China's influence via WeChat is 'flying under the radar' of most Western democracies

China's United Front Work Department performs its 'biggest magic' through WeChat. Is it time to rein in its covert influence? Should it even be banned?
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

China's WeChat, like most social networks, is a haven for disinformation and "fake news". Less well-known, at least in the West, is its role in mobilising Chinese diaspora communities to support particular political policies or people.

These activities are coordinated through a system known as the United Front, a network of party and state agencies that are responsible for influencing purportedly independent groups outside the Chinese Communist Party.

At the very top, the United Front Work Department is led by China's fourth most senior political leader, Wang Yang. President Xi Jinping and his family have been involved in United Front work for decades.

"Where United Front really works their biggest magic is actually on social media WeChat," says Maree Ma, general manager of Vision Times, a leading Chinese-language Australian media outlet.

WeChat's private groups are capped at 500 members, but according to Ma, there's "hundreds" of United Front organisations in Australia, each of them with many of these groups.

"Some of them have almost 50 of these groups and with 500 people in each, so you can do the math," Ma told a seminar held by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) earlier this month.

"Normally these groups are quite dormant, you know, with posts about where to eat, where to go for holidays, what school to pick," she said.

"But when critical matters come up, information can spread extremely quickly by these groups."

One Australian example was during the 2019 federal election campaign, when WeChat groups targeted Gladys Liu, the Liberal Party's candidate for the electorate of Chisholm in Melbourne.

"When she made initial supportive comments about Hong Kong, there was a sudden spike in negative posts about her being circulated in WeChat groups," Ma said.

"This acted as a warning to her that United Front efforts can help her win the election and win her position, but also take it away from her if she went out of line."

Time and time again, the Chinese diaspora's thoughts and views are shaped by what's being spread on WeChat, says Ma.

That includes opinions on Australian swimmer Mack Horton's snubbing of China's Sun Yang, the Hague ruling on the disputed South China Sea, COVID-19, and the extent of racism towards Chinese people around the world.

"I think WeChat is really flying under the radar of most Western democracies," she said.

These WeChat groups are so important that the leaders of United Front connected organisations can use the number of groups they control as a justification for more funding from the Chinese consulate.

Chinese-language influence operations are only the beginning

ASPI's seminar was organised to discuss their report, titled The party speaks for you: Foreign interference and the Chinese Communist Party's united front system.

According to its author, analyst Alex Joske, these online disinformation and rallying efforts are still relatively uncoordinated with other elements of China's cyber apparatus, such as the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, and the People's Liberation Army.

"I think the whole online disinformation space seems relatively new for the Chinese Communist Party, at least outside of Taiwan," Joske said.

"There have been a lot of examples of what looks like state-backed online activity on Facebook, on the app Line, that target Taiwan, but we're only just starting to see that really go beyond a Chinese language audience," he said.

"While there are bodies that are supposed to coordinate some of these activities, I think in practice it's really quite stovepiped."

That said, United Front organisations can set the ground for subsequent activities such as espionage.

"For example, the United Front Work Department will build up a network of community groups, and then an intelligence agency can come in and recruit people from those organisations, and then networks are essentially already in place for them," Joske said.

From calligraphy to technology transfer

United Front work is also a key influencer of European technology transfers with China, according to Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

"Germany is perhaps a centre in some ways," Tatlow said, because it's a centre for science and technology. Her research has identified around 300 or 330 United Front connected organisations across Germany, and perhaps "over 1,000" across Europe, particularly in the UK, France, Italy, Spain, and the Nordic countries.

"Yeah, it's widespread. There's a lot going on," she said.

At the higher levels, there's what Tatlow calls "elite capture" of German political and business leaders.

One example is the establishment of the China-Brücke (China Bridge), headed by a deputy president of the Bundestag, the German parliament. Others on the board include the German representatives of Huawei and Alibaba, and representatives of other political parties.

But there are also lower-level organisations, coordinated by the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, which now has a network of 37 branches in Germany.

"They connect into so-called cultural friendship associations set up by Germans with perhaps a romantic vision of China, who want to do calligraphy, and this sort of thing," Tatlow said.

"They start out doing calligraphy or music, and suddenly there they are, [on] an all-paid tour of China, visiting AI installations or factories, and business development parks, and technology transfer centres," she said.

"It's a very broad and deep structure."

Tatlow compares the structure of these organisations to mushrooms.

"You've got this sort of spreading mycelium under the ground and then a mushroom pops up here and there ... Ah, this is something belonging to the United Front system or to the Communist Party influence," she said.

"But in reality, these mushrooms are all connected underground by very fine networks."

Is it time to regulate WeChat?

The clear consensus from all panel members was that WeChat's influence is growing and that something needs to be done about it. But what?

"I think the starting point should be to engage with Tencent and WeChat and try to hold it accountable to the same standards as Facebook and Twitter, for example," Joske said.

"Ideally, the ultimate solution would be that there's almost a separate stream of WeChat that has Australian servers and special settings in Australia and it is transparent and free from surveillance, and those settings are built in consultation with the Australian government and with the Australian people," he said.

"But if that doesn't work, I've been thinking maybe we should actually start looking at banning WeChat, sooner rather than later, when it becomes more aggressive and more concerning and more embedded. But, you know, I don't want to see WeChat banned."

However subsequent to this discussion, India has done just that. On Tuesday India banned WeChat and 58 other Chinese apps, saying they were "prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state, and public order".

There are human rights implications to banning media, of course, and Tatlow would prefer to see a "real concerted overall effort" to create awareness throughout the population of how social media can be used to manipulate opinion.

Ma said that Australia should "definitely introduce laws" to regulate WeChat "so it poses less of a national security risk". But she also recognises that WeChat "can't be controlled".

"Western politicians believe, OK, perhaps we can counter the misinformation by having our own presence on WeChat, but just establishing a WeChat platform is not really enough," she said.

"It's not like Twitter or Facebook where you can take down fake accounts ... [China] can close your WeChat group if you're out of line."

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