China: Foreign Policy, Disinformation and Propaganda Warfare


Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in Salute Magazine available at

The United Front Work Department … is an important magic weapon for strengthening the party’s ruling position … and an important magic weapon for realising the China Dream of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.

                                      —Xi Jinping, at the 2015 Central United Front Work Meeting

To Influence the Balance of Power

In 2015 when Xi Jinping made the above declaration it was bemusing as to what exactly the United Front Work Department (UFWD) was and how exactly it would serve to realise China’s dream of the “Great Rejuvenation”. Was it an internal tool of governance or did its mandate extend outside its borders? In its central role the “UFWD was the key to determine the ‘cause’ of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for which the People were to influence the Balance of Power.” This muddled statement serves more to confuse than clarify; unless, one were to interpret this to mean that the UFWD was an organisation that not only served to ensure the solidarity of the citizens of China with the aims of the CCP but also had an external role that tilted the global balance of power in favour of the PRC. So not only was it primacy of the UFWD in domestic politics but also its critical assignment in shaping foreign policy and influencing overseas Chinese affairs.

In this perspective the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) does not make or even implement foreign policy, other than of a proforma nature, but provides the logistical framework for operationalizing policies. So much so, that today the Foreign Minister is neither a member of the seven-man Politburo nor is he the top foreign policy maker. Premier Xi, created in 2018, the Central Foreign Affairs Commission placing it directly under the Standing Committee of the Politburo which he led. There is a third organ related to the advancement and rendering of foreign policy goals that bears mention, and that is the International Liaison Department (ILD) which is charged with developing policies that create support for Chinese foreign initiatives and supress opposition. It specifically targets influential personalities and even conducts discreet propaganda, preparation of pliant politicians, society elites, media members and influencers.

The Paramount Leader

The troika of the UFWD, the MFA and the ILD thus make up the foreign policy institutions of China. Together they serve to firstly, legitimise and cement the rule of the CCP within and secondly, to formulate, support and promote foreign policy initiatives without.  The instruments used range from armed subversion to disinformation campaigns.  

Xi Jinping is the General Secretary of the CCP, chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), leader of the Standing Committee of the Politburo and indeed the President of the PRC; he has assumed the mantle of Paramount leader and by 2022 had extended his rule by an unprecedented third term (Mao was the last Chairman to do so). He has thus consolidated his grip on all aspects of the Chinese power structure; particularly so it’s internal and external manifestation.

Quiet Diplomacy: Propaganda, Subversion and Information Warfare

              As mentioned earlier, China’s MFA conducts the pro-forma traditional state-to-state diplomacy and provides the logistical framework for enabling policies. The lesser-known more recent UFWD and the older ILD working under the direction of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, conduct “Quiet Diplomacy”. Historically, such diplomacy almost exclusively meant foreign communist parties, but today it includes parties of varying ideologies, the process of cultivating potential support and supressing opposition to Chinese interests. 

Both the UFWD and the ILD have expanded their activities to include financing, recruiting, indoctrinating and arming subversive groups that promote Chinese interests. To further the foreign policy goals, the two organs use their foreign contacts to build support and advance its projects and mobilise opinion in target countries. In the lead-up to the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding (2021), the Party published a lengthy article outlining the core missions of their foreign enterprises in the modern era. While the obligatory CCP slogans and bromides were employed, it centred on gathering intelligence, influencing and garnering opinion for its initiatives through “consultative mechanisms”. The only overt project referenced was (for obvious reasons), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). These ‘consultative mechanisms’ do not just include communist and socialist parties, but political elites, media celebrities and, without stating it, every group or agency that could directly or indirectly influence the desired outcome.

Enter the BBC Documentary

              A two part documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi was released by the BBC on 17 and 24 January 2023. The first part covers Modi’s early political career and the period when he was the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, specifically during the 2002 communal riots and the part he played in the event as it unfolded. This is also when the producer parts way from the facts; conveniently forgetting the reality that the Supreme Court of India upheld the Special Investigation Team’s (SIT) clean chit to PM Narendra Modi and dismissed the case observing that the plea was devoid of merit. This was after a period of 16 years. The Producer, a Mr Mike Bradford and Director Dick Cookson choose rather to base their narrative on a little known report authored by the then Foreign Secretary of the UK, Jack Straw (of “WMDs in Iraq” fame). The makers of the film neither consider it necessary to make clear as to who invited Jack to conduct his enquiry nor why or when. Certainly it was not the Government of India.The second part of the film deals with the period of Mr Modi’s re-election for a second term as India’s Prime Minister. It makes a very jaundiced examination of select policies of his administration with more than just a cavalier approach to the historical reasons, constitutional considerations and the factual outcomes.

              Clearly the two-part so called documentary (after all, a documentary is expected to document facts) lost its way somewhere between fact, selective amnesia and fiction; so questions that beg to be asked are: why was it made? Who was to benefit? Clearly, it was not the British Government, who’s Prime Minister, Mr Rishi Sunak, without any reserve “disagreed with the characterisation” of Mr Modi in the ‘documentary’. Countries such as the USA denied having anything to do with it while Russia quite bluntly suggested that it was pure “propaganda’.

The Propaganda Theory

Digging deeper into the propaganda theory, was there a larger movement to peddle influence and to what effect and by who? The Institute of Chartered Accountants England and Wales (ICAEW) pointed out in 2021: “The BBC faces significant financial challenges as it seeks to deliver on its public broadcasting mission in the context of a competitive and fast changing environment. The withdrawal of government funding for licence fees for the over-75s and insufficient commercial income have resulted in losses that have eaten into the BBC’s reserves”. This fact has also been substantiated by a National Audit Office Report of 25 January 2021 that suggests that BBC must develop a strategic response to its financial challenges. The BBC has funded the losses arising in recent years from a combination of its reserves and a sale and leaseback of its estate, but this is not sustainable in the long run. To supplement the licence fee the BBC seeks to generate revenues through commercial activities, which generated £1.5bn in external revenue in 2019-20. Unfortunately, the contribution to the bottom line was less than 6% of its licence fee income. Licence Fee in their 2019-20 balance sheet contributed 65% of their total income of £4.9 billion.  Income was £100 million short of expenditure. The BBC’ financial woes are clear for all to see.

There are also unconfirmed reports of the BBC’s financial interlocking with Chinese state funding agencies. Could these funding agencies be the very same organs of China’s foreign policy, the UFWD or the ILD that are tasked with “Quiet Diplomacy”? It is equally apparent that China would be the chief beneficiary of any disruption or upsets that may occur in the upcoming 2024 Indian general elections; their motive being the installation of a weak, left leaning and pliable government in the Indian Parliament rather than a strong, progressive right wing party such as the BJP. This is not beyond the realm of probabilities as the Chinese Communist Party have already been allegedly involved in election tampering in the USA and other nations.

Conclusion: Kindling the Nascent Arena for Defence

Sun Tzu in his treatise on “The Art of War” suggested that: “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. This is just what the waging of “Quiet Diplomacy” (at least the Chinese variant) is all about. The United Front Work Department and the International Liaison Department provide the teeth to realise China’s foreign policy objectives, to influence the will of people to conform to China’s point of view. This is done through the instrument of distortion of facts, disinformation, indoctrination and indeed manipulating and falsification.

While the government should continue to monitor and disrupt Chinese influence activities, its top priority must be restoring health of the Indian information ecosystem. Disinformation flourishes due to deep-seated currents in politics, society, economy, and law. Its carriers and methods include the TV, online data collection, social media micro-targeting, political party dynamics and student vulnerabilities. Large-scale progress in combating disinformation would require profound national reforms in these and other arenas. The aim being to disincentivize the production, amplification, and consumption of disinformation from all sources.

True reform would be an extremely daunting task. The government’s role in combating disinformation is poorly defined and heavily constrained by laws, norms, and political obstacles. Its tools are often tactical in nature and oriented toward foreign threats. Overreach by the centre could actually worsen political distrust or create harmful precedents.

The task of countering disinformation is a nascent area of defence that the government could either implement or help to coordinate. These measures include strengthening regulation of online platforms, reforming and monitoring electoral campaign finance and advertising. Funding media literacy education and facilitating research in influence operations. Without undertaking this mammoth assignment the spirit of India will remain susceptible to the emaciating effects of disinformation.


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