Review & Analysis: Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World. Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, Oneworld, 432 pages.
During the Cold War, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union relied in large part on Marxism-Leninism’s seductiveness among Western intellectuals for the recruitment of “red agents.” There was no need to seek out emigres of Russian, Ukrainian or other Soviet-bloc lineage as targets for appeals to “Soviet solidarity.” In the West, “true believers” of all ethnicities abounded. As disciples of the ideology, hateful of their own societies and mesmerized by Soviet propaganda, they were far more valuable to Moscow than those spying for envelopes of cash or other material rewards.
As Hamilton and Ohlberg make clear in their seminal survey of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) global influence networks, Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World, in the case of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the situation is strangely reversed. While formally Marxist, the ruling CCP makes use of nationalism, and its chief assets are people of Chinese heritage outside the PRC, from Chinese immigrants to the great grandchildren of immigrants.
Blackmail is a big part of the Party’s arsenal: the regime can threaten relatives in the old country if diaspora recruits get cold feet. But the CCP’s nation-centric ideological “sword” is highly effective in its own right, blending appeals to ethnic identity and resentment of historical discrimination against Chinese immigrants with pride in the “glorious” economic, industrial and technological development of the Chinese Communist imperial state. This creates difficulties for countries increasingly uneasy about CCP socio-economic influence, as pushback invites charges of racism, showing the CCP has made good use of the political-correctness war within the West. In other words, Black Lives Matter is a de facto ally of Beijing.
As the authors point out, the CCP’s most important policy tool for reshaping the geopolitical system in its image is not ideology, but the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a Beijing-backed international development scheme attracting foreign governments with outwardly benign messaging. When a port or coastal area in Africa or southeast Asia could use an upgrade, Beijing is ready to assist—and to control the infrastructure it supplies. If a foreign government likes the idea of turning a metropolis into a “smart city” to make surveillance and crime-busting easier, Beijing is ready to outfit it with Huawei technology—and to conduct and control the surveillance.
Should this alarm us? Those dismissive of security threats point to how “capitalist” the PRC has become. Yes, Mao Zedong’s tenure sacrificed tens of millions to starvation, disease, executions and other atrocities, but he died forty-five years ago. It is time to move on, the argument goes.
Yet Mao remains the undisputed mascot of the People’s Republic, lauded by current leader Xi Jinping, whose own visage appears alongside Mao’s in ubiquitous posters, banners, murals and other hagiography around the PRC. Xi quoted Mao at the 19th Party Congress in 2017: “Government, military, society and schools, north, south, east and west—the party rules everything.” Xi now commands the largest political party in history, roughly 90 million, with spies and agents around the world augmenting the CCP rank and file who work full-time to increase Beijing’s global clout. The current chairman reaffirms Mao as the “Great Helmsman” and dehumanization as a moral imperative to achieve global supremacy. Facing all this, the West is astonishing in its complacency.
Hidden Hand details the CCP Central Committee departments forming the vanguard of foreign influence. The United Front Work Department (UFWD) directs a vast web of agencies with names featuring “Benevolent,” “Friendship” and “Peaceful,” promoting an image of “independent civil society” in which Chinese “NGOs” engage in an array of do-gooder causes with no connection to any state entity. UFWD organs coopt overseas Chinese community groups, draft Chinese returning from abroad, and push the “One China” policy to extinguish Taiwanese independence.
Examining CCP activities in the West (North America, Europe and Australasia), Hidden Hand reveals the spell of wholesome intentions toward the West that the Party has weaved. The authors assert that, in some cases, Beijing’s influence networks are so deep and extensive that hope is all but lost.
The United Kingdom, now saddled with the China-Britain Business Council (CBBC), is a prime example. Originally founded in 1954 to expand trade ties with Communist China, the CBBC was first chaired by a closet member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (his son chairs today) and now promotes the BRI in tandem with the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary China Group. The Chinese side includes the PRC deputy prime minister and the director of Huawei, a company claiming to be “privately held” but chaired and run by CCP members.
The CBBC dismisses security concerns about Huawei, even though the PRC’s National Intelligence Law requires the company to help Beijing with spying. In January 2020 the UK government approved Huawei’s participation in the country’s 5G infrastructure, the final nail in the British coffin for Hamilton and Ohlberg, who gloomily proclaim that, “so entrenched are the CCP’s influence networks among British elites that Britain has passed the point of no return, and any attempt to extricate itself from Beijing’s orbit would probably fail.” This dour forecast may have been premature: in a hopeful note in July (presumably prior to Hidden Hand going to print), Boris Johnson’s government did ban Huawei from Britain’s 5G.
As Hidden Hand makes clear, the CCP’s networks in America span and penetrate the top ranks of industry, finance, academia, think tanks, media and the arts. In government, they are entrenched at national, state and local levels, go back many years, and embrace “conservatives” and “liberals” alike. In scope and reach, the CCP’s influence web is “totalitarian.” Operating mostly in the shadows, it lacks only a public profile commensurate with reality.
Some of the CCP’s highest-level contacts in America are well known on both sides of the aisle. Running for president in 2020, Joe Biden delineated his candidacy as most dismissive of the notion that China posed any strategic threat to the U.S. The Penn Biden Center think tank at the University of Pennsylvania, named for the current White House occupant and headed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken before he joined the Biden cabinet, has come under fire for non-transparency in its funding sources and is believed to receive disproportionate sums from the CCP.
Senators Mitch McConnell and Dianne Feinstein, media titan Michael Bloomberg and the Bush family are among the Americans examined in Hidden Hand as enriching themselves (personally or through spouses) via CCP business relations and repaying the favor to Beijing. The authors create the impression that CCP influence in America was so extensive by the time Donald Trump formed his cabinet, the new president could not avoid appointing Wall Street grandees with major interests in China (Steven Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross and Gary Cohn are named).
Hidden Hand is impressive in scope, an essential primer on global Chinese Communist influence, even if it went to print too early to analyze the CCP’s role in America’s 2020 social tumult. COVID-19 receives a mention in the context of the World Health Organization (WHO) obeying Beijing’s directive to exclude Taiwan from intergovernmental fact-finding meetings on the pandemic’s outbreak. Xi Jinping’s wife is a WHO “goodwill ambassador.” As such, the book lends itself to subsequent editions, perhaps discussing Beijing’s support for violent protests and election rigging in the U.S. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the CCP’s “hidden hand” was decisive in ousting a U.S. head of state, and this book does not disabuse us of that possibility. The beneficiary of probable CCP interference, Joe Biden, quickly suspended Trump’s ban on the use of Chinese equipment in America’s electrical grid, and has apologized for the CCP on CNN, chalking up Beijing’s human rights violations to “cultural norms.” More gifts for Xi are sure to come.
After more than four years of relentless, often irrational Russia-bashing, it is probably high time the Western pendulum swung back and bashed China for a while. Yet the so-called Leader of the Free World so far appears to view such an imperative as a nuisance at best, and at worst contrary to his own interests. The authors cap their bleak picture with the recommendation that developed and developing nations alike should unite to defend democracy and human rights against CCP subversion. Such counsel is fine in theory, of course. In reality, such a coalition would require a degree of will and unity in the West that simply isn’t there.
Chad Nagle is a communications consultant, attorney and freelance writer currently based in the Washington D.C. area. He recently served as an advisor to a Saudi humanitarian and development program operating in Yemen.