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Another Call for United Front Sanctions

Xi Jinping, head of the Chinese Communist Party, at a party meeting on October 18, 2017 (China Daily via Reuters)

The China Task Force, a panel comprising 15 House Republicans, issued its long-awaited report on competing with the Chinese Communist Party today. It’s a whopping document, with over 400 policy recommendations, each with significant implications for the strategic contest with Beijing. This makes homing in on the most important suggestions very difficult.

To set priorities based on the report, it’s important to consider where we’re behind. The answer is, unfortunately, in a lot of places. In an interview with my colleague Tobias Hoonhout, CTF chairman Michael McCaul highlighted America’s dependence on medical supply chains: “It just shows you how vulnerable we are, and we’re just playing with fire, because they can turn the switch off.”

Another area in which the United States is behind, despite the best efforts of some Trump administration officials to catch up with Beijing, is “ideological competition,” one of the report’s core pillars.

The document notes two important speeches by Trump administration officials in recent months: Robert O’Brien’s address on the CCP’s Marxist-Leninism, and his deputy Matthew Pottinger’s May 4 address extolling China’s historical commitment to democracy. Yet despite these clear-eyed assessments of the nature of Chinese authoritarianism and the need for a values-based U.S. response, that conversation can at times be drowned out by other (important) parts of the discussion.

President Trump’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly last week is a case in point. He made an apt, though familiar, argument about the CCP’s virus coverup but missed an opportunity to call the party’s global influence campaigns and human-rights abuses a threat to all mankind before a truly international audience. Still, as O’Brien and Pottinger have shown, the administration has made it a point to emphasize this and highlight the ideological nature of this competition.

The China Task Force builds on these efforts with some key recommendations. It makes a critical argument in connecting the ideological dimension with other facets of the CCP’s conduct around the world:

The U.S. and the free world must understand and accept the reality of the CCP’s loyalty to communist ideology, because it reveals that the CCP can never be a trustworthy partner, a “responsible stakeholder,” or even a ‘competitor’ that plays by the same rules. The CCP’s obsession with absolute control means that free people and free societies will always be the enemy of the Party. At home or abroad, the CCP does not allow its power to be constrained by laws, rules, or norms, instead using force and coercion. The CCP’s communist ideology, and the totalitarianism that results, causes the CCP behaviors that are most threatening to the American way of life — humanitarian atrocities, the erosion of democracy, territorial aggression, and theft of American intellectual property (IP).

In this light, it’s worth looking at the task force’s recommendations on the United Front Work Department — a party arm tasked with influence operations that target Chinese overseas, ethnic and religious minorities, and foreign governments. As the report notes, this nebulous vehicle of party influence is one that, while already important, has been granted even more significance by General Secretary Xi in recent years. It’s the link between the CCP’s severe human-rights abuses within China, and its cooptation of foreign entities and individuals abroad.

The China Task Force calls on Congress to pass new sanctions authorities that target UFWD-affiliated individuals, in addition to other measures that the administration could enact to help foreign governments identify related malign activity.

Despite some other recent work on this — namely a study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a Republican Study Committee report — there’s still an awareness gap when it comes to the united front. A lot of united front work outside of China takes place in plain sight and is not strictly illegal (though it is always detrimental to the people targeted). Nonetheless, in the past couple of months alone, it seems as though awareness of Chinese foreign influence operations has grown on Capitol Hill — in fact, earlier this month, a group of House Republicans introduced a united front sanctions bill.

As the sheer breadth of the China Task Force suggests, this is only one of the many things that must be done. But emphasizing that we’re in a global ideological competition — and sanctioning one of the CCP’s key means of waging it — is a good place to start. It would be a promising development if this nebulous network became the face of Chinese authoritarianism around the world.

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