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United Front, China's important 'magic weapon'

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Beijing: Minutes before?state broadcaster CGTN?cut to a live, rare?press conference with China's United Front Work Department last month, former diplomat Victor Gao cut to the chase.

"China has no interest in exporting its political system - and it wouldn't work," Gao told the mostly foreign TV audience.

The department?is tasked with "rallying" the?non-Communist parties and religious groups within China,?the overseas Chinese diaspora and "standing firm against separatism".

Gao was pre-empting?the western reaction to the discussion likely to follow. Are they trying to export communism??

United Front Executive Vice Minister Zhang Yijiong told the press conference, held during the Communist Party's 19th Congress, that Chinese President?Xi Jinping?had said?"the United Front is an important magic weapon for the victory of the party's cause."

Xi had said China would develop?"the most extensive patriotic united front in the new era" and?maintain "extensive contacts with overseas Chinese nationals, returned Chinese and their relatives".

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Zhang elaborated that returning overseas students, managers in foreign companies and new media workers were now on United Front's radar in China, and it would "support" overseas Chinese.

There has been increasing anxiety in countries such as Australia over?foreign interference and United Front.

If United Front is a by-word for social cohesion to?China,?to overseas Chinese dissident groups, Tibetan and Taiwanese communities, it instead stands for?organised interference in their activities.

Asked directly about Australia, and whether United Front had been organising spying, Zhang?replied?overseas Chinese should "first of all respect the laws and regulations of the host country".

United Front activities in Australia are nothing new, but the?prospect of new legislation that will require?"agents of foreign influence" to register with the Australian government is likely to change its?under-the-radar nature.

The Australian?Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China has for more than a decade cultivated relationships with state and federal MPs, which the Australian MPs?claimed were?nothing more than attending dinners, charity?events and posing for photo opportunities.?

Often though, these events?focused on endorsing China's policies on Tibet and Taiwan, generating headlines in Chinese media. They served a soft power purpose.

Similarly named Councils for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China?exist around the world, and they meet annually?in China to compare notes on opposing "splittism" and defending the One China policy.

The executive vice chairwoman of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification, Sun Chun Lan,?was the head of United Front until November 7.

United Front is one of at least five agencies that have focused on 'managing' the overseas diaspora since Deng Xiaoping's opening up.

Another is?the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese.

In June 2013, then opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop?found herself speaking at the launch of a Beauty of Tibet photography exhibition, sponsored by the All-China Federation, and touring Australia to coincide with a visit by the Dalai Lama.

Bishop said the exhibition of Chinese photographs would "dramatically enhance the understanding of Tibet", Beijing media reported.

No Labor government MPs attended the launch at the Chinese embassy in Canberra.

Tibetan groups were distressed that the Chinese show had been booked at the Sydney Convention Centre, just metres from the Sydney Entertainment Centre where the Dalai Lama was speaking.

Bishop said then she was asked to make the remarks when she arrived at the launch, and "made absolutely no political point".

A register of foreign agents could reduce the frequency of Australian politicians finding themselves in such?situations.

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