Safeguarding civil society against CCP influence

CCP, Chinese Communist Party, China, Xi Jinping

“Mitigating risk” has emerged as a prominent term within China’s policy discourse following its endorsement by G-7 leaders in May of the previous year. The imperative to reassess the intricate global supply chain involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has swiftly risen to the forefront of the agendas of elites spanning from Washington to Brussels to Tokyo. Nevertheless, this acute concentration on vulnerabilities within the economic ties with China neglects a pivotal oversight: the fragility of democratic societies and their non-governmental sectors.

Entities affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have infiltrated – and in some instances, financially supported – civil society organizations worldwide. Universities, scholars, media platforms, overseas Chinese communities, and various non-governmental bodies constantly contend with the ramifications of the PRC’s strategies involving censorship, propaganda dissemination, transnational suppression, and bribery.

While governments can devise legislation and regulatory frameworks to introduce safeguards and mitigate economic risks associated with China, the very existence of civil society in functional democracies hinges on minimal government intervention. Without fresh initiatives led by civil society and enhanced endeavours by democratic administrations to safeguard the autonomy of non-governmental actors from CCP pressure, policymakers risk seeing these pivotal drivers of democratization undermined, and in certain cases, working against their intended objectives. Any strategy aimed at risk mitigation concerning China that neglects to prioritize the protection of civil society will inevitably fall short.

To comprehend the CCP’s perspective on the role of civil society in democracies, one need only examine the CCP’s articulated objectives for it. A year following Xi Jinping’s assumption of the general secretary role in 2012, the CCP General Office disseminated confidential Document No. 9 to all Party members. This directive unequivocally rejected the legitimacy of civil society, media freedom, and the marketplace of ideas and organizations that might challenge the Party’s ideology or political stance.

As evident from Document No. 9, the CCP’s stance towards media and the knowledge sector (encompassing universities, research institutions, and think tanks) is particularly noteworthy. The directive stipulated that “the media and publishing apparatus must adhere to Party discipline” and be imbued with the Party’s ideology to counteract “foreign media and subversive publications.”

China currently boasts one of the world’s most restrictive media environments, coupled with a sophisticated censorship apparatus. Within the realm of education and research institutions, the Party perceives ideology as a battleground, necessitating Party members to assert their leadership and ideological dominance by propagating Xi Jinping Thought. The Party’s protracted endeavor to assert control over universities and intellectual elites culminated in January with the integration of university “Party cells” into presidential offices to ensure the perpetuation of CCP ideology as the predominant intellectual discourse on Chinese campuses.

A decade following the issuance of Document No. 9 and the implementation of an autocratic overseas NGO law in 2017, China’s ideological stance has transcended its borders. The repercussions of the CCP’s intensified crackdown on civil society within China now reverberate across nations and non-governmental sectors seeking engagement with China.

In a June 2021 address to the Politburo, Xi reaffirmed the application of Document No. 9 to the Chinese party-state’s global engagement, emphasizing the necessity of an “internal and external propaganda system” to construct a media conglomerate with international sway. The Party’s ideological struggle is integral to its efforts to expand the network of international proponents acquainted with and supportive of China, as articulated by Xi.

The CCP’s contention that non-governmental entities, with few exceptions in the commercial domain, lack legitimacy holds profound implications for independent civil society beyond China’s borders.

On a global scale, Party-controlled radio stations, news outlets, social media platforms, and television networks have significantly expanded into new international markets, forging licensing agreements, content-sharing arrangements, and advertising contracts to shape foreign perceptions of China. Leveraging these partnerships, Chinese embassies have orchestrated harassment and intimidation campaigns against outlets that disseminate news or opinions contrary to the Chinese government’s preferences. Freedom House’s comprehensive Beijing Global Media Influence report documented such highly repressive tactics in 16 of the 30 countries surveyed.

Even in relatively open societies like Brazil, collaborative efforts with China’s CCTV and a 24-hour cable news channel, Bandnews TV, prompted journalists to self-censor on topics related to China, portraying China’s engagement in Brazil and Latin America in a more favorable light.

In the knowledge sector of many democracies, China-backed China studies programs across Latin America, Africa, and Asia are sustained by China’s Ministry of Education or other Party-affiliated entities. Following the closure of numerous Confucius Institutes in Western nations, some entities simply rebranded themselves under a new Party-directed initiative. Even on foreign university campuses, the CCP’s ability to coerce members of the Chinese diaspora and researchers has rendered “living outside of China” akin to “living within China” for many. These tactics of subsidization and intimidation foster widespread self-censorship, where the unspoken far outweighs discourse regarding the PRC.

The CCP’s persistent pressure campaign against civil society extends beyond academia and media circles. Its global campaign of transnational repression targeting Chinese dissidents is rooted in Document No. 9’s classification of “internal dissidents as anti-government forces.” The CCP’s suppression of any political party not aligned with the Party’s objectives has manifested globally through the rapid expansion of CCP-led political exchanges with parties across the ideological spectrum and its training of African politicians and diplomats in one-Party rule at a new facility in Tanzania.

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