A Preliminary Survey of CCP Influence Operations in Singapore

Russell Hsiao, July 16 2019, China Brief from the Jamestown Foundation.
https://jamestown.org/program/a-preliminary-survey-of-ccp-influence-operations-in-singapore/

Editor’s note: Our previous issue contained an article by Russell Hsiao that profiled institutions and methods employed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to cultivate influence in Japan (A Preliminary Survey of CCP Influence Operations in Japan, June 26, 2019). In this issue, Mr. Hsiao continues this series by leveraging recent local research in Singapore, and presenting an analysis of the means by which the CCP seeks to gain influence over public discourse and government policy in that Southeast Asian nation.

Introduction

As China rises on the world stage, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is increasingly utilizing all levers of influence to achieve and secure its national objectives along its periphery and globally. To achieve and secure those objectives, the CCP is employing political warfare. [1] Political warfare is a set of overt and covert tools used by governments to influence the perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors of other governments and societies in order to achieve national objectives. [2] Set within a broader discussion about how CCP engages in influence operations in Asia, Singapore presents a valuable case study for understanding the means by which the CCP engages in influence operations that target a majority ethnic-Chinese state.

As noted by Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, in terms of state-to-state relations, the Chinese government essentially engages in influence operations in a fashion similar to other governments (Straits Times, June 28). However, the CCP is a Leninist party, and its use of united front tactics and organizations represents a holistic approach to influence operations wholly unlike other countries (China Brief, May 9). Singapore has long been a target of CCP united front attention, and the city authorities have a history of combating CCP propaganda that dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, when People’s Republic of China (PRC) leaders sought to export communist revolution to Southeast Asia (National Archives of Singapore, undated). [3]

The primary avenues for CCP influence operations in Singapore are found in business associations, clan associations, and grassroots organizations. CCP propaganda efforts in Singapore that flow through these organizations aim to promote the narrative of a “greater China”—one that includes all people of Chinese descent, irrespective of nationality—and therefore, one in which ethnic Chinese persons of all nationalities should show affinity and loyalty towards the Chinese state represented by the PRC. The CCP’s fundamental purpose, therefore, is to impose a Chinese identity on Singapore so that it will align more closely with the PRC’s expanding interests.

Overseas Chinese Relations and Civic Organizations in Singapore

Identity politics (and the use of overseas Chinese) as a tool of PRC foreign policy was documented in a 2018 U.S. Congressional study (USCC, August 2018), and this practice was institutionally reflected by the integration of overseas Chinese affairs into the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) in early 2018 (China Brief, May 9). The strategy of outreach to Chinese and Asian identity was recently further reinforced by the PRC’s first “Conference of Dialogue on Asian Civilizations,” held in Beijing in May 2019 (CDAC, May 2019).

Singapore has a total population of 5.8 million, 76.2% of whom are ethnic Chinese. Despite this, Singapore is a multiracial and multicultural nation with a complex identity, and since the nation’s founding identity has been closely managed as an existential issue by Singapore’s ruling elites. [4] Because of the city-state’s large ethnic Chinese population, the PRC seeks to leverage ethnic ties to Singapore for purposes of building influence, and a statement commonly heard by Singaporeans from citizens of the PRC is: “Singapore is a Chinese country that must cleave to Chinese interests” (Straits Times, October 16, 2016).

Although there is a sizeable Chinese community, this community is well-assimilated into Singaporean society. While ethnic enclaves still exist, particularly among new immigrants, these ethnic-geographical enclaves are not influential as collective political interest groups. Older generations of Singaporean-Chinese tend to have a stronger affinity for China; among these older generations, CCP appeals are frequently directed towards supporting ethnic pride and Chinese nationalism. Older Singaporean-Chinese also tend to have higher levels of membership in clan associations and similar civic organizations based on ethnic Chinese identity (see below).

Clan Associations

Clan associations have a long history in Singapore and in other countries with Chinese immigrant communities. Clan associations were started in the early 1800s in Singapore to foster unity and kinship among Chinese people when they arrived from other countries. Based on locality or kinship (surname), more than 300 locality and surname clan associations have been officially registered in Singapore, and serve as key institutions for preserving a sense of Chinese identity and kinship (Singapore Federation of Clan Associations, undated). Clan and surname associations are important links through which the PRC conducts outreach: through cultural exchanges to revolutionary history sites in China, concerts for singing communist songs, “birthright” village/home visits, and so forth. These exchanges are endorsed by local offices operated by CCP united front organizations. [5]

Cultural Associations

The younger generation of Chinese-Singaporeans generally feels less identification with the PRC, and has less interest in joining clan associations, temple associations, and similar civic organizations. The CCP therefore needs different strategies for dealing with the younger generation of Singaporeans, and the most common appeals are to economic opportunities and cultural affinity with China. One institution for promoting the latter is the PRC’s China Cultural Center (Zhongguo Wenhua Zhongxin, 中国文化中心), or CCC, which was established in Singapore in 2012. The Singapore CCC is one of 20 such centers established around the world to conduct cultural activities, exchanges for youth, and teaching and training (PRC CCC in Singapore, undated). The CCC functions as part of a broader effort to create a common identity between Chinese China and Chinese Singapore.

Of note, a parallel Singapore Chinese Cultural Center was established by Singapore’s government in 2017. The vision of the organization is “a vibrant Singapore Chinese culture, rooted in a cohesive, multi-racial society” (Singapore CCC, undated). At the opening of the center, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long made a speech emphasizing how Chinese in Singapore are very different from the Chinese in China, in terms of both history and identity (Singapore PM Office, May 19, 2017).

Influence Levied Through Business Associations

Business associations in Singapore (as is often true in other countries) act as the most powerful lobby for Chinese interests. In Singapore, these organizations include the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Singapore Business Federation. The PRC exerts leverage over Singapore businessmen by making it harder for them to get contracts, licenses, permits, loans, etc.—especially in the real estate sector, where Singaporeans hold significant investments in China. [6]

Two incidents from recent years demonstrate how business associations have lobbied the Singapore government on behalf of pro-PRC positions. In 2004, the Singaporean business community exerted immense pressure on the Singaporean government when Prime Minister-elect Lee Hsien Loong made a “private and unofficial” visit to Taiwan in July that year before he was officially sworn in in August. At the time, PRC officials threatened to delay talks on a free-trade agreement with Singapore as a result of Lee’s Taiwan visit (AFP, August 26, 2004).

A second example was seen in 2016-2017, in which nine Singaporean military armored vehicles used for training in Taiwan were impounded during passage through Hong Kong. Singapore-PRC relations were strained by the incident, but Singaporean Chinese businessmen, who held ties with government officials through grassroots associations and other channels, reportedly provided “feedback” to the government to avoid stirring up trouble with China by continuing to train in Taiwan (SCMP, December 3, 2016; SCMP, January 24, 2017).

Media Influence

Singapore is a multilingual country that includes Chinese (along with English, Malay, and Tamil) among its officially-recognized languages, and Mandarin is widely spoken and used. The daily circulation of Singapore’s largest Chinese-language newspaper, Lianhe Zaobao (早报), is about 200,000 copies, and the number of readers in Singapore is estimated to be about 620,000. The newspaper’s website, Zaobao.com, is also read in the PRC, where it attracts more than 5 million daily page views. The local Zaobao.sg, which is mainly for readers in Singapore and readers from outside mainland China, enjoys 500,000 page views per day and 1.4 million unique visitors per month (Zaobao, undated).

Chinese-language programming in Singapore has become subject to PRC influence through intermediaries in Taiwan, as Singapore purchases content from broadcasting companies (such as TVBS, CTI, and EBC) that are considered to be pro-PRC among Taiwan media outlets. However, Chinese programming is still not very popular in Singapore, and anecdotal evidence based on local interviews suggest that younger generations do not appear to be as interested as their elders in Chinese programming. [7]

The Singaporean government exerts tight controls over the media, which limits PRC influence. Most print and broadcast media outlets in Singapore are not necessarily state-owned, but they are heavily state-controlled. Yet, given the economic dependency between local Chinese-language media companies and the PRC market, this raises questions as to whether local outlets (such as Zaobao) are selling news to Singapore, or selling news to markets in the PRC—and whether they might self-censor as a result.

Conclusions

The fundamental purpose of Chinese propaganda and influence operations in Singapore is to impose a Chinese identity on Singapore. Towards that end, China is using cultural organizations, clan associations, business associations, and youth programs to engage in influence operations in Singapore. Beijing’s vehement reaction to Singapore’s response in support of the South China Sea ruling by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (Today, July 12, 2016; Straits Times, August 6, 2016) reflect its broader and innate belief that, as a majority ethnic-Chinese country, Singapore should understand and support the Chinese position. CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s policies of blurring the line between “Chinese people” (huaren, 华人) and “overseas Chinese” (huaqiao, 华侨), intensified propaganda, and new laws related to overseas Chinese have all caused heightened concern in Singapore. Singapore’s government views identity as an existential issue, and is likely to resist CCP efforts to make inroads in this area.

While policy experts in Singapore appear to be keenly aware of and are taking precautions to resist CCP influence operations, there are some contradictions in Singapore policies, and natural alignments of interest between Singapore’s government and the PRC: for example, mutual concerns that the West’s calls for universal values could weaken their political authority. However, this does not mean that Singapore is necessarily pro-Beijing, or that its policies result from CCP influence operations. In fact, Singapore’s resilience to foreign influences may be attributed in part to the government’s tight media controls, which restrict access to Singapore’s information environment. Similar factors of social management also restrict channels for foreign interference through either political parties or civil society organizations.

Growing strategic competition between the United States and China in the region presents complications for Singapore’s foreign policy and defense policy. Security experts in Singapore assess that their options are narrowing as both countries are putting more pressure than ever before on Singapore to pick sides. As U.S.-China competition takes center stage in global politics, the country’s delicate balancing act, and its internal questions of identity, will come increasingly under strain.

Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and currently a visiting scholar the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Advanced Asian Studies. He is an adjunct fellow at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum and a Penn Kemble Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy for 2018-19. The author would like to thank many anonymous interviewees for their insights. The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own, and are not intended to reflect the positions of any of his affiliated organizations.

Notes

[1] Defense Intelligence Agency, China Military Power 2019: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win, p.99.

[2] George Kennan defined political warfare as “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures …, and ‘white’ propaganda, to such covert operations as clandestine support of ‘friendly’ foreign elements, ‘black’ psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.” See: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1945-50Intel/d269.

[3] Chinese Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance (Hoover Institution, 2018), p. 174.https://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/research/docs/chineseinfluence_americaninterests_fullreport_web.pdf.

[4] Eugene K. B. Tan, “Re-Engaging Chineseness: Political, Economic and Cultural Imperatives of Nation-Building in Singapore,” The China Quarterly, No. 175 (Sep. 2003).

[5] Author’s interviews in Singapore.

[6] Author’s interviews in Singapore.

[7] Author’s interviews in Singapore.


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