Revealing China’s “Hidden Hand”

Issue Date October 2020
Volume 31
Issue 4
Page Numbers 182-185
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Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Re-shaping the World. By Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg. London: Oneworld, 2020. 280 pp.

Legal threats and letters delayed the publication of this book on the united front strategy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and how that strategy operates in Europe and North America. You cannot buy publicity like that. Media coverage of the controversy has ensured reprints already. It is an object lesson for Xi Jinping’s Central Propaganda Department: If you want publicity for something, pretend you object to it and threaten to sue; if you want to kill a story, the best thing is to keep quiet.

In 2018, the Australian public intellectual Clive Hamilton published Silent Invasion, his first foray against CCP influence and interference abroad. (There is a difference: The first is called “public diplomacy” and all countries do it; the second is what Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull called “covert, coercive, or corrupt[ing],” and the CCP devotes vast resources to the dire art.) Silent Invasion was a rollicking polemic in the best Australian tradition; it aimed to expose CCP attempts to bend Australia to a CCP narrative and detach the country from its allies.

About the Author

Charles Partonsenior associate of the Royal United Services Institute in London, spent 22 years of the 37 he served as a British and then EU diplomat working in or on China. He has advised the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament on its China reports. His recent reports include China-U.K. Relations: Where to Draw the Border Between Influence and Interference? and Towards a U.K. Strategy and Policies for Relations with China.

View all work by Charles Parton

Hidden Hand comes from the same kitchen. It offers the reader a gallimaufry of incidents, people, events, and organizations—all thrown into the pot, sometimes fittingly, occasionally jarringly. Some may condemn this as a merely polemical stew, but (to shift the metaphor) the authors’ unabashed aim is indeed to throw grenades. They want to rouse Europeans [End Page 182] and North Americans from their complacent slumbers, and to expose those who put their personal interests above the values they say they espouse and above the general good. If that means occasional overinterpretations, they are the casualties of combat. And this book is nothing if not “combatatative”—the neologism captures the high rate of fire which Hamilton and Ohlberg aim at the target.

Hidden Hand is also a highly readable primer on the united front strategy and how the CCP interferes in the internal affairs of other countries (the CCP does a fine line in hypocrisy; how often do we hear that phrase whenever foreigners express views on China?). Ohlberg is a fluent speaker and reader of Chinese, an excellent China scholar with an intimate knowledge of the CCP’s workings and an ability to explain clearly what the united front strategy is and how the CCP implements it. You do not have to be a China scholar to follow the passages which lay these out, although it helps if you have a memory for impossible acronyms containing the letter C in profusion. Fortunately, there is an annex setting out organizations and their acronyms, as well as 123 pages of notes, a highly useful feature for those wishing to dig more deeply. Indeed, one of the strengths of the book is that almost every assertion is backed up by a reference, allowing interested readers to make up their own minds on a claim’s reliability and significance.

Besides its value as a polemic and primer, the book has a third purpose. That is to ask: How are likeminded democracies to deal with CCP interference? This is where the reader must work a bit harder. The text supplies or implies many suggestions, but does not set them out in one place for easy digestion. Fair enough, this is not a policy paper; there are enough of those elsewhere to mine for ideas and solutions. Waking the broader public and politicians to the issue and explaining it to them are the first and most crucial steps. A lack of understanding of the CCP, its aims, and its methods remains rife—and there are those who do not wish to be awakened.

Although the primary role of the CCP Central Committee’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) is to align non-Party elements of society with CCP interests, the UFWD is also a very significant player in promoting those interests abroad. First, it sets the united front strategy, whose goals the authors define as “to induce, co-opt and coerce those outside the Party to form a ‘united front’—or coalition of groups that act in ways that suit the Party’s interests—and to undermine those it designates as [End Page 183] enemies” (p. 16). Second, the UFWD oversees “a sprawling infrastructure of Party agencies, and organisations linked to the Party, and forms the core of the Party’s overseas influence and interference activity” (p. 17). Importantly, “united front work is not confined to the activities of the UFWD, but is the responsibility of every Party member” (p. 17).

Hamilton and Ohlberg are particularly good at documenting united front organizations in China and tracing their overseas networks of subordinate or linked cultural and business associations and bodies. Behind the tortuous titles featuring the words “friendly” or “peaceful” are organizations with close links to the party-state’s intelligence and propaganda arms, or to wider CCP aims that go well beyond “people–to-people” exchanges and routinely pressuring Taiwan. The China Association for International Friendly Contact, the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification, and the U.S. National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification are not the anodyne bodies which their names suggest.

The strategy’s sheer breadth is impressive. In country after country, it targets for interference and subversion the worlds of business, the media, politics and lobbying, academia and think tanks, the overseas Chinese community, and more. Covering each category, the authors explain the mechanisms, pressures, and inducements which the CCP brings to bear.

The authors do, however, at times risk undermining their aims by straying into exaggeration or overinterpretation. An example of the former—as a longtime British-government employee I am competent to comment on U.K. rather than U.S. or European examples—is the description of the United Kingdom’s 48 Group Club as having “built itself into the most powerful instrument of Beijing’s influence and intelligence gathering in the United Kingdom” (p. 64). The Club (an association of about five-hundred people, mostly from business ranks) drew raised eyebrows, if not outright derision, within the British government. Its only real activity currently is an annual dinner-dance where some influential U.K. figures mingle with Chinese diplomats and businesspeople. While not a few of the Chinese minglers do have UFWD ties, the Club’s influence on British policy has always been zero and the networking opportunities it gives to the CCP are minimal.

The authors also err in implying that the Great Britain–China Centre (GBCC), which is partly funded by the U.K. Foreign Office, is somehow in thrall to the CCP. Yet the GBCC is a force for good, for example in trying to train Chinese judges, and its president Peter Mandelson is no CCP patsy. There are plenty of genuinely worrying instances to back up the authors’ contentions; this is not one of them.

The authors have a good point to make about those who consciously or unconsciously echo CCP language or biao tai (literally “express an attitude”). Such echoes add respectability to the propaganda and help the CCP to launder its reputation. The CCP can also turn this language against [End Page 184] its unwary users, asking them: “How can you say or do X or Y [against a CCP preference] when you have agreed to A and B?”

And some really do deserve to be called out, not least the retired politicians and civil servants who, with varying degrees of willful ignorance or sheer greed, put their thirty pieces of CCP silver above their respective countries’ national security, interests, or values. The authors do not shrink from naming names. If a few years ago it was excusable to be ignorant of the abuses in Xinjiang (it was not, even then; an egregious example is a Volkswagen director, responsible for VW’s factories there, who declared himself unaware of Uyghurs being repressed), that is the case no longer: News about the concentration camps is ubiquitous. Europeans who work for Huawei have no excuse for not knowing that the firm operates three laboratories jointly with the region’s public-security authorities.

We can take some comfort from noting how bad the CCP is at soft power. Its poor handling of external propaganda during the covid-19 crisis has been a major factor in making liberal democracies look more closely into the Belt and Road Initiative and CCP activity generally. Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and Huawei-related bullying have also played their parts. Democracies—even in Europe—are waking up, even if slowly.

If there is one lesson for the reader to draw, it is that we must keep up our guard and change our defenses in the face of new challenges. There is no new Cold War, but there is a Values War. We (certainly in Europe) should seek good relations with China, but never at the expense of our security, our interests, or our democratic values. There are limits, and we must learn to see them, set them, and stick to them. Good fences make good neighbors.

For that, the first step is to gain a better knowledge of the CCP, its strategies, resources, and methods. Herein lies the importance of Hidden Hand. Anyone who deals with the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—whether as a policy maker or in business, the academy, or a think tank—should read this book. Indeed, anyone who deals with the PRC in any capacity should read it. If now and then the authors read too much into a word or deed, we ignore their analysis and warnings at our peril. It takes courage to prod somnolent liberal democracies out of their complacent and dangerous incomprehension of the CCP. We are in Hamilton’s and Ohlberg’s debt. [End Page 185]