Book Review–Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World
By Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg
Reviewed by Joshua Huminski
Oneworld Publications, available September 9, 2020
In Hidden Hand, Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg have crafted a must-read for Americans, Brits, Germans, and anyone in the West who is curious about or even mildly concerned about the influence of the Chinese Communist Party in nearly every facet of political, business, academic, and cultural life. It is both mind-boggling and staggering just how deeply the Party has penetrated — directly and indirectly — Western institutions.
Reviewing Hidden Hand is difficult in practice, not because it is poorly written or because it is too complex. Rather, it is so comprehensive and so alarming that to attempt to summarize its depth and complexity would do it — and the authors’ impressive research — a disservice.
Hidden Hand is a spiritual successor to Hamilton’s Silent Invasion, a deep dive into the Chinese Communist Party’s penetration of Australia’s politics, business, and culture. While the reviewer was traveling in Canberra, Silent Invasion was recommended by several Australian government officials as painting an accurate, albeit frightening, picture of what Beijing accomplished while few outside of the intelligence services were paying attention.
Ironically enough, a group profiled in Hidden Hand, the UK’s “48 Group Club”, threatened to sue over defamatory allegations to stop the book’s publication in Canada and the United Kingdom. The authors allege that the group’s origin was almost certainly Marxist, and the group has since become fully co-opted by the Chinese Communist Party.
As of the review’s writing, Hidden Hand’s release was on hold in Canada but had already been released in Australia and Germany. Three publishers refused to print Hamilton’s Silent Invasion out of fear of Chinese retribution — it later became an international bestseller. Indeed, the reviewer could not wait for the publication of this book and simply purchased one from Waterstones, a UK-based bookseller.
Both cases unintentionally illustrate the extent of Beijing’s influence. In this case, influencing by proxy and creating a culture of intimidation and fear. Australian-based publishers feared that printing Silent Invasionwould result in their losing access to printers and bookbinders on mainland China, which would have forced them to seek alternative, more expensive outlets.
Beijing’s United Front
Every state seeks to shape and influence the international perspectives of itself — that’s the normal course of diplomacy (direct) and soft power (indirect). Of course, there are more covert means of doing so — propaganda, dis- and misinformation, and the like. But the Chinese Communist Party has taken both the overt and covert, and inverted the equation, seeking to co-opt the very institutions of the target states and the states themselves.
The authors leverage a body of literature and research that has, hitherto, largely gone underappreciated. In compiling the diversity of research into one coherent narrative, the authors lay bare just how extensive the CCP’s efforts are. The scope, extent, and thoroughness of the Party’s attempts to influence the West are simply staggering.
Some have criticized the book for not being an “academic” work or a “scholarly document”, but these are misguided. This is neither a book about the development of Marxist-Leninist or Xi Jinping Thought nor is it about the internal political dynamics or the evolution of the Party — although the authors go to great lengths to show just how ideological the Party is in practice. It is, however, about the application of the Party’s united front to influence the international community toward a favorable perspective of the Party (and by extension China) and to advance the Party’s geostrategic interests.
In the authors’ writing, the united front is different from the formal United Front Work Department (UFWD), which is the official body for outreach beyond the party. While the UFWD is a part of the Chinese Communist Party’s outreach, the authors write of the broader united front (lowercase) that encompasses the collective effort of the Party to influence international affairs to the benefit of Beijing.
The united front that the Chinese Communist Party maintains is simply incredible. There is nothing in the West that even remotely approaches the depth and breadth of the Party’s efforts to advance its interests, messages, and objectives. From approving visas for favorable journalists, sponsoring political junkets, and bestowing titles like “friend of China”, to outright state propaganda, the Party is pursuing what appears to be a truly united front.
The Party’s influence operates on two distinct, but inherently interconnected levels — by direct intervention and by the creation of an atmosphere of self-censorship. Seemingly nothing is too trivial or too insignificant to attract the attention of the CCP, be it the removal of patches from Tom Cruise’s famous flight jacket in the upcoming film Top Gun 2 or the painting over of Taiwanese flags on a children’s school parade float in Australia. The Party’s influence — both direct and indirect — is far-reaching, and that should alarm the West.
To do this, the Party takes advantage of the Western ignorance of the Chinese political structure and bureaucratic organization through “double hatting” or “double plating”. In many cases, it presents one face internally and another, friendlier one externally. This is seen even in the business cards Chinese officials use — titles matter and where in the Party’s structure one sits is often more important than that first presented. The Party also conceals propaganda and influences organizations under the guise of “friendship” or “cooperation” organizations. To Western ears, these innocuous-sounding groups are easy to partner with, but for the Chinese Communist party, it offers another way to advance their message and are often front organizations for propaganda offices.
Overseas Chinese are also aggressively cultivated to support mainland China, with the Party encouraging this community to form civic groups and civil society organizations, and to enter into politics. Offering funding and support as incentives, as well as threatening family members or interests in China, Beijing aims to ensure a compliant diaspora. Remember that it is the Chinese Communist Party that paints the Chinese community with one brush — as loyal to Beijing first and anything else second, regardless of citizenship. The authors merely report this.
Party Line = Profit
What is left unsaid by the authors, and perhaps with good reason, is simply why so many in the West either willingly or naively accept the CCP’s influence. Indeed, it is very much a one-way presentation of the indictment. While it explores “the how” in-depth, little as to “the why” is less explored. In case after case, the consistent and overriding reason must simply be profit and greed. Whether it is a calculation to not offend the Chinese market, the pursuit of access to high-ranking Chinese officials, or simple bribery, many in the West are gladly putting profit before principle and before country.
By way of example, China is one of the NBA’s largest markets, with revenue estimated at roughly $500 million, and the value of NBA China — the overseas business arm of the league — estimated at $4 billion. The NBA is loath to put this at risk, so players and fans can personalize official league jerseys and apparel with American-focused social justice causes, but any mention of Hong Kong or Xinjiang is effectively banned.
The risk to a company’s bottom line or the allure of the profit potential of the world’s largest market is so great that board rooms willingly abandon Western principles and values, kowtowing to what they believe (and likely rightly so) Beijing and the Party wants.
This is equally likely informed by the mistaken assumption that engagement with China would lead to China’s political opening. Indeed, for many decades and perhaps still to this day, there is a hope that China would liberalize its politics along with further reforms towards open markets and strengthened rule of law. In reality, nothing of the sort has happened, or is likely to happen, in the near future. China is becoming more authoritarian, less democratic, and less liberal, while actively engaging in the marketplace to strengthen the Party and the state. As the authors note, “in fact, today it [the party-state] is more powerful than ever because of market forces”.
In the West’s financial sectors, the authors describe how major banks and investment firms carved out programs for the sons and daughters of party officials (the so-called “princelings”) in hopes of opening up business opportunities in China. In one case, one “princeling” of a party grandee was so terrible at their job that they routinely slept at work and brought their mother into the office. Despite this poor performance, they retained her position.
Non-profits and think-tanks are also attractive targets, too. By partnering with leading institutions in the West, endowing chairs, or providing preferential access, Beijing hopes to shift the narrative on the Party and China’s interests. In many of these academic and institutional partnerships, the Western partners are obliged to sign-up to, or agree to, the Party’s terms on taboo subjects or echo Party language. While perhaps innocuous to the West, the repetition of Party phraseology lends credibility at home and subtly shifts the global dialogue — in effect, institutions begin to sing from the Xi Jinping hymn-sheet.
The Chinese Communist Party is China
The Chinese Communist Party has worked aggressively to ensure that it is the sole arbiter of Chinese culture, history, and society. There is no China without the Party — it determines what is said about China’s history, and is not; what is Chinese culture, and is not; what is Xi Jinping Thought, and is not. The two are inextricably linked — the Party and the country. That does a disservice to both the country and its people — as diverse a country as China is with as rich a history as it has, to say that there is only one truth is just the tip of the Orwellian iceberg that modern China is becoming.
When one adds in the pervasive application of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and even DNA surveillance, China begins to look more and more like the authoritarian state George Orwell warned about in his work, 1984. This, in and of itself, should be alarming for the West, but when one considers the active export of these systems abroad and the direct linkage of these recipients to Beijing, the future is increasingly worrying.
As the authors note, the consequences of this unification of the Party and the country are significant domestically and internationally. Domestically, if one criticizes the Party, they are implicitly criticizing the country — something that will inevitably lead to severely restricted freedoms, both political and economic. Internationally, criticism of the Party’s behavior is equivalent to criticism of the country and likely to raise nationalistic ire.
This unity of action and thought perhaps masks internal fragility and fear, partially borne out by the lessons of the collapse of the fraternal Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union, in the eyes of Beijing, was partially driven by the permission of alternative points of view and internal ideological division. By ensuring the purity of thought and unity of ideology, the Chinese Communist Party hopes to avoid a similar fate. By quashing every example of counter-thought, either directly or indirectly (to include asking a member of a dragon boat crew to remove an offensive t-shirt), the Party illustrates its fears of weakness.
Influence via the One Belt, One Road Initiative
A recurring theme throughout the book is the influence of the One Belt, One Road initiative (BRI) that China is using advance its interests on nearly every level. By offering infrastructure grants and loans, Beijing gains access to countries around the world and further penetrates the institutions of the West. It also aims to split the West’s alliances and drive wedges between its partners and allies in Asia and Africa. Once signed onto the BRI, countries are reluctant to do anything to raise the ire of Beijing or to step out of line with the Party’s messaging, and in doing so, put financing or loans in jeopardy. This creates a culture of self-censorship where subjects, such as the three Ts — Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square — are taboo.
Beyond influence, the BRI is a program of staggering strategic importance to Beijing, a fact that is often lost on the West. By buying stakes in key infrastructure assets, owning and operating ports, and even running electrical grids, Beijing is maneuvering itself into a clear position of strength. As one anecdote noted, Beijing could turn off the electricity to one Southeast Asian nation if it so wished, as their power grid was operated from mainland China.
While it is true that there is some pushback on BRI and the terms heavily favoring Beijing, the fact remains that there has yet to be a unified resistance to the BRI’s or Beijing’s terms.
Indeed, in addition to BRI, there is increasing pushback against Huawei and ZTE — Chinese telecom companies bidding to build out new 5G networks. Given the laws in China that mandate Chinese company cooperation with the intelligence services and the intimate personal linkages between China’s corporate executives and the People’s Liberation Army and the Ministry of State Security, this concern is entirely warranted. What appears to be low-cost telecommunications technology on the front end, will almost certainly have high national security and economic costs in the long-run. As the authors note, there isn’t the rule of law in China, but rule by law, in which the Party uses laws to buttress its authority and advance its interests. International law or the laws of the countries in which companies like Huawei and ZTE operate are irrelevant to Beijing.
Disentangling from Beijing
If there is one criticism of the book, it is when the authors lapse into a subjective commentary. In one instance they assert that London is, in effect, a lost cause when it comes to separating Chinese influence in Whitehall and the City of London. It is said so matter-of-factly that it is jarring and would have been best left unsaid and up to the reader. Why? They present their case so succinctly and completely that no other conclusion is possible.
Equally, their analysis of what needs to be done to combat future influence or rollback the Party’s penetration thus far is, unfortunately, weak. It occupies a few thin pages at the end of the book. This should have either been explored in greater depth or, preferably, left to a follow-up. Part of it, one suspects, is that articulating a rollback or counter-influence strategy is too complex for a single chapter. If anything, Hidden Hand sets out just how intertwined Western institutions — cultural, academic, business, and non-profit — are with the Chinese Communist Party, whether they realize it or not. Unraveling those relationships or disentangling the financial entanglements is no easy feat.
Internationally, while President Trump is pushing back against Chinese influence and activity — whether on Huawei, the trade war, or even TikTok — his abandonment of the traditional alliances both in Europe and Asia greatly complicates the ability of the West to resist the Party’s activities. This is not to say that those alliances were perfect or not in need of reform; they do. But in the ledger of international challenges and threats, Beijing’s activities and global behavior should rank much higher than Germany’s NATO defense expenditure obligations.
One also hopes that the authors will write a third book that will round out the Silent Invasion and Hidden Handtrilogy, one that covers China’s influence in the developing world.
Hidden Hand is a scathing indictment not of the Party’s activities, but the West’s complicities in allowing the corruption of its institutions and the abdication of its values. Reading it, one is left with a sense of existential dread or fatalism. If the very institutions that we rely on to protect, reflect, or uphold our values are so thoroughly corrupted by Party largess, what hope is there for the future?
Joshua C. Huminski is the Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at CSPC.
The views of authors are their own, and not that of CSPC.