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International relations

Chinese Communist Party present at many global companies, group says

Leaked list of 2m members circulates among countries to sound alarm on security risks

Members hold copies of the Communist Party of China's constitution: The party had around 92 million members at the end of 2019.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- An international group of lawmakers has shared an apparent list of nearly 2 million Chinese Communist Party members with multiple governments, flagging the fact that many party members are employed by global companies, Nikkei has learned.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, the document dates back to 2016 and covers mainly members around Shanghai. The data -- and the furious response to it in some quarters -- underscores the dilemma that companies face in hiring party members. Party membership is highly competitive, making the body a source of exceptional talent. But as suspicion toward China grows, critics warn of the potential economic security risks involved in hiring Beijing loyalists.

The list shows roughly 5,000 party members at nearly 300 Japanese companies or affiliated organizations. More than 80% of these members worked in the manufacturing sector.

One Japanese company employed around 900 party members groupwide. Large multinationals based in the U.S. and Europe appear on the list as well.

In a statement to Nikkei, the Chinese Embassy in Japan called reports on the database "unjust defamation and false accusations against China" intended to "inflame hostility toward China and stir up a clash of ideologies." (Full statement below)

IPAC, which was formed in June amid the Chinese crackdown on Hong Kong, includes lawmakers from 18 countries and the European Union. British Conservative Party politician Iain Duncan Smith, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and former Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani are just a few of its co-chairs. Leading democracies should present a strong united front on Chinese human rights issues, the group argues.

"China watchers always knew that governments, businesses were full of Communist Party employees, but this is the first time we have had a list proving it," said Luke de Pulford, coordinator of IPAC.

"It's hypocritical for companies to brandish their ESG [environmental, social and governance] credentials while employing members of a party responsible for concentration camps," he said, referring to the treatment of members of China's Uighur Muslim minority. "They must make a choice."

Australian cybersecurity company Internet 2.0, which obtained a copy of the database, said the document appears authentic. The company confirmed that the data had not been altered and confirmed the details of multiple people on the list, CEO Robert Potter said.

Nikkei received data from both IPAC and Internet 2.0, but it has not been independently confirmed.

The Japanese government has expressed interest in the information. "Though the government can't determine whether it's authentic, it's highly valuable information," an economic security policy official said.

The Chinese Communist Party had 92 million members at the end of 2019, making up just under 10% of the country's population.

"The party has many diligent, elite members who are valuable talent," said Yasuhiro Matsuda, a professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo. But Matsuda also noted the potential risks of hiring people who "submit to China's one-party rule."

"Hypothetically, if they are ordered by the party to gather intelligence, they'll have no choice but to comply," he said.

China's National Intelligence Law enacted in 2017 requires private-sector enterprises to cooperate with intelligence work, and cybersecurity legislation implemented that year imposes similar obligations on internet companies.

This has stoked alarm in Western countries about Communist Party influence on businesses, and about potential spying. The U.S. has imposed tighter visa rules for party members.

"If companies are perceived as bending easily to the Communist Party's wishes, they could find it harder to do business with the U.S. and Europe in the future," warned Akira Igata, a visiting professor at Tama University who serves as economic security adviser to IPAC.

China allows many foreign entities, with certain exceptions such as governmental organizations, to freely hire locally. Resumes typically include Communist Party affiliation, making it clear to companies whether applicants belong to the party.

Media outlets in the U.K. and Australia have reported on the leaked database. The Australian warned of Communist Party members working at U.S., U.K. and Australian consulates in Shanghai, while the Daily Mail revealed that British multinationals including Rolls-Royce and HSBC have employed party members.

The Chinese Embassy in Japan sent the following statement to Nikkei in response to a request for comment:

We have noted reports in some Western media about a database said to be a record of Chinese Communist Party members. These reports constitute unjust defamation and false accusations against China, and are inconsistent and groundless. Their real intent is to inflame hostility toward China and stir up a clash of ideologies.

The Chinese Communist Party is a political party that works to realize the happiness of the people, protect world peace and further human progress. The Party's 92-million members have played exemplary roles in different fields. The results that China has achieved were realized through the correct leadership of the Party and the struggles of the people, including Party members.

Countries should engage based on the basic principles of international relations with respect for each other's systems and circumstances. We hope that every quarter of Japan can clearly determine the truth and will not be misled by people with ulterior motives. We believe that people with rationality, good conscience and a sense of justice cam judge objectively for themselves.

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