This is part one of a two-part post. Part two can be reached here.

Written by Martin Thorley.

Liberal democracies are increasingly aware of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) efforts to exert influence internationally, but what does this mean in practice? Researchers must go beyond the rhetoric to illuminate the opaque networks by which such influence is transmitted. Here I present some preliminary research excavating the institutions and networks surrounding the Chinese Party-State strategies to influence key targets in the debate on the internationalisation of China’s currency, the renminbi (RMB).

The CCP exerts an astonishing amount of control over the lives of those born and raised in China. In the wake of unprecedented economic development it is now facing the challenge of large-scale migration of increasingly affluent Chinese citizens, who through overseas study or work have acquired a home away from home. Of the many ways in which the Party has adapted, the growing strength of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) is of particular interest to those measuring CCP influence abroad. The body, originally a Leninist tactic of strategic alliances, is better known perhaps for its current domestic role managing relationships between Party and groups that the leadership considers potentially troublesome, such as religious denominations and ethnic minorities. But it also represents a major component of the country’s foreign engagement. This includes in many cases hosting influential foreigners in China. As UFWD expert, Gerry Groot points out: “Such visitors are treated lavishly and often come to modify their positions or end up airing official Chinese positions despite themselves”.

As China’s international footprint continues to grow, the internationalisation of the RMB becomes an ever more important priority. But as Benjamin Cohen noted in 2012, traditional pathways to internationalisation are somewhat hindered because “China’s leadership has shown little willingness to surrender any significant amount of control over either the central government or the financial sector”. This unbalanced approach means the advantages of China’s sheer economic size are not supported by high standing in monetary matters amongst other international actors. Such a conundrum presents fertile ground to seek out alternative strategies, including UFWD activity.

An analysis of China-produced content in this field reveals the output of the Renmin University-based International Monetary Institute (IMI) and its associated journal, The International Monetary Review (IMR). Whilst the IMI and IMR are ostensibly independent academic entities, the former listed in its own literature as a “non-profit academic institution and think tank focusing on research on monetary finance theory, policy and strategy”, a careful analysis of IMR output combined with searches into the backgrounds of key staff members suggests noteworthy links to CCP international influencing apparatus. This in turn raises questions about the value of the contributions to the wider debate by international members of these bodies.

The Chairman of the IMI Advisory Board is Pan Gongsheng, the Deputy Governor of the People’s Bank of China, however having examined the backgrounds of leading figures in the group, it is the profile of Ben Shenglin that appears to be of most interest. He is recognised as the IMI Founder, Co-Chairman of the IMI International Committee, IMI Executive Director, and Editor-in-Chief of the IMI’s academic journal – the IMR. Ben (the Chinese family name rather than the English first name) founded the IMI in 2009, around the period the Chinese government “became enthusiastic about RMB internationalization”. Since 2007, Ben has been a Committee Member on the All China Federation of Industry and Commerce (中华全国工商业联合会执行委员), under the leadership of the UFWD. He has also served as Managing Director of the European and American Alumni Association (欧美同学会常务理事), another organisation under the leadership of the UFWD and one that ensures party influence over elite students who have studied in Europe and America. Perhaps most illuminating, he has since 2013 been a member of the United Front Non-Party Intellectual Advisory Group on Economics (中央统战部党外知识分子建言献策小组经济组成员). In addition to his enmeshment within the UFWD, Ben is also a member of the Zhejiang Provincial Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and as Deputy Director of the Economic Committee – bodies that work in a closely collaborative manner with the UFWD.

As Lian Yi-Zheng explains, the UFWD is a “nimble and tightly led party organ” that leads dozens of organisations “through both persuasion and infiltration”. In the case of Ben’s own European and American Alumni Association, the group “keeps close tabs over the ever-larger number of Chinese students and academics training or residing in the West, and enjoins them to conduct ‘people diplomacy’ — in effect [attempting to] turn all those scholars into foot soldiers for the United Front”. Ben’s membership of Zhejiang Provincial CPPCC is perhaps more troubling as according to Lian “CPPCC members nominally are political consultants to the CCP; in fact, they must toe the party line. And their real job begins when the shop talk ends: It mainly consists of influencing other important people in their respective walks of life and eventually drawing them into Beijing’s orbit… Any recruits are given good opportunities in China: to perform, proselytize, invest or make a lot of money. In some ways, the CPPCC operates like a mafia: It is secretive, relies on close personal ties and stands ready to break the law”. Connections to this body can be extremely advantageous in the Chinese sphere so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Ben’s own connections to the Zhejiang regional UFWD CPPCC lauded as in the screenshot presented below.

In light of the links above, it is reasonable to suggest that the IMI and IMR are at the very least, significantly influenced by the UFWD, or more realistically, a part of the UFWD machinery, in this case focusing on international elites of potential use in terms of Beijing’s objective of RMB internationalisation.

What then of the international elites tied to these bodies? The meaning here is not to cast judgement over their motivations but rather, investigate the efficacy of CCP tactics. Any number of the internationals who align themselves with such groups may do so for a variety of entirely legitimate reasons. The group contains a Nobel Prize winner, ex-politicians, economists and dignitaries. There are also a range of institutional links such as formal ties with Goethe University in Frankfurt through the Sino-German Center of Finance and Economics (the image below shows Ben Shenglin speaking at the launch event inside the German Embassy, Beijing). In addition, some IMR material appears to be hosted by the Cato Institute in the US via IMI International Committee Member and Cato Institute Senior Fellow, Steve Hanke.

This is part one of a two-part post. Part two can be reached here.

Martin Thorley is a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham exploring international engagement with China, particularly Sino-British relations. He is also an editorial assistant for The Asia Dialogue. He tweets @METhorley. Image Credit: CC by Alexander Mueller/Flickr.

Comments

  1. Thank you for your effort and coverage of myself, my colleagues and IMI. However, I must say that this seems a bit far-fetched, probably because you were just relying on the “public information”. We will be happy to answer your questions to get the facts right. Dr. Ben Shenglin, Dean, Academy of Internet Finance, Zhejiang University, and Exeuctive Director, International Monetary Institute, Renmin University of China

    1. Delighted to receive your reply, thank you. Indeed, the article contains a good deal of publicly available information (navigating the gap between the English-language and Chinese-language spheres) and a number of fairly clearly stated facts about enmeshment between groups and individuals. Certainly food for thought for those in decision-making positions in the UK.

  2. This strikes me as a very fact-based article, in which the author makes a convincing and compelling argument based on sources which are entirely in the public domain. It would be interesting to hear from the London-based OMFIF why they have chosen to align themselves so closely with the Beijing-based IMI. While some form of collaboration between the two international think thanks should be expected, the author reveals an astonishingly high degree of convergence in terms of the two organisation’s personnel, political positions and policy recommendations.

    “The amount of overlap between OMFIF, a respected, independent British think-tank, and the IMI, a Chinese group that, as demonstrated, holds veritable links to CCP global opinion influencing machinery, is quite remarkable. (…) This is but one case of many. That Chinese party-state organs are reaching further and deeper into the core of western states is not in doubt. The question for Britain and her partners is whether their high-ranking citizens and institutions are sufficiently aware of the campaign that intends to align their interests with those of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department. “

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