those who are correctly positioned in British society, the United Front tactics can provide useful psychological tools for rationalising amoral opportunism to obtain fast profits. They can also be helpful for simultaneous conflict avoidance both in the PRC and free and open countries. By carefully focusing on minor or irrelevant problems in the PRC through a biased lens, one can effectively ingratiate oneself on both sides. Such processes are constantly pursued by the CCP to turn the ‘wavering middle’ into people contributing to its vocalised aims of ‘national rejuvenation’. All this has attracted many Chinese in the diaspora to gravitate towards the United Front’s orbit.

This means Hong Kong-British and their families that have recently moved to the UK via the generous British National (Overseas) visa scheme are among the prime targets of CCP interference and narrative warfare. Consequently, the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities ought to work closely with local authorities to ensure Hong Kong-British and their families are integrated into local communities and that younger generations of Hong Kong-British growing up in the UK do not fall prey to the CCP’s discourses – such as the absurd United Front ‘anti-Asian racism’ narrative prevalent in the UK.

At the same time as the United Front strategy is countered, Her Majesty’s (HM) Government should take decisive action when PRC-style political violence takes place in the UK. Politically motivated assaults such as those on Hongkongers rallying in support of democracy in British towns and cities and by Kong Linlin, a Chinese state-media journalist assaulting a young man at a Conservative Party Conference, should be prosecuted. Such acts of violence are often perpetrated by individuals openly declaring their allegiance to the CCP. Anyone found guilty of committing such crimes while staying in the UK on a visa should be swiftly deported. Police treatment of  Tibetan freedom protesters during Xi Jinping’s 2015 state visit was also wrong; the UK should not be targeting dissidents. 

HM Government should also review its current immigration policy and make sure stringent checks are taking place regarding an individual’s connection to the CCP. The Tier 1 Investment visa ought to be reviewed. It is currently open to people who invest £2 million per year in the UK, with a shortcut to apply for settlement after just two years if an individual invests £10 million per year. Members of the CCP or its Youth League, should be banned from all immigration routes toward settlement and citizenship in the UK.

It is right to open Britain’s doors to British nationals and their families escaping from CCP authoritarianism. However, if the UK wants to remain a safe haven for those who value freedom, British openness should not become a weakness that Britain’s enemies can easily exploit.

Milia Hau is an Associate Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy. Her current doctoral research at SOAS University of London is on UK-PRC relations. Pekki Purppura holds an MA in Chinese Studies from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and an MSc in Psychological Studies from the University of Glasgow.

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