Amidst the fear of political interference of the Chinese government there is often a reference to one organ of the Chinese State, i.e., the United Front (UF). In some Australian news stories about the China, UF is sometimes dangled to the unsuspecting Australian public as an all-purpose threat in the same way the Red under the Bed was used to scare the living daylight out of a fearful child. Asa recent story in the Sydney Morning Herald shows, suggesting a whiff of connection with the UF on the part of both Chinese diasporic members and Australian politicians could justify as a legitimate angle for a news story. But what is UF, how did it come into being, and is it really a threat to Australian democracy? A better understanding of the UF (not UFO!) might be helpful.
The conceptualization of the UF originated at the beginning of the 20th Century. At its Third National Congress held In June 1923, the CCP that was established only in 1921, made a decision that its members should join the KMT (commonly referred to as the Nationalist Party) under the leadership of Sun Yet-san, which was the CCP’s deadly rival in later years, to fight foreign imperialism and Northern warlords (China was chaotically divided and there were civil wars). The idea was that both the CCP and KMT form a united front to achieve the goal they had in common: set up an effective Chinese nation state. The UF started in 1924, and lasted until 1927 when the KMT under Chiang Kai-shek started to eliminate the CCP members.
In December 1935 at its Wayaobao Conference the CCP decided to have a united front strategy with the KMT the second time, this time to fight the Japanese invasion. In 1939, a department of UF was established under the leadership of Wang Ming, who was Mao’s principal CCP internal rival at that time. In 1948 the Ministry of UF was established to work with the dissident KMT fractions, minority political parties, ethnic communities, overseas Chinese communities and communist parties of other countries. For instance, Song Qingling, widow of Sun Yet-san, recognized as symbol of the dissident KMT, Zhang Bojun of the Democratic Alliance and Huang Yanpei of the Chinese Democratic Nationalist Society were appointed senior positions in the first PRC government that was established in 1949.
The idea of the UF by the CCP have not been a sinister conspiracy to penetrate the enemy but a very open strategy to unite all the can be united for some common purpose. From the perspective of the CCP, the UF demonstrates its open-mindedness and willingness to embrace differences and to have as many friends as possible.
One could argue that this strategy enabled the CCP to have influence and control of the targets of the UF. However from another perspective, the UF enabled other sectors of the society to have influence, however minimum and limited, on the CCP. Open opposition and public criticism of the CCP and the Chinese government might not be allowed but private and behind door advices and consultation from non-CCP sources is part of the Chinese governance. That is why, as an UF strategy, non-CCP celebrities and wealthy business elite, not only inside mainland but also of Hong Kong and Taiwan backgrounds were accepted into the Chinese People’s Congress.
It is possible that some Australians of Chinese ethnic background might have some connection with the Chinese government via the UF strategy, especially regarding the issue of Taiwan. The CCP UF strategy certainly would like to unite as many ethnic Chinese community people as possible to support the unification of Taiwan. Hence the so-called Association for Peaceful Unification of Taiwan that some Chinese Australians are said to have allied to. But there is no solid or conclusive evidence that the Chinese government or the CCP has any design on influencing Australian domestic politics. Even for its own purpose, like its core aim of uniting overseas Chinese communities for a peaceful unification of Taiwan, there is no evidence that the CCP has succeeded in any way. In singling out the UF as a major source of influence from China, the current Australian media stories give more credit to the CCP than it deserves.
Talking of Chinese Australians influencing Australian politics, at least three points need to be remembered: 1) his is what democracy is about: different parties of different interest are to be represented and the Chinese Australians are one party that needs to be represented; 2) donation to political parties by Chinese Australians is the same as donation by Australians of other ethnic background, i.e. to have influence to represent them; 3), donation by the business sector of the Chinese Australians again like donation by the business sector of other ethnic background, is to have influence so that their business would perform better.
Chinese Australian business people’s connection with the UF is actually a lot more banal than is often suggested in the media. Due to their tradition of respect for hierarchy, and also for purposes of cultivating political capital in business dealings with China, the Chinese Australians might be keener than Australians of some other ethnic background on having connections with politicians. For instance, having a photo taken with dignitaries from the Chinese or Australian government is a proof of powerful connections that might be good for business.
In other words, their eagerness to cultivate connection with government officials, Chinese or Australian, is commercial rather than political. For them, publicity with politicians, or even a non-politician like a city mayor, is an indication of network, prestige and access, and therefore good business. Of course such mercantile and non-political motivated practice may indeed lead to corruptions and therefore scrutiny is necessary.
To maintain a cohesive society in Australia it is better to embrace the Chinese Australians than to treat them differently simply because they are from a background that is connected with a country of different political system. Suspicion of the Chinese Australians on political ground is not really different from suspicion of Chinese Australians on cultural or racial ground during the White Australia years. We have to remember that the more we alienate Chinese Australians the more they will resort to their alliance with the Chinese government, with or without the UF.
Mobo Gao, Professor of Chinese Studies, School of Social Sciences, University of Adelaide https://researchers.adelaide.edu.au/profile/mobo.gao