By Charles Burton, March 8, 2023
Promulgation of disinformation is a well established, pervasive, long accepted and deeply entrenched central aspect of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) domestic and international political strategy.
In the early period of the CCP’s rise to power, it sought to convince non-Communists to support the Party’s revolutionary program. It did so by offering incentives through false assurances about their political fate when the revolution came – but only if they collaborated with the Communist Party and disassociated from the Communist Party’s political rivals. This is the essence of the Party’s United Front work (統一戰綫工作). Originally, the CCP used this systemic tactic on people outside the Party in order to dissemble its Marxist revolutionary intentions for China.
The CCP’s United Front Work Department secretly developed and implemented a strategy of carefully crafted deception about the true intentions of the Party’s revolutionary, “vanguard of the proletariat” esoteric doctrine, designed to allow the Communist Party to better achieve its ideological purposes. It did so by manipulating non-communist institutions into complying with the Party’s overall revolutionary agenda, despite this being an agenda that was, in fact, designed to ultimately undermine non-Communist institutions. This overall purpose has been sustained to the present day.
For example, the CCP is opposed to all religious belief, as religion is understood as regressive feudal ideology. But before the 1949 revolution, most Chinese people were Buddhists or Daoists, Muslims, and a few were Christians. As the Communist Party endeavoured to achieve full political control over society, the Party adopted a strategy of giving false assurances that religious institutions would be allowed to continue functioning, providing they supported the Communist government and disassociated from rival political parties.
By the early 1950s, however, after the CCP had strategically consolidated its dominance over Chinese society, the Buddhists and Christians immediately lost their religious autonomy and were co-opted into the United Front Work Department’s subordinate organizations answerable only to the Party’s “religious affairs bureau.” The Chinese Catholics were required to renounce the authority of the Vatican and Pope and be directed by the Catholic Patriotic Association in Beijing instead. Bishops who communicated with Rome were subject to long periods of incarceration. The Daoists who had refused to cooperate with Communist authorities were brutally suppressed and their leaders imprisoned. By the late 1960s, religious observance of all kinds were forbidden altogether and Buddhist temples destroyed or used for other purposes such as grain storage.
This United Front strategy remains central to the Party’s political domestic and international program today. Indeed, the current CCP Secretary-General, Xi Jinping, echoing Mao Zedong, has affirmed that the Communist Party is fundamentally based on three treasures of the Dharma (法宝 or “magic weapons”): (1) Party building, (2) armed struggle, and (3) the United Front.
Today, while the Communist Party is no longer conventionally Marxist, the tradition of strategic secrecy and dissembling about its intentions and ultimate aims endures, but is reinterpreted in contemporary domestic and international affairs. As a result, the United Front Work Department is stronger and better funded than it ever was, comprising a comprehensive bureaucracy of 40,000 people with a budget larger than China’s entire Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The United Front Work Department commands massive resources that are applied to domestic and global manipulation. It has been used to sabotage World Health Organization research into the origins of COVID-19; suppress truth surrounding genocide against Uyghurs; and dissuade influential Canadians from promoting measures that threaten Beijing’s espionage efforts, including Canada’s security and technology partnerships with our allies.
China poses a comprehensive, long-term existential threat to the national security of all our countries, which is derived from CCP General-Secretary Xi Jinping’s obsession to redress what he perceives as China’s loss of face and diminished national prestige. This is expressed in his signature “Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation”: Xi’s audacious plan to replace the world’s liberal democratic international rules-based order with a China-centred “community of the common destiny of mankind” by 2050. This “community” will be asserted by the triumphant imposition of Chinese Confucianist civilizational values, of which “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” is the contemporary expression.
In the Indo-Pacific, China aspires to resume its historically dominant, “big brother” role over traditional neighbouring Confucian subordinate kingdoms. To this end, China naturally wants US forces out of Korea and Japan. The larger plan is for China to undertake a comprehensive rise to power and ultimately displace the US as the global superpower and hegemon.
The disinformation strategy used by the CCP in Canada has two target audiences. First, it is directed toward people of Chinese ethnicity in Canada, with the narrative that Canada is a racist, white supremacist society. So regardless of citizenship, all ethnic Chinese as descendants of the Yellow Emperor should be loyal to the Motherland, embodied in the Chinese Communist Party-state. Therefore, Chinese-Canadians should serve their Chinese Motherland as agents of Beijing, be it for espionage or pressuring the government of Canada to comply with PRC political demands.
Second, it is directed toward the Canadian mainstream, with the narrative that all criticism of PRC regime behaviour by the media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or politicians is inherently racist. The messaging is that China is inherently peaceful and beneficent, the growth of Chinese power is inexorable, and China is vengeful and dangerous if provoked. Moreover, America is the past, China is the future, so get on the right track. Or, to borrow an adage, if you can’t beat them, join them. This messaging conditions Canadians into believing that the rewards of complying with China’s political agenda including over Taiwan and military expansion in the East and South China Seas are great, resistance is futile, and even the slightest opposition would have disastrous consequences for the Canadian economy.
Canada and Japan have a shared interest in collaborating to counter CCP disinformation, which threatens security in the Indo-Pacific. Some of the main narratives used by China that need to be debunked include:
- pro-Taiwan independence forces are the function of hostile democratic governments and that most Taiwanese actually yearn for reunification with the PRC, which is designed to set the stage for annexation of Taiwan;
- the international rules-based order is simply a mechanism to support western and Japanese political interests and therefore seeks to invalidate China’s maritime claims; and
- the Belt and Road Initiative is win-win for the developing nations that accede to it on China’s terms.
It is important that Canada, Japan and like-minded allies counter China’s disinformation not only against nations and peoples outside China but also as it pertains to China’s domestic censorship. The latter would allow us to provide people inside China with awareness of the Chinese Communist Party’s disinformation threat to the very concept of truth. After all, truth ultimately is the basis for democracy and human rights — the universal entitlement of all citizens of the world, regardless of nationality.
This Inside Policy article was supported by the Japan Foundation.
Charles Burton is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, non-resident senior fellow of the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague, and a former diplomat at Canada’s embassy in Beijing.
 This was also asserted by Michael Duheme, Deputy Commissioner, Federal Policing of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Meeting 56 of the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs on March 2, 2023.