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The United Front: A Case Study
The CCP’s “Magic Weapon”
In the modern era, the term United Front describes both the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) approach to influence operations as well as the United Front Work Department (UFWD), the party-state-military apparatus tasked with influencing, indoctrinating, and mobilizing non-CCP persons and organizations to serve the party’s objectives wittingly or unwittingly.
United Front work encompasses a broad spectrum of activity, from espionage to foreign interference, influence, and engagement. Premier Zhou Enlai, one of the PRC’s founding revolutionaries and a pioneer of the CCP’s United Front, advocated “using the legal to mask the illegal” (利用合法掩护非法，合法与非法巧妙结合) and nesting intelligence operations within the United Front. Xi Jinping has elevated the role of the UFWD within the party, adding nearly 40,000 officials and calling for it to carry out the “discourse war.”
The United Front poses a very real threat to America and her allies. The story below is just one example of how the organization tries to co-opt individuals into doing the bidding of the CCP.
The case of Anna Lindstedt illustrates with unusual clarity how the CCP combines clandestine United Front work with overt propaganda to try to dominate an information space. Lindstedt was Sweden’s ambassador to China in January 2019 when she brokered a series of secret meetings in Stockholm between a pair of businessmen and Angela Gui. Ms. Gui’s father, Gui Minhai, was a Hong Kong-based author with Swedish citizenship who published and sold books critical of the CCP. In 2015, he was abducted from Thailand and resurfaced in police custody in China, where he was convicted in early 2020 of “providing intelligence overseas.” Ms. Gui has publicly championed her father’s case, helping to make it an international cause célèbre, especially in Hong Kong, where it signaled an alarming intensification of the CCP’s grip on the city, and in Sweden, where it sparked a downward spiral in relations with China.
In an effort to silence the controversy, China turned to local agents of influence. International media have reported extensively on the Stockholm meetings and the backgrounds of the two businessmen who initiated them after cultivating relationships with Lindstedt. Neither businessman can be tied publicly to the Chinese state; instead their association bears all of the hallmarks of a United Front operation. One, a PRC national known as Kevin Liu, has close ties with the Chinese embassy in Sweden and worked as a fixer between high-ranking officials, businesspeople, and academics from the two countries. He evaded a ban on entry into the EU by entering Sweden on a visa and passport issued under a different name, a subterfuge that suggests the connivance of PRC authorities. In fact, he has assumed several names over the years, and his true identity remains unclear, even to many of the Swedes he worked with. The other businessman, a Sri Lankan-born resident of Finland named John Meewella, prospered as Liu’s business partner in several Hong Kong- and PRC-registered ventures and has received awards from various levels of the Chinese government, including the nation’s highest award for foreign experts, the Friendship Award.
Over three days in Stockholm, during which Liu, Meewella, and Lindstedt also met with China’s ambassador to Sweden, the conversations with Ms. Gui progressed from flattery and reassurance to overt pressure. Meewella implied that her father’s fate urgently depended on her agreeing to abandon her fierce public advocacy of his cause, and dangled before her the possibilities of employment and financial assistance. Ambassador Lindstedt reportedly urged Ms. Gui to accept the bargain. Ms. Gui refused and left feeling threatened and betrayed.
The United Front apparently compromised the judgment of an experienced Swedish diplomat; it enlisted her in an effort to silence a fellow citizen not just on the most contentious issue in their country’s relationship with China, but also on the fate of an imprisoned parent. After Ms. Gui publicized the affair, the Swedish government dismissed Lindstedt and prosecuted her for “arbitrary conduct in negotiating with a foreign power.” Lindstedt was acquitted in July 2020 in part because prosecutors could not overcome the problem of attribution intrinsic to a United Front operation; they could not in fact establish that Liu and Meewella represented a foreign power. Liu returned to China, and Meewella has tried to scrub online evidence of his involvement. Throughout, China has mounted an intense propaganda campaign across traditional and new media to defend its handling of Gui’s case and to disavow any connection to the Lindstedt affair. This campaign includes a staged prison confession from Gui Minhai himself, threats, personal accusations, and “public criticism of Swedish media outlets, journalists, scholars, human rights activists, political parties and authorities,” with China’s outspoken ambassador to Sweden playing a starring role.
For more information on this story from the Hoover Institute, please look at the original text here.
Going forward we will be posting more examples of United Front activity.