The ruling Chinese Communist Party is expanding its operations far beyond China's borders, setting up branches to control the thinking of students and state employees overseas, to defend its citizens against "bad ideas," and to recruit new members, RFA has learned.
Party branches, or cells, have long been a feature of political life in mainland China, but are increasingly being used as a vehicle for the expansion of the party's United Front ideological campaign, which seeks to bring specific groups of people into the party's fold, as well as keeping tabs on what they are doing, saying and even thinking.
Last year, the University of Science and Technology in the northeastern city of Dalian reported on its website that seven of its overseas students at the University of California, Davis had set up a Communist Party branch at the school, which held its inaugural meeting on Nov. 4 with the theme "combating various kinds of negative influences on our thinking while overseas."
The party branch was formed by Chinese students from several different universities, and plans to attract new members and provide "care and warmth" to patriotic Chinese studying at the college.
The group will meet twice a month, and study the "latest ideological thinking" from the administration of President Xi Jinping, Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper reported.
Similar reports have emerged of party branches being set up by Chinese students last year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as campuses in Ohio, New York, Connecticut, North Dakota, and West Virginia, according to a recent report from the U.S.-based journal Foreign Policy.
Much of the information about the party's overseas activities is in the public domain.
Last October, the Zhejiang Daily News reported that the Zhejiang-based Yiwu Industrial & Commercial College had "established a number of temporary party branches overseas," to serve its students studying abroad.
The school has established three "temporary party branches" in Canada, Singapore, and New Zealand, in the hope of achieving "full coverage" for the party’s education and management of foreign students, it said.
One of the branches was set up at the Canadore College of Applied Arts and Science & Technology in Ontario, Canada, where several Yiwu students are expected to study annually, the report said.
"The party members are in a foreign country and their feeling for the motherland is strong," the report said.
'All manner of bad ideas'
Meanwhile, Yiwu business school lecturer Shao Shunling said he is currently the secretary of the college's temporary party branch in New Zealand.
"When you leave [China], the environment is different, and one will inevitably come into contact with all manner of bad ideas," Shao is quoted as saying in the report, which appears on the Yiwu college's official website.
Regular party activities act as an ideological line of defense against such bad ideas, Shao said.
Many of those who run the party cells are teachers sent to overseas universities as part of academic exchange programs. Yiwu alone has 35 teachers working overseas, 23 of whom are party members.
Last summer, the Beijing Institute of Technology set up a temporary party cell in order to boost the ideological education of 36 students on a research trip to the U.S., Germany and Japan, the university reported on its website. During the trip, one of the research students lodged an application to join the party with the branch, it said.
The practice also extends to groups of employees of the Chinese state working overseas, according to online statements on the websites of state-owned enterprises.
As part of President Xi's "belt and road" global supply line and infrastructure program, the Jiangxi branch of the China National Coal Corporation has set up offices or branch offices in more than 20 countries and regions in Africa, Central Asia and South Asia, which are home to seven formal party cells, five temporary branches and 67 party members, the corporation said on its website.
Some overseas party branches have been in operation for several years. China Coal's Kenya office set up its party branch as early as June 2011, while the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology established a temporary party branch for its students at Stuttgart and Furtwangen University in Germany to "consciously resist bad ideas."
Last October, athletes and officials sent overseas to study by the Guangdong branch of the National Sports Administration attended "study classes" arranged by a newly set-up "temporary branch" of the Communist Party.
"A temporary party branch was set up for our study abroad, and all party members attended political theory study classes," program tutor Zhang Xin was quoted as saying on the administration's official website.
Meanwhile, overseas institutions setting up shop as joint ventures within China are increasingly subject to "input" from party branches at their China campuses, recent reports indicate.
Joint venture education projects
There are currently more than 2,000 joint venture education projects in China, which have now been ordered to set up their own party cells and install the party branch secretary on their boards of directors, according to a recent report in the Financial Times.
But Jeffrey Lehman, deputy principal of the Shanghai New York University, denied that such changes have been ordered. He told RFA in a recent interview that the university's current party secretary, Yu Lizhong, is already installed as the principal of the college.
Yang Shaozheng, a professor at the School of Economics of Guizhou University, said institutions that can't tolerate party involvement shouldn't enter the China market in the first place.
"All universities in China must be led by party personnel," Yang told RFA. "If you do not agree with that, or you think that the party interferes with the academic and intellectual freedom of the school and you can't accept that, don't enter the market."
Earlier this month, Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, warned a congressional hearing on China's United Front activities overseas that Beijing has been transferring "large amounts" of funding for United Front activities to Europe and the Asia Pacific using existing trade links as a vehicle.
He called on the U.S. State Department to expand its influence and pay closer attention to capital exchanges between the Chinese government and known United Front organizations.
Hsiao said Beijing is already pursuing an aggressive United Front program in Taiwan, which is claimed by China but which has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, seeking to put political pressure on the democratic island's government and private sector.
China is continuing to extend its "soft power" around the world through a number of carefully planned strategies, including Confucius Institutes and government-backed Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) on university campuses around the world, academics have warned.
Yu Jie, the U.S.-based author of a book about China's president titled "Chinese Godfather Xi Jinping," has said that a key strand in Chinese Communist Party's ability to wield influence on overseas university campuses is the more than half a million Chinese who study abroad.
Chinese students overseas, whose numbers are projected to swell still further in the next few years, are often members of the CSSAs.
Influence is also wielded via the network of Confucius Institutes, which were set up to teach people to speak Chinese or to broaden their experience of Chinese culture, but which also offer perks to foreigners who aren't openly critical of the Communist Party, according to Yu.
Qiu Jun, the Canada-based director of a documentary probing the influence of Confucius Institutes on Canadian campuses, said he appears to have been placed on a blacklist after interviewing the dean of one Confucius Institute for the film.
"After that interview, I have been unable to make contact with any Confucius Institute in Canada, even though the dean told me before the interview that he wouldn't be reporting back on the content on the interview to [his bosses] in Beijing," Qiu told RFA in a recent interview.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hsia Hsiao-hwa and Ma Lap-hak for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.