During the 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), those senior leaders in different departments of the party — who seldom step forward for the public’s attention — have been hosting a series of press conferences and directly answering reporters’ questions. Some of these press conferences have also been broadcast live online.
Although most of the reporters who have been allowed to report the Congress are from China’s state media, and thus refrained from asking critical questions, the once-every-five-year National Congress still gave observers of China a rare chance to peek behind the thick curtain of the party, which functions like a black box most of the time.
On October 20, for example, Zhang Yijiong, the executive deputy head of the United Front Work Department (UFWD), showed up in a press conference on the sidelines of the CCP’s 19th National Party Congress and introduced the UFWD. He explained that “the United Front is the political coalition of all parties, all walks of life, all ethnic groups, and all associations.”
As it’s hard to grasp the essence of the UFWD’s role through Zhang’s ambiguous rhetoric, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the department. In fact, the UFWD is one of five departments directly under the CCP Central Committee. (The other four are the Propaganda Department, the International [Liaison] Department, the Organization Department and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.) The UFWD plays a low-profile but important role that is easily overlooked by people outside of the party.
A Brief History of the UFWD
To understand what the UFWD is, it is necessary to understand the United Front (UF) and the political logic behind it.
The idea of the UF originated from Leninism. Leninism held that people were divided by class and the communist was the representative of the proletarians; the communist’s goal was to overthrow the capitalism oppressing the proletarians and achieve socialism and finally communism. However, to achieve this final goal, the communist could use some temporary expedients, such as allying with more minor enemies against the major target.
From this came the idea of the United Front.
In 1924, the newborn CCP quickly put this Leninist idea into practice by allying with the Kuomintang (KMT), hoping to eat the KMT away from within. Although the first UF with the KMT failed in 1927, Mao Zedong inherited the idea and argued that the CCP should take full advantage of the UF to expand the party. During the Chinese civil war, for example, the CCP used the UF to recruit all social forces as long as they opposed the KMT.
After the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as the direct and major enemies of the CCP — the KMT — had been defeated. Those who used to be allied with the CCP under the UF, such as the bourgeoisie, intellectuals, and religious groups, gradually became the object of dictatorship.
In the Deng Xiaoping era, the focus of the UFWD shifted back to alliance with non-party members, particularly those from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. Since Xi Jinping came into office, he has expanded the UFWD’s responsibility even wider.
The Structure of the UFWD
According to its website, the UFWD is composed of four functional offices (the General Office, the Policy Research Office, the Party Committee, and the Retired Cadres Office) and nine specialized bureaus, two of which have been created under Xi’s administration.
Bureau One is responsible for “Democratic Party Affairs.” There are a series of official “democratic parties” in China, but these parties are required to follow the lead of the CCP. These “democratic parties,” together with other independent members, attend the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political advisory body, every year . Bureau I is responsible for handling work related to these other political parties, such as collecting advice and suggestions from the parties and conveying the CCP’s policies to them. In addition to conveying information, it also controls the personnel and promotions within the democratic parties. Without the UFWD’s approval, it’s unlikely anyone could become a democratic party’s leader. (The principle also applies to other bureaus.)
Bureau Two, Minority and Religious Affairs, is responsible for ethnic and religious work, such as conducting research and making policy recommendations, and contacting minority and religious representatives. Issues related to Tibet and Xinjiang, however have their own separate bureau (Bureaus Seven and Nine respectively.) Bureau Nine, the Xinjiang Affairs Bureau, was created under Xi Jinping, having been divided out from the Minorities and Religious Affairs Bureau.
Bureau Three is the Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and Overseas Liaison Bureau. It is responsible for promoting “one country, two system” in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan as well as recruiting pro-China people from overseas and collecting information worldwide.
Bureau Four, Cadre Affairs, is responsible for non-CCP cadres’ affairs, including cultivating, selecting, inspecting, and recommending non-CCP members for political or governmental positions. Bureau Six plays a related role, as it is responsible for contacting and training non-party members and intellectuals from outside the CCP.
Bureau Five, Economic Affairs, is responsible for work related to the private sectors of China’s economy, such as researching the non-public economy and cultivating representatives of the privates economy and helping them understand the CCP’s policy. Bureau Eight, another new bureau created under Xi, focuses specifically on China’s “New Social Class,” recruiting people such as private entrepreneurs, investors, and other independent professionals.
The Role of the UFWD
Although the CCP’s description of the UFWD always tends to be ambiguous, the implication is actually apparent under the logic of the UF as explained above. In plain words, the UFWD’s role is to collect information (and it necessarily would involve intelligence collecting), co-opt non-CCP elites into political center, and control them accordingly.
Generally speaking, each individual outside of the CCP with fame, wealth, or influence on public opinion can be a “target” of the UFWD. The most common way of co-opting such people is “recommending” the elites to the CPPCC. Yet, it’s worth noting that those who are absorbed into the UF are not regarded as loyal followers of the party either. They are just not “direct enemies.”
In theory, the UF will ultimately disintegrate or absorb all the party’s “enemies,” enhance the state’s legitimacy, and keep society stable. That’s why Zhang said, quoting Xi Jinping, that “the United Front is an important magic weapon for the the party’s victory.”