President Xi Jinping's plea for a "united front" from the ruling Chinese Communist Party in a high-profile speech this week shows that the president is combining the hostile politics of the Mao era with an ever-expanding deployment of "soft power" in the form of influence that goes well beyond the business of government, political analysts said on Friday.
At a "united front" conference in Beijing on Wednesday, Xi said China needs to maintain the Communist Party's hold on power through national unity, including absolute party loyalty from the security services, and to limit outside influences, especially religious ones.
The "united front" concept has been described as one of the three "magic weapons" of the revolution, and it is one that Xi appears now to be adapting for his own purposes, commentators said.
"China wants to target overseas intellectuals, the privileged children of rich businesspeople, as a new focus for united front work, along with influential people in the new media," political writer Hu Shaojiang said in a commentary on RFA's Cantonese Service.
"This shows that they are really worried about the reality that they can't entirely control education, technology, finance and industry, and online media," he said.
"They need people from these fields, because they are the ones that the party can't train itself."
'Soft power' at home, abroad
Overseas-based writer Zhang Yu, of the writers' group Independent Chinese PEN, said the united front is part of China's projection of soft power at home and abroad, and could easily spread overseas or wherever Beijing seeks greater influence.
"For example, they are 'unifying' overseas students, so I can't go back [to China], even though I'm a Chinese citizen," Zhang said. "They won't renew my passport."
"They invited me over, and said a bunch of polite stuff ... and it was the soft face [of government power], and I ... thought they were doing united front work."
He said a harder line is easy for dissidents and rights activists to oppose, whereas a softer-seeming united front approach is highly persuasive.
"It's not just Chinese people. They do it to foreigners too, Sinologists for example," Zhang said.
"You can take a hard line towards them and they can deal with it. If you don't let them go to China, they won't care."
"But then you can offer various kinds of 'help' when they are invited to China, such as a Confucius Institute," he said, in a reference to controversial learning centers now in place on major university campuses around the world, staffed by Beijing-approved teachers of Chinese language and culture.
But at the heart of the soft power approach lies a much more hard-line approach to "hostile foreign forces," often portrayed as the Western media and its emphasis on press freedom, human rights, and constitutional and democratic politics, democracy activists said.
"Mao Zedong once told [former Nationalist Party education minister] Huang Yanpei that democracy was the key to the China problem," activist Hu Jia said.
"But looking back, it seems as if he was lying."
"We can see very clearly now that there was never going to be any democracy; only the Communist Party," Hu Jia said. "That is the reality of China."
While Xi called this week for greater political discussion and consultation in decision-making, his nod to the nominal representation of "democratic parties and factions" in government has very little to do with genuine democratic processes, he said.
Apart from a token group of "democratic parties" which never oppose or criticize the ruling Communist Party, opposition political parties are banned in China, and those who set them up are frequently handed lengthy jail terms.
"The Communist Party is in control of the barrel of the gun [from which political power flows] ... but it also has a few glasses of good wine which it uses to make sure that the democratic parties and factions toe the line," Hu Jia said.
"It has turned them into pliant tools."
According to Hu Shaojiang, the renewed party emphasis on unity under the Xi administration is partly driven by a need to recruit highly trained technical personnel who may not be party members.
"A second aim is to manipulate world public opinion, and to give the world the impression that China isn't a one-party dictatorship, thereby lessening the moral pressure on the regime from the international community," Hu Shaojiang wrote.
He said Beijing is also hoping to influence and paralyze democratic politics in Taiwan by calling for "multiparty cooperation" in a bid to regain control over the democratic island, which has been governed separately from mainland China since 1949.
In his speech, Xi also urged religious groups in China to be on their guard against influence from overseas groups, citing fears that Islamic extremism could fuel further violence in China and ongoing tensions with the Vatican over Chinese Catholics.
"Active efforts should be made to incorporate religions in socialist society," Xi told the Party's United Front Work Department.
"We must manage religious affairs in accordance with the law and adhere to the principle of independence to run religious groups of our own accord," he added.
'Religion has no borders'
Independent writer Zan Aizong said religion is another area of life that the party feels it can't adequately control.
"The fact is that religion has no borders, whether it be Protestant Christianity or Buddhism," Zan said. "It exists both inside and outside China, with a mutual relationship between the two that nobody can cut off."
State attempts to control religious practice will ultimately fail, he said.
"The two things should be kept separate," he said. "How can the Chinese Communist Party, as an atheist body, take an arbitrating role here?"
Bob Fu, founder of the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid, said there is little that is new regarding religious controls in Xi's speech, however.
"This is just a reiteration of the Communist Party's so-called religious policy ... which is that religious groups should put loyalty to the party ahead of the personal beliefs or practices of their followers," Fu said.
Reported by Wen Jian and Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.