Since Xi Jinping became Party leader in 2012, one of his goals has been to reorganize and take direct control of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) secret service system. This includes the Ministry of State Security, the military intelligence system, and the United Front Work Department (UFWD).
Xi’s reorganizing efforts have been repeatedly stalled by senior rivals within the political faction of former leader Jiang Zemin. The secret service system is dominated by officials in Jiang’s faction from top to bottom, making it difficult for Xi Jinping to intervene, a situation that continues to this day. A new course of action has taken place recently.
Early this month, an “amateur” deputy minister was appointed to the key position of China’s largest and most influential security agency, the UFWD. This shows that Xi Jinping is watching the battle for the top spot in the secret service system and has begun the process of seeding its leadership team with his allies.
Chen Xu, 58, the newly appointed Deputy Minister of the UFWD, was most recently Secretary of the Party Committee for Tsinghua University where she graduated from and worked for the past 40 years.
Chen’s appointment to this senior position raised some eyebrows since she has no direct experience working in the secret service system. Although her life-long experience has been limited to academia, she has been an official in the Communist Party system since 2006.
After becoming aware of Chen’s appointment, Li Yanming, a current affairs commentator, speculated that Xi is introducing new blood to the secret service system and that a bigger purge of existing leaders may be to come.
The UFWD or “United Front” reports directly to the Chinese Government’s Central Committee. With a focus outside China, UFWD leads influence operations affecting ethnic and religious affairs as well as foreign actors and states. The latter is achieved via the recruitment of ethnic Chinese individuals living outside China and co-opting them to help legitimize the CCP and advance its aims.
Recent examples of the UFWD’s influence operations include the establishment of Confucius Institutes on college campuses around the world, the One Belt One Road initiative, the delegitimization of Taiwan as an independent country, and squelching opposition to persecution by Christians and Falun Dafa practitioners.
This United Front Work Department has a successful and somewhat nasty track record of collecting domestic and foreign intelligence and influencing the policy-making of other governments via their social, economic, academic, scientific, and political activities.
One example of UFWD’s aggressive infiltration efforts was exposed earlier this year by MI5, Britain’s national security intelligence agency.
On January 13, MI5 sent a letter to Parliament warning that a Chinese female lawyer based in London was acting as an agent for the CCP and was interfering in British politics.
Referencing the M15 letter, Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the British House of Commons confirmed that the lawyer in question was Christine Lee. Hoyle also stated that Lee works for the Chinese regime’s UFWD.
MI5 alleges that Lee leveraged donations to British politicians as a way of influencing their policies on behalf of the CCP.
Lee’s exposure by M15 reveals how the UFWD secretly recruits a wide range of nondescript overseas targets and how this makes it difficult to identify and guard against them. In turn, these seemingly harmless operatives are taught how to “make friends” and exert “soft power” within political, business, and academic circles for the purpose of advancing the CCP’s aims.
However, gathering intelligence and using it to influence politicians is only one of the UFWD’s aspirations overseas. It also organizes semi-overt secret service activities to cooperate with and carry out the CCP’s instructions.
One example of UFWD’s semi-overt activities is their involvement in the ongoing persecution of Chinese individuals overseas who are affiliated with the Falun Gong spiritual practice.
According to the World Organization to Investigate Persecution of Falun Gong (WOIPFG), the UFWD conducts its semi-overt activities in cooperation with the CCP’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, and Religious Affairs Bureau.
In a report published in 2008, the WOIPFG described an incident that took place in Flushing, NY, where Falun Gong practitioners were mobbed by hundreds if not thousands of UFWD operatives during a legal rally.
The rally had been organized by Falun Gong’s Global Service Center for Quitting the CCP. Its purpose was to show support for and celebrate the global Chinese who chose to discontinue their CCP membership.
The mob activity in New York lasted more than 20 days before turning to street defamation attacks. During this period, the local police provided protection to the Falun Gong practitioners and arrested at least 16 UFWD-recruited operatives.
A subsequent investigation into the matter confirmed the violence toward Falun Gong was premeditated. In addition, opposition to the rally was organized with the involvement of China’s Consulate General in the State of New York.
According to WOIPFG, UFWD launched the NY mob activity to evaluate how the international community would react to their subversive activities. This information was later used by the CCP to recalibrate UFWD’s tactics so future efforts to suppress the Falun Gong would be successful across the globe.