This week’s warning from MI5 that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-linked lawyer Christine Lee has been influencing politicians on behalf of China raises a concerning question: how extensive and malign is China’s sway in Westminster?
It is not the first time that the Labour MP Barry Gardiner has been fingered for his China ties and his evident willingness to accept Beijing’s money. The worrying thing is that Gardiner is far from alone. In the not-so-distant days of David Cameron and George Osborne, the “British Chinese” project (of which the now infamous lawyer, Christine Lee, was a China-licensed advocate) was seen as an entirely legitimate vehicle for promoting a new “golden era” of trade and investment. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, it should be recalled, received the reddest of red carpet welcomes to the UK in October 2015. The visit, the Queen observed, took the bilateral relationship to “ambitious new heights”. Indeed the Treasury anticipated this “truly global partnership” would see China becoming the UK’s second-biggest trading partner within a decade.
But it didn’t quite turn out as the political and business elites envisaged. What looked like good business then now seems to have opened an increasingly insecure post-Brexit UK to Chinese exploitation, disinformation and influence. Investment, as the Huawei debacle showed, came with political strings attached.
And this is not accidental. The British Chinese project was a vehicle of the CCP’s “United Work Front department” – an agency that specialises in “influence relations”, ie: facilitates propaganda activities that have long been regarded as China’s magic weapon.
Indeed, China’s attempts at influence here have a long history, stretching back over the past century. From its guerrilla warfare days in Yan’an in the 1930s, Chinese leaders carefully sought to manipulate the West’s gullibility and fascination with the East. They found Western liberal progressives ready conduits for their revolutionary message. In 1937, Edgar Snow’s bestseller Red Star Over China presented an idealised view of the People’s Liberation Army and Chairman Mao Zedong as a “gaunt, Lincolnesque” figure imbued with the “force of destiny”. Western scholars regularly offered favourable presentations of revolutionary China – often overlooking the 4 June Tiananmen Square incident that crushed protean student demands for democracy.
In fact, elite capture (often euphemistically referred to as “United Front work”) has been a long-established practice of the CCP. After Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon’s opening of China in 1972, a Chinese defector noted that the “visit was followed by a swarm of China experts from the West. These people were the easiest targets of all because they were self-important. They thought they knew everything about China.” In a similar vein, in 1990, after the Tiananmen Square “incident”, another defector explained how easy it was for CCP propagandists like himself to capture intellectual and social elites to function as CCP proxies. “The tactic Chinese propagandists use is not really very complicated… It is always to work on your ego, on your business interests, and on your curiosity.” The lubricant of money invariably helps, whether in the form of grants to universities, donations to political parties or investment in infrastructure. How familiar that sounds now.
The party’s foreign propaganda remains – as it always has been – sophisticated, and chillingly effective. It leverages the vulnerability of open societies and now the opportunities afforded by social media to promote disinformation, elite capture and self-censorship. What is astonishing is that any of this comes as a surprise.