When considering international politics in the post-COVID-19 pandemic era, the greatest concern is the further deterioration of US–China relations. The discord between the two countries has already expanded beyond trade frictions to include separation of manufacturing in the high-technology industry, supply-chain, and finances as well as security-related fields such as space and cyber technology. This has led to close competition on multiple levels. A tense information war regarding COVID-19 has unfolded following the outbreak—particularly with China’s vigorous propaganda efforts aimed at the international community, which is being referred to as China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. It consists of bellicose statements through the media focused on criticism of certain individuals and events—such as calling US Defense Secretary Pompeo “insane”—that is an anathema to normal diplomatic civility. The number of examples is vast, but some instances include demands that gratitude be expressed for medical assistance, the spread of information through social networking services (SNS) using bots (applications that automatically carry out tasks), and leveraging economic cooperation to pressure countries to support China. These actions serve to further emphasize the heterogeneousness of the Chinese government.
The Chinese government’s headlong efforts to shape international public opinion are driven by the sense of rivalry toward the United States, which has permeated broad swaths of Chinese public opinion after several years of US–China conflict. Additionally, these efforts are fueled by the fear that the Chinese economy will be weakened by the Trump administration and cooperating nations. From a tactical perspective, there is international anti-China criticism related to China’s slow response to the novel coronavirus outbreak and a movement to assign responsibility to and claim compensation from China, i.e., efforts to protect themselves in the wake of political pressure due to the outbreak.
In contrast, however, is a more active China that continues to strengthen its global strategy. This is the so-called issue of the “discourse power［话语权］” (the ability to influence and guide public opinion) in the international community. Since around 2013, the Xi Jinping administration has been attempting to create a more advantageous rhetorical space for China by diversifying the standards of value in the international community. It is believed by some China experts that the Xi administration is planning to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the worldwide pandemic to recover its “discourse power” in the international community.
Following such an observation, this article focuses on the logics of propaganda diplomacy, particularly those of the United Front Work［统一战线工作］mainly led by the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The United Front Work is the product of traditional communists’ tactics and its original purpose is to promote public solidarity and joint struggles through the inclusion of personnel and organizations from outside the Communist Party. The target of the UFWD has been expanded to those outside China under the Xi Jinping administration, especially after its call for a “United Front Work for the Pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative” in 2015, and around 2017, it began to attract attention as part of China’s “Sharp Power” strategy. As will be further discussed below, in 2019, the policies of this organization were aligned with changes in diplomatic policies such as the development of a political campaign known as the “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind.” In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it remains to be seen how these policies will be further adjusted.
The “Achievements of the War Against the Pandemic” and International Propaganda
In early May 2020, General Secretary Xi Jinping chaired the Non-Party Personnel Round-Table Discussion held at Zhongnanhai in Beijing. There, he indicated three turning points and praised the fruits of the “War Against the Pandemic,” saying,
After a little over a month, the spread of the infection began to show the first signs of being brought under control; after approximately two months, the number of new cases dropped to the single digits; and after approximately three months, the defensive battles fought in Wuhan and Hubei had produced definitive results.
He also displayed his confidence, further saying,
As has been once again verified by the fight to control and prevent infection, the leadership of the Communist Party of China, our country’s socialist system, and our system of state rule possesses a formidable life force and clear superiority that allows us to overcome any difficulty or obstacle, and allows us to make important contributions to the further advancement of human civilization.
The Non-Party Personnel Round-Table Conference is supervised by the Central Committee of the UFWD. The purpose of the conference is to allow discussion among representatives of political parties other than the CCP, the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, and other non-party representatives. It holds regular meetings and it holds discussions on specific topics four to five times per year. The official WeChat (SNS) account of the UFWD included a post about this conference emphasizing it was the first time since the 18th Party Congress in 2012 that Xi Jinping himself sponsored the conference, calling attention to the fact that this conference was “special.” While Xi’s address at the conference generally touched on familiar territory, the WeChat account insisted on the importance of his address as “the general secretary’s longest speech on achievements of the ‘War on the Pandemic.’” Xi Jinping thus described the official view of the achievements of the “War on the Pandemic,” and the UFWD actively promoted that view.
In this address, General Secretary Xi Jinping listed international cooperation as the eighth achievement of the effort, saying,
We have strengthened international exchange and cooperation, provided support to the utmost of our ability, both to countries with which we have relations and to international organizations, and we have clearly indicated our sense of mission as a responsible major nation.
China’s efforts in the arena of international cooperation includes some swiftly implemented activities, such as the announcement in early January that the genome sequence of the coronavirus was analyzed. On January 22, the novel pneumonia was specified as a legally designated infectious disease that requires quarantine management. On January 25, the General Customs Administration reinforced its management of individuals leaving and entering the country with the announcement of their “Announcement on the Control and Prevention of Pneumonia caused by Novel Coronavirus Infection,” as it was called then; and as of January 27, group tours bound for destinations outside the country were prohibited. In late February, a team of specialist volunteers from the Red Cross Society of China was deployed to Iran, and starting in March, medical supplies relief and medical assistance teams were dispatched to multiple countries where they distributed masks, test/reagent kits, artificial respirators, other medical equipment, and information.
Simultaneously, steps were undertaken to handle the international politics. As has already been pointed out by many studies, on January 20, President Xi Jinping issued an important order that instigated a comprehensive effort against infection, and efforts to influence the international community are thought to have begun at nearly this same time. This was characterized by frequent telephone conversations with high-ranking government officials. President Xi made a total of 51 telephone conversations on the topic of the coronavirus to world leaders, starting with French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel on January 22 and continuing until May 15 with calls to President Ramaphosa of South Africa and Prime Minister Orbán of Hungary (including a call to Secretary-General António Guterres of the United Nations on March 12). Wang Yi, state counselor and foreign minister of China, began a series of telephone conversations with calls from January 26 to 29 to a number of foreign ministers, including those from Japan, France, the UK, South Korea, Australia, and Singapore.
On the January 29, Yang Jiechi, a member of the Politburo and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CCP Central Committee, held discussions with US Secretary of State Pompeo. On January 28, President Xi Jinping held a press conference with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), during which Tedros was in “admiration” and reported as “the WHO delegation highly appreciated the actions China has implemented in response to the outbreak, its speed in identifying the virus and openness to sharing information with WHO and other countries..”.
These propaganda activities aimed at the international community have been uniformly seen as important. For example, President Xi listed the seven achievements of China’s recent efforts during the “Conference on the Novel Pneumonia Infection Countermeasures and the Unified Initiatives to Develop the Economy and Society” that was held on February 23. The sixth of these achievements was “improving propaganda education and public opinion manipulation,” and the seventh was “aggressively winning the support of the international community.” In addition, he also observed that one of the important points to emerged from the activities after they were completed was the fact that China “took on its responsibility as a major country” in its “international and regional cooperation”; he indicated policies regarding the more effective use of the news and propagandizing public opinion; and he confirmed that efforts to influence public opinion both inside and outside China would continue.
Initiatives of the International Liaison Department of the CCP
It is often misleading to exaggerate the efforts by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Party Propaganda Department, and the UFWD as propaganda diplomacy of China, as these three organizations are not the only ones that are engaged in international propaganda. The range of Chinese propaganda activities becomes more comprehensive as contributors are diversified. For example, one aspect of the propaganda effort related to COVID-19 included the “joint appeal to strengthen international coordination of political parties around the world in the fight against the novel coronavirus pneumonia epidemic” that was announced on April 3. This was an appeal made by the CCP that called for a joint effort by over 230 political parties in upwards of 100 countries around the world. Articles on the People’s Daily Online and the Chinese Communist Party News praised “the work of great countries and great parties. A statement in “support of greater awareness of the Community of Common Destiny for Mankind,” advocated by Xi Jinping, was also included.
The International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China (ILD), which is responsible for the international activities of the Party, is in charge of coordinating this joint appeal. The ILD takes pride in the fact that this international cooperative effort is the “first [of its kind] since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.” The ILD explained that this effort was in response to the agreement on the coronavirus that was to be announced during the G20 Summit Teleconference held on March 26. In addition, the activities of the ILD includes sending letters to over 100 party leaders of more than 60 countries in order to explain China’s coronavirus measures and holding networking conferences with over 300 political parties in Asia.
What lies behind the rapid progression of these initiatives is the “Dialogue between the Chinese Communist Party and High-Ranking Officials from the Parties of the World” event that was held by the ILD from November to December 2017. The theme of this dialogue was “The Creation of the Community of Common Destiny for Mankind and the Joint Building of a Wonderful World: The Responsibilities of the Parties.” It was attended by nearly 300 party representatives from over 120 countries, including Prime Minister and Chairman of the Cambodian People’s Party Hun Sen, State Counselor of Myanmar and leader of the National League for Democracy Aung San Suu Kyi, the deputy director of the European External Action Service, former Secretary General Kinana of the political party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (Tanzania), the vice-chair of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a delegation from the Communist Party of Vietnam, a mission of Middle East political party high-ranking officials, and a mission of Lebanese political party high-ranking officials. The first international conference was held after the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (which itself was held in October 2017) in an event that symbolized the diplomacy of China as a major world power. President Xi Jinping, who attended the opening ceremony on December 1, delivered the keynote speech, entitled, “Joining Hands to Create a Wonderful World.” The 2nd conference was held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 2018.
A Unified Front Strategy to Suppress the United States?
On reflection, one notices that the philosophy of the Unified Front originally had a high degree of affinity with this theory, stating, “Society should unify in order to face the crisis [caused by the pandemic].” Therefore, little discomfort is caused by the assertion that importance should be placed on having a united front in the response to COVID-19.Perhaps due to this, the main focus of the United Front Work in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak seems to have been the tight control of domestic public opinion. As far as can be seen, many of the reports related to the Unified Front Work that were issued in 2020 did not emphasize international politics, and there seems to have been no major change since January of the policies in place for the international activities of the Unified Front Work. In other words, current activities being conducted abroad are an extension of the activities previously conducted. What follows may sound somewhat fragmented—two articles of the United Front based on international cooperation and China’s US strategy, which indicate the sustainability of the United Front strategy.
As the premise, the “Five Major Relationships” emphasized in the United Front are: (1) Party relations: the relationship with the CCP and the other parties of China; (2) Ethnic relations: the relationship with the ethnic groups of China, particularly the relationship between the Han ethnic group and minority ethnic groups; (3) Religious relations: the relationship between segments of the general public that follow different religions; (4) Class relations: the relationship between the social classes; and (5) Compatriot relations: the relationships between fellow countrymen in continental China as well as the people of Hong Kong and Macau, the people of Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora. When speaking about international cooperation, it is natural to place great importance on the overseas Chinese and the ethnic Chinese who have transnational networks.
On April 20, Xu Yousheng, the deputy director of the UFWD and director of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council, in a discussion provided to the CCP periodical Qiushi (“Seeking Truth”) praised the relief supplies given to China by the Chinese diaspora and ethnic Chinese, the favorable information they provided, and support the international ethnic Chinese networks provided to each other. Xu also extolled as “bonds with overseas Chinese” that the Chinese side provided international assistance mainly through the Chinese Overseas Friendship Association and the UFWD. He estimated these activities as “active practices designed to promote the creation of the Community of Common Destiny for Mankind.” The Communist Party is seeking to attract new supporters by expanding its human network through economic support based on native-geographic, akin, and work-related ties, which are understood to be a traditional fulfillment of the United Front Work.
At the same time, the Global Times ran in its April 29 edition a review with a highly meaningful perspective under the title, “Promote the establishment of a united front for international peace and development” that supports a more strategic understanding of the United Front Work. The piece first criticized the “US strategy of competition between the major countries,” saying that in the fight against the coronavirus, “some nations and powers that represent the US...have sowed confusion in the international fight against coronavirus in its anti-quarantine stance.” The article went on to point out that, while domestic problems were important, importance also needed to be placed on “global partnership networks ［全球伙伴関係網絡］, or in other words, a united front for the development of world peace.” It further indicates that Russia, France, and the UK—all permanent members of the UN Security Council—should be included in this united front (among these, the level of cooperation is highest with Russia), that a great degree of consideration should be paid to G7 nations including Germany, Japan, Canada, and Italy, and that the coordination with developing nations should be its basis.
Notably, while billed as being for the “development of peace,” the main objective was “to resist and contain the oppressive politics and unilateralism of the United States through solidarity with more nations.” The author of the article indicated the following perspective as the reason:
Whether or not there is widespread of a united front for the international peace and development is an issue that will greatly affect whether we can continue over a period of time to withstand the pressure by the United States, and whether we are able to stand at the first line globally in the development of the fourth industrial revolution as well.
The author, Zhou Li, a former diplomat who served as ambassador to Ukraine and Kazakhstan, was deputy director of the ILD until 2016. Although not necessarily reflecting the perspective of the UFWD, when combined with the ideas printed in the Global Times, a publication that is associated with the People’s Daily, one can imagine that this international self-recognition focused on strategies for dealing with the US may, at least to some extent, be shared by Chinese elites.
The persistence from 2019 observed in the United Front Work
To understand the perceptions described above, as was the case with the example given of the ILD, it is necessary to focus on the persistence of the United Front before the COVID-19 outbreak. In 2015, the UFWD publicized its “views related to the United Front which engages to the ‘Belt and Road’ strategy,” and they indicated that “the focus is on the United Front involved in the ‘Belt and Road’ strategy, and engaged in an important mission within the overall situation.” In December 2017, it once again emphasized that
the United Front is engaged in the construction of the construction of the “Belt and Road;” the United Front has been charged with this mission from the central authorities, and thus it is a new task that the United Front has taken on.
In 2019, “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind” emerged as a United Front key phrase. It is possible that the UFWD set up a propaganda campaign by then, as appealed in a study entitled “The United Front in the new age is an important launch point for the promotion of the construction of the Community of Common Destiny for Mankind” (March 2019) by Liu Guohong, director of the UFWD, Pingshan District, Shenzhen, and as a call to action for the Chinese diaspora to participate in the construction of the Community of Common Destiny for Mankind by Xu Yousheng, the deputy director of the UFWD (April 2019). In addition, efforts to build an underlying theory were evident at the “United Front and the ‘Belt and Road’ Symposium” held on November 7 by the Beijing UFWD and the Beijing Institute of Socialism.
Related to the theorization of the Belt and Road Initiative, this year, an article published in the January 31 edition of Qiushi drew attention of China analysts, entitled “Xi Jinping: Consultation talks at Dunhuang Research Institute.
This was a reprint of a speech Xi had delivered on August 19, 2019, and why it was reprinted during the period of rapid spread of COVID-19 remains unknown. In this speech, Xi praises the “culture of Dunhuang” as “a treasure-trove of arts that is the largest in scale, the longest in duration, the most abundant in range, and the most well-preserved in the world.” He continued,
The promotion of research into the culture of Dunhuang should be part of the role of the Belt and Road Initiative, and it should actively propagate Chinese culture and thereby increase cultural exchange with the nations participating in the Belt and Road Initiative.
He also directed that Dunhuang research, which is “actively being conducted around the world,” should “be employed as a way to gain discourse power.”
Along with these developments, the “Great United Front［大统战］” campaign (the strong promotion of the United Front Work over larger areas) which placed importance on domestic political circumstances, began in October 2019. On October 18, the “Symposium on important ideas related to the strengthening and improvement of Xi Jinping’s United Front Work,” was held by the Central United Front Work Leading Group (the highest-level organization of the United Front Work). At this symposium, Group Director Wang Yang (member of the Politburo Standing Committee) noted that Xi Jinping gave fully fleshed-out responses to important queries, such as:
[I]n this new age, is the United Front Work required or not, in what way is it required, and how is it to be constructed?” Wang said, “A great deal of effort must be made to construct a system that will allow the Great United Front to engage in activities.
In addition, You Quan, director of the UFWD and secretary of the Secretariat of the Central Committee, published an article in the People’s Daily entitled, “Maintaining the Activity System of the Great United Front,” in which he made appeals to “strengthen the Party’s centralized and united leadership of the United Front Work” and for the importance of solidarity among all related government organizations.
The domestic reasons the United Front needed to be strengthened both inside and outside China in 2019 were the revealed limitations of the “One Country, Two Systems” for Hong Kong and Taiwan; the political pressure in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region; increasing criticism against the authorities under expectations that the Chinese economy would lose momentum; and other problems in the wide area associated with the United Front Work that had begun to come out into the open. As a result, public opinion had to be reined in. Discussions at the fourth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the CCP were thus focused only on political issues, and the supremacy of Xi Jinping had become even stronger. As for the external policies, due to the failure of the Sharp Power exercise and a rising criticism toward China’s authoritarian political system, enhancement of “discourse power” became even more necessary.
It is assumed that Xi Jinping might have directed the strengthening the United Front Work around October of 2019, and the study of “important ideas related to Xi Jinping’s strengthening and improvement of the United Front Work” began around this same time. The global pandemic that occurred only a few months later became a powerful excuse for insisting on the usefulness of the United Front Work both domestically in China and internationally; at the same time it resulted in the sudden demand for both a strengthening of the control of domestic public opinion and the demand for “discourse power” in the international community. Within the narrative of China taking the lead in the worldwide fight against COVID-19, there became frequent use of the key phrase “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind.”
Following the above discussion, the author considers that by the time the COVID-19 pandemic began, the path that Chinese diplomacy would take had already been determined. In 2019, the UFWD had begun fully advocating propaganda of the “United Front Work in the service of the ‘Belt and Road’” and the “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind,” and the policies of the domestic-oriented “Great United Front” had already been determined during the latter half of 2019. When one considers what reactions should be made in the wake of the unprecedented global pandemic by governmental agencies, there was perhaps no other choice for Chinese officials to take but to “strengthen existing policies.”
On May 11, the Institute of International and Strategic Studies of the Central Party School (National Academy of Governance), the educational institute which trains leaders of the CCP, published a paper entitled, “Raise High the Great Banner of the Community of Common Destiny for Mankind, Join Hands to Defeat the Infection.” As such, the Xi Jinping administration is likely to strengthen its efforts to inculcate the international community with its discourse on the Community of Common Destiny for Mankind.
A major problem associated with China’s propaganda diplomacy is not only whether it maintains its hostile posturing vis-à-vis the United States, but also that the severity of the situation is rapidly developing. In response to China quickly advancing such assertiveness, the international community became alarmed to the calculation behind China’s US competing strategy. Japan, as maintaining rapprochement with China, is required to carry out difficult steering in China policy amid an increasingly complex international situation.
（Dated May 17, 2020）
1 The name is derived from an action film, “Wolf Warrior,” in which a former commando with the Chinese military Special Forces “Wolf Warrior” Commando Team does battle.
19 “The United Front to serve the national Belt and Road construction,” website of the United Front Work Department, December 19, 2017.
20 “Unleash the advantage of the United Front Work, Construct the Community of Common Destiny for Mankind (in Chinese),” Chinese Ethnic Religious Network, March 20, 2019 (reprinted from the newspaper of the Central Party School “The Academic Times”). Liu Guohong explained that “the core of the thought behind the United Front has been developed from the ‘Democratic Union Front’ to the ‘Workers’ and Farmers’ Democratic United Front,’ the ‘National United Front Against Japan,’ the ‘People’s Democratic United Front,’ the ‘Patriots’ United Front,’ and to the ‘Community of Common Destiny for Mankind.’”