By: Jens Kastner

There could be as many as 190 Chinese front groups in Germany with direct ties to the United Front bureaucracy in Beijing, according to a research paper published in early October by journalist-researcher Didi Kirsten Tatlow.

In addition, Tatlow estimated, there are dozens of German groups that indirectly partner with the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), a key Chinese Communist Party organization dedicated to influencing foreign opinion of the Chinese state.

The strategy appears to be paying off in Germany. A survey carried out earlier this year by the research organization Civey found that 42 percent of Germans see China as a more reliable partner than the US, compared with 23.1 percent who favor the US over China. 

The US’s image in Germany and other European countries has been badly battered, however, by the antipathy of the current US President, Donald Trump, who has consistently disparaged the 70-year-old architecture of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. Trump’s attitude towards Europe has left an opening for China to cement its European relationships.

With an estimated annual budget of close to US$300 earmarked for “stability maintenance,” the CCP’s United Front Work Department is a nontransparent net of institutions and organizations that co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition to the authority of the CCP.

This has its roots in the 100-year-old Einheitsfront project launched by the Third Communist International in Europe in 1921 to enable European Communist parties “to preserve their revolutionary identity in non-revolutionary times”, and current Chinese president Xi Jinping picked this up in 2015 by calling to build a “broadest possible patriotic united front.” 

One of United Front’s recent notable breakthroughs came in August, when Gladys Liu made history by becoming the first Chinese-Australian woman to gain a seat in Australia’s Lower House

Liu has come under investigation by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization for her links to the World Trade United Foundation (WTUF), officially a Hong Based-based NGO that is believed to be part of United Front. 

“And as in Europe in the 1920s, today’s activities may reflect a push for survival by the party in a relatively hostile international environment,” according to the Hong Kong-born Tatlow, who worked for the International Herald Tribune and other newspapers during a 12-year stint in China. “The party is determined to continue its power monopoly inside China, and to do that, it believes it must extend it outside China in order to remove challenges.”

Tatlow’s paper presents an impressive German case study of Villa Musica, a respected classical musical center in Mainz, the capital of Rhineland-Palatinate state in southwest Germany. In the early 1990s, she writes, Villa Musica received a query by then-unheard-of CPAFFC if it would like to host a pipa ensemble from China.  

This was the start of a long series of exchanges, eventually leading to the current situation in which Villa Musica, Chinese diplomats, senior CPAFFC officials and German officials make up the Federation of German China Friendship Associations (ADCG). 

As well as partnering directly with the CPAFFC, the federation is also the first port of call for cross-regional, public German institutions and organizations wishing to connect to China.

“ADCG’s upcoming annual general meeting, in Duisburg in November 2019, will feature a tour of the Huawei-built ‘Rhine Cloud’ [a smart city and public services cloud platform] under construction in Duisburg,” Tatlow writes.

“The project is linked to Duisburg’s ‘Smart City’ which will give Huawei access to the city administration and aims, overall, at the ‘automatization’ of Duisburg,” she added. “City leaders, local businessmen and intellectuals, some from nearby universities and many the recipients of public funding, have been hosted at Huawei headquarters in Shenzhen.” 

This could come in helpful for Huawei, which has been banned from 5G network roll-outs in some US-aligned countries over its perceived unduly closeness to the CCP, but not Germany, where in January security agencies unanimously voted for an outright ban only to have Berlin then opt for a much softer solution entailing stricter security requirements instead. 

In an interview with Asia Sentinel, Mareike Ohlberg, an analyst at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, labeled Tatlow’s estimation of 190 Chinese groups in Germany with direct ties to the United Front bureaucracy “realistic.” 

Ohlberg sees them in two categories, one actively initiated by the Chinese side, the other grassroots groups of China sympathizers, including Germans and Chinese citizens living in the country. 

“China’s United Front apparatus is very good at engaging the latter group, bringing them into the network and utilizing them,” said Ohlberg. “It often does so by making use of an asymmetry between the German and the Chinese sides, such as by inviting relatively unimportant groups to China, where they would be given direct access to very high-ranking figures, such as ministers.”

Ohlberg went on to explain that one overarching aim is to create a positive China image in Germany, the big topic currently being the Belt and Road Initiative receiving a cold shoulder by the Angela Merkel government. 

The other aim is to create a local network to react against any events on German soil that run counter to China’s interests, such as those arranged by Falun Gong or those who speak sympathetically to Hong Kong protestors. 

In August protests in Hamburg in support of the anti-China movement in Hong Kong were filmed by regime-friendly Chinese citizens who threatened to hand the videos to the Chinese embassy for protesters’ identification. 

“Of course, United Front is not only at work in Germany but across Europe and globally, and I don’t see that any such concerted effort has ever been made by any country in history but China,” Ohlberg said. 

Jens Kastner (kenslastner@gmail.com) is a longtime Asia Sentinel correspondent based in Taiwan