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The People’s Republic of China has long been waging aggressive informational and outright low-grade military war against Japan. American expert on East Asia Gordon Chang has noted that the PRC has been regularly sending warships to the Senkaku Islands, dispatching “fishing boats” and Chinese Coast Guard vessels (in reality unflagged People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels) to harass and even ram Japan Coast Guard vessels in the South China Sea. And it has openly refused to recognize Okinawa as a part of Japan.
This is part of Beijing’s bullying strategy — deployed also against islands claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, the United States (Guam), and other Pacific nations — to underscore United Front information war with a hard line of looming consequences for those who resist the blandishments of Beijing.
This is evident nowhere more clearly than in Okinawa. Even as the PRC rams Japanese Coast Guard vessels and practices daily military incursions of Japanese territorial waters around Okinawa (and elsewhere), it courts the people of Okinawa with an imagined “history” designed to draw allegiance away from Tokyo and toward Beijing. For example, the PRC invited the descendant of the last king of the Ryukyus to the PRC as part of a “goodwill tour” designed to foment discord on Okinawa and tacitly assert Chinese ownership of the island chain. Russell Hsiao reports:
In 2018, Shō Masamu, the great grandson of the last Ryukyu king, visited China. In March of that year, Masamu led a 22-member delegation to visit Fujian for a four-day “root-seeking” tour hosted by the Fujian Tuofu Culture and Education Foundation, an organization created in 2013 with the aim to “inherit and promote” Chinese culture…. In tandem with the trip, the Tuofu Foundation organized a conference with the Ryukyu Fukan Co., Ltd., Fujian Tuofu Culture Development Co., Ltd., and the Japan-China Youth Economic and Cultural Exchange Association to explore the historical ties between Okinawa and China.
Ganaha Masako, an Okinawa-based analyst and political activist, has detailed this infiltration based on first-hand reporting and research. Robert D. Eldridge, policy analyst and expert on the political history of Okinawa, has also revealed how the PRC functions to undermine fact-based reporting in and about Okinawa. This is all just a small part of what a 2017 Sankei Shimbun series detailed as the PRC’s all-out information war against Okinawa.
Okinawa is hardly the only Japanese territory at risk from the PRC. In Hokkaido, the northernmost main island of Japan, the PRC has been buying property at an “explosive” rate. Practicing the kind of environmental degradation typical of PRC state-run enterprises, Chinese firms have been destroying swaths of Hokkaido, upending both the ecology and the political economy of this usually peaceful, and naturally beautiful, region of Japan.
But Okinawa and Hokkaido, along with other territories in Japan, are not coveted strictly for their property values or even for the optics of demonstrating the PRC’s false claims to ownership of parts of Japan. Japan has been slowly enhancing its involvement with Five Eyes, the intelligence-sharing pact originally comprising the U.S., Australia, Canada, the U.K., and New Zealand.
Five Eyes — But Are They Open, or Closed?
The Intercept reported in 2017 that Japan had long been an intelligence partner of the United States, and this relationship, although often strained, had gradually deepened over time. The PRC often targets land for capture or purchase which abuts U.S. bases in Japan or other sites of intelligence intake and exchange.
The concentration of Five Eyes and other intelligence-gathering sites on Hokkaido — close to Russia, North Korea, and the PRC, and therefore ideal for signals intelligence espionage — is the big draw for Chinese “investment” on the island. As with other places around the world, Beijing is taking advantage of democratic openness in Japan to undermine defense capabilities and thwart regional security measures.
In the prewar years, Japan maintained one of the most advanced espionage capabilities in the world, with an infiltration and counter-intelligence network robust enough to help instigate the overthrow of the Russian czar while back at home, preventing Comintern agents from carrying out a similar revolution against the Emperor of Japan. This veil of effectiveness was rent badly by the Sorge affair, however, and in the postwar Japan found it had virtually no political will to keep even a modicum of espionage functionality.
Much of the spycraft and actual defense of the country was farmed out to the American occupiers. And even when the Occupation ended, the Japanese government was lukewarm, at best, towards espionage. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Richard Samuels’ book Special Duty details how Japanese counterintelligence rose, and fell, and then did not rise again.
Only in the last two decades or so has there been any substantial, cross-governmental attempt to meet the threats posed by foreign agents on Japanese soil. Even now, Japan remains, at best, a quiet resister to the operations of the United Front.
So, What Is the United Front?
The term “united front” first came into currency during the long Chinese civil war following the collapse of the Manchurian Qing Dynasty in 1912. By 1926, “united front” was being used as a euphemism by the Chinese Communist Party, at the behest of their Moscow “advisors,” for the communist takeover of the rival Nationalist (Kuomintang) faction that was also vying for power in China. The CCP, which was effectively a puppet organization in the Red Colonialism of the Soviet Union, was ordered by Moscow to merge forces with the Kuomintang, who were seen to stand a better chance of conquering China than did the CCP.
When Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek saw that “united front” meant, for the CCP, the infiltration and overthrow of the Kuomintang, he threw out the communists. However, Chiang was kidnapped and forced by the CCP, again at the behest of their Russian masters, to form yet another ”United Front” — the Anti-Japanese National United Front.
The latter was in reality a way to get the Kuomintang to wear itself out fighting the Japanese. This tactic allowed the CCP to deal covertly with the Japanese Army and prepare to replace Chiang and the Nationalists when they had been sufficiently exhausted from fighting Japan.
The United Front of Today
The United Front today bears out the spirit of these two older movements.
In 2020, the term “united front” indicates the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Central Committee of the communist party, one of the propaganda and information warfare arms of the CCP tasked especially with spreading disinformation and propaganda overseas.
Through the United Front, the PRC shapes the infosphere theater of China’s war against liberal democratic governments worldwide. It is designed to infiltrate and subvert foreign governments, groups, churches, organizations, and agencies, and to advance the interests of CCP oligarchs while hiding the real purpose behind a deceptive label.
The goal? The solidification of the PRC’s dawning ethno-nationalist, surveillance-communist empire. As Australian China expert Dr. Gerald Groot explained in a Diplomat interview in 2018, race was one of the guiding tenets of United Front activities:
The Department [i.e., UFWD] works to reach out, represent, and guide key individuals and groups within both the PRC and greater China, including Chinese diasporas. The goals include to have all such groups accept CCP rule, endorse its legitimacy, and help achieve key Party aims. Because United Front Work has officially been extended to those who emigrated after 1979 as well as those Chinese studying abroad, some 50 million or more, United Front Work is now of direct relevance and sometimes concern to an increasing number of foreign governments, notably Australia, Zealand, Canada, and the United States. United Front Work abroad is not limited to only these countries though.
‘Greater China’ and the Puzzle of Japan
The term “greater China” is instructive, and also hints at the trouble that the United Front has had in running its usual influence operations in Japan.
“Greater China” indicates the racialist belief in a Han-ordered pan-state which encompasses all people of purported Chinese heritage, even when those people do not identify as Chinese and have no connection to Han ethnicity in the first place. Tibetans, Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, Singaporeans, Mongolians, and people of Chinese ancestry who live in other parts of the world, including Europe, North America, the South Pacific, and Africa, loudly reject Beijing’s claims to rule them by dint of racial affinity, which is often pure fiction.
However, the UFWD’s cultivation of feelings of racial solidarity in the far-flung Chinese diaspora, while rejected by many, has been effective enough to pose a major threat to democratic governments worldwide.
This position of Han communist hostility to all other forms of government has become a radicalizing influence within the CCP, and, via CCP domestic propaganda, the PRC as a whole. Indeed, Alex Joske, writing for the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief in May of 2019, explains that, for the UFWD, “the key distinction is not between domestic and overseas activities, but rather between the Party and everyone else.”
The problem, from the United Front’s perspective, is that Japan, although geographically close to China, is in most other ways very far away. There are few overseas Chinese in Japan (although the number has recently been increasing), and so the central tactic described above, of targeting ethnic Chinese living abroad, is much less effective.
June Teufel Dreyer, a professor of politics at the University of Miami in the United States and an expert in Chinese political history, notes that the PRC has long had difficulty penetrating Japanese society. “Consonant with its Marxist mission to champion the rights of the workers of the world,” Dreyer writes, China in the early postwar period “established liaisons with the Japanese Socialist Party, and leftist labor unions, most notably the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan, generally referred to by its abbreviated name Sōhyō.” But much of the PRC’s efforts were frustrated, unlike elsewhere, by a general lack of interest in Japan in things Chinese, as well as by the very low numbers of Chinese in Japan.
The PRC attempted to turn anti-nuclear and anti-colonial sentiment in Japan to its advantage, but that was also to limited effect. “By the 1960s, Beijing’s strategy was to work through ideologically sympathetic, though typically not communist, groups in Japan to support political change in Japan consistent with Beijing’s ideological agenda. In the language of the Cold War, China aimed to create a ‘fifth column.’”
This “fifth column,” although not to be dismissed, was not nearly as effective as Soviet and American information warfare and propaganda activities. The PRC simply could not find a way to crack Japan and run espionage and influence operations in its neighbor as easily as it did elsewhere.
The Three Warfares of Influence Operations
The Tiananmen Square massacre and the first Gulf War dramatically changed the Chinese government’s tactics, and also added a new sense of urgency to United Front propaganda work.
In June of 1989, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tanks and troops entered Tiananmen Square in Beijing, causing the death of at least 10,000 peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators, according to some Western reports. This was a public relations disaster for Beijing.
No longer able to conceal the true and brutal nature of the regime, Beijing instead upped its co-opting and elite capture efforts worldwide. The People’s Republic of China could not transform into a benign liberal democracy responsive to the needs of its people, because to do that would mean the downfall of the CCP and reprisals against its members, á la Ceausescus in Romania in 1989.
After watching the systematic dismantling of an enemy force by an American-led coalition in Kuwait and Iraq in 1990, PLA colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui penned a book-length document, Unrestricted Warfare, which was later intercepted and translated by American intelligence.
Unrestricted Warfare, a manual for asymmetric war, lays out a strategy in which a militarily weaker country plays to its advantages in privileging propaganda, elite capture, and massive intellectual property theft over outright military confrontation. The manual demonstrates the depth by which the PRC understood its inadequacy in the face of overwhelming American military superiority.
It presents in broad brushstrokes what was given greater granularity in 2003 by June Teufel Dreyer, who writes, “[The] People’s Liberation Army’s Political Work Guidelines codified influence operations into the concept of the Three Warfares: public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare, the last-named usually abbreviated as ‘lawfare.’”
The PRC has driven their propaganda and disinformation war at great speed down these three tracks ever since.
Much of the work against Japan by the UF combines two or all three of the “warfares.” For example, public opinion warfare is bolstered by inflaming historical issues (psychological warfare). And the PRC’s defiance of international legal norms in attacking Japan is also being bolstered by concomitant attacks by the PRC against other border states as a cover for its own lawlessness.
The Hard and Soft of United Front Warfare
In all cases, the PRC engages in both softening and hardening of its relations with its counterparts.
Cultural exchanges and friendship tours are used, as in the past, to soften, Japanese attitudes toward China little by little. During a recent exhibition of Chinese calligraphy at a prominent museum in Tokyo, for example, I witnessed a delegation of Chinese officials enter with Japanese counterparts and pose in front of the cultural artifacts while a professional photographer documented handshakes of Sino-Japanese “friendship.” These scenes are repeated at cultural institutions great and small throughout Japan.
While the Japanese counterpart may (or may not) be aware of it, the Chinese counterpart understands that these kinds of “cultural exchanges” are carried out as part of a much bigger charm offensive designed to lull an enemy into a false sense of security.
No organization in world history has destroyed more Chinese culture than the Chinese Communist Party, however, so it is important to remember that, for communists, culture is just warfare by other means.
As for hardening, the PRC often pays, or commands, its citizens to engage in street-theater protests against Japan whenever a Japanese politician visits the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Beijing is also active in promoting anti-Japan propaganda in the United States and Canada, with Nanjing memorial days now enshrined in the Canadian political calendar, for example. Likewise, comfort women statues, funded by PRC-backed individuals and groups and often supported directly by PRC agents, can be found in many countries.
The Weaponization of History
The case of Russell Lowe, a PRC spy, presents yet a more stark example of the concern. Lowe had worked in California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office for 20 years in outreach to the Asian-American community. When his connections to China were uncovered, he moved directly to the local comfort woman agency, which coordinated the construction and installation of the comfort women statue in San Francisco.
Senator Feinstein is herself reported to be a close friend of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. Her publicly pro-China views have at times raised eyebrows in Washington. Her husband, Richard Blum, is a real estate tycoon who made, and continues to make, his fortune in Chinese real estate deals. It was no coincidence that Senator Feinstein’s state was the location for a massive anti-Japan push by the United Front — in fact, much of the UF work was coordinated by Lowe, one of Senator Feinstein’s closest aides.
This weaponization of history, and indeed outright fabrication of history to further political agendas, is also rampant in Canada, where an organization known as ALPHA is now recognized to be a PRC front, tasked with carrying out mainly anti-Japanese information warfare assaults using a largely unsuspecting Canadian (and American) audience. The PRC is also deeply invested in the use of Korean history against Japan inside of Japan itself, even using Japanese taxpayers’ own money to fund anti-Japanese United Front activities.
And then there is the tried-and-true method of what Jamestown Foundation’s Hsiao calls “elite capture.” The CCP has long cultivated relationships with politicians in Japan favorable to China, such as Kakuei Tanaka and Ichiro Ozawa.
Elites in academia and the arts likewise are targets, drawn in by means of “friendship and trade associations” (Hsiao lists no fewer than seven, all of them Beijing propaganda fronts). Furthermore, the China Association for International Friendly Contact (CAIFC) and a host of other exchange groups also operate as such fronts. Finally, there are the Confucius Institutes, which, despite their notoriety as listening posts and brainwashing facilities for the PRC, continue to operate at 15 universities in Japan, including the prestigious Waseda University in downtown Tokyo.
Summoning The Will to Resist
Japan has effectively joined the Five Eyes alliance to monitor disquieting threats. But the question remains: does Japan, or any other liberal democracy, have the political will to meet the greatest threat to free societies since the Soviet Union?
Will the United Front succeed in uniting the free world against China in a common front of democratic opposition, or will the United Front prevail, adding to its victory in the Chinese civil war hegemony over the Pacific and beyond?
Author: Jason Morgan