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China’s propaganda machine in South Asia

The United Front Work Department (UFWD) influences national narratives by aligning or subverting popular opinion, legislation and policy decisions in congruence with the Communist Party of China’s agenda

Written by Shikha Aggarwal |
Updated: March 8, 2021 9:57:33 am
Described by Mao as a “magic weapon” and Xi Jinping as the quintessential instrument to realise the “China Dream”, United Front Work (UFW) involves influencing national narratives by aligning or subverting popular opinion (File)

In the aftermath of the Cold War, international politics briefly flirted with the notion of “end of history”. However, notwithstanding the academic eloquence of the prognosis, the communist regime in China soon emerged as the most complex dynamic of the global political landscape.

The party-state established by the Communist Party of China (CPC) is an arcane structure that rests upon a propaganda and intelligence apparatus to help sustain the communist leviathan within the Chinese body politic, and advance its global interests and international influence. The pivotal agency entrusted with this responsibility is the United Front Work Department (UFWD).

Described by Mao as a “magic weapon” and Xi Jinping as the quintessential instrument to realise the “China Dream”, United Front Work (UFW) involves influencing national narratives by aligning or subverting popular opinion, legislation and policy decisions in congruence with the CPC’s agenda.

Over the past few years, the department has been deepening its footprint within South Asia, including appointing people with UFW backgrounds to head diplomatic missions. This applies to China’s current ambassadors to Pakistan and Bangladesh, and its former representative to Sri Lanka. Already, Buddhism has emerged as the major focus of UFWD activities in the region. The frontal organisations engaged in implementing the department’s agenda are the Buddhist Association of China (BAC), and the Asia-Pacific Exchange and Co-operation Foundation (APECF).

The BAC is the official supervisory authority of Buddhism in China, and counts the CPC-appointed 11th Panchen Lama Gyaltsen Norbu as its Vice President. Since 2006, BAC has been organising the World Buddhist Forum (WBF), which includes a keynote address by the disputed Panchen Lama.

The WBF is China’s primary public relations exercise to project itself as an integral component of Buddhism’s history in Asia, and the leading stakeholder in the contemporary discourse on the religion. It also serves as a platform for China to garner international recognition and acceptance for Gyaltsen Norbu. The WBF has also begun integrating China’s foreign policy objectives within its religious diplomacy, and included the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as one of the session themes at the fifth conference held in 2018.

A crucial component of China’s Buddhism strategy is to propel Lumbini to the forefront of the international narrative on Buddhism, and thereby undermine India’s stature. This design is being realised through massive investments in infrastructure projects in Lumbini. These include the Zhong Hua Chinese Buddhist Monastery constructed by BAC, and the $3-billion “Lumbini Recovery Plan” of APEC. Former Nepal PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal serves as a co-chairmen of APECF.

Another United Front system organisation that is active in South Asia is the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC). The CPAFFC operates through a syndicate of sister concerns in other countries and works towards fostering civil society consensus for China’s politico-strategic ideas and sponsored projects.

Last year, five friendship associations in Sri Lanka issued a joint statement in support of the Hong Kong National Security Law. Further, the India-China Friendship Association proclaimed that it was “doing its best to promote peace among Indian citizens” who were showing “antipathy” against China after the Galwan incident through social media.

In future, UFWD is likely to expand its profile in South Asia through the newly created bureau of New Social Class Work (NSW). Established in 2017, this bureau is mandated to target the “emerging social elites” such as young professionals, especially in IT-related fields, thought leaders, media personnel, etc. The region’s population dynamics and demographic profile make it the ideal arena for the bureau’s operations. This hypothesis gains further credence when juxtaposed against the first ever guidelines for “strengthening the United front work” in private enterprises that were issued in September 2020. It is worth noting that 191 out of the top 500 private enterprises in China are involved in the BRI, and, therefore, have easy access to the programme’s South Asian partners.

UFW is the CPC’s appropriation of Sun Tzu’s dictum to “win wars without fighting”. Therefore, as China faces increasing international scrutiny over its military aggression, economic coercion, and offensive diplomacy, UFWD is poised to become the fulcrum of China’s foreign policy machinations.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 8, 2021 under the title ‘The magic weapon’. Aggarwal is a Sinologist currently based in Taipei on the ‘Taiwan Fellowship’ awarded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Taiwan

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