For years Westminster has been obsessing over Russian interference in Britain. Yet while we fret over oligarchs and social-media bots, the most dangerous assault on our democracy and security goes not just unchallenged, but largely unnoticed. Beijing is richer and more sophisticated than Moscow on every level, and its influence more prevalent across British society. But even as we witness events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, we still struggle to see China as a threat to our way of life.
This blind spot means China has been able quietly to amass huge amounts of influence with little pushback. Just look at how Huawei settled itself in our communications infrastructure and then expanded into our establishment.
The company started spending in a big way in the early 2010s, handing out grants and courting scientists at Whitehall champagne parties, according to a former academic. Last year, it gave £155,000 to Jesus College, Cambridge and it has at least a dozen universities on its payroll, including the LSE, Edinburgh, Imperial and Manchester.
Naturally, where cash goes, influence follows. Huawei’s UK board has been stuffed with grandees, from ex-BP man Lord Browne, who just quit, to ex-BT man Sir Mike Rake, who just joined. It has hired at least seven PR firms (Finsbury, BCW, MHP, Ogilvy, FleishmanHillard, Hawthorne and Flint Global). It can draw on advice from some of Britain’s most senior ex-officials — such as Sir Simon Fraser, former head of the Foreign Office, and Sir Andrew Cahn, former head of UK Trade & Investment. Tories debating 5G can count on hearing from an old colleague, Kris Hopkins, an MP till 2017 but now a Huawei ‘senior public relations manager’. And Huawei hasn’t forgotten the wonks: Chatham House and the Centre for Policy Studies have both received money.
The wonder, then, isn’t really that Britain has relied on this officially ‘untrusted’ company to keep our phones pinging, but that the government can bring itself to ban Huawei at all. Yet while backbenchers in Westminster celebrate their ‘victory’ after the government’s U-turn last month, onlookers scratch their heads. They wonder not just how a seven-year, post-election phase-out amounts to a ban, but, more importantly, how Britain’s elites have been so comprehensively bought — and what on earth can be done about it.
The influence-buying in the Huawei case is replicated throughout the country in academia, business and politics. It is the result of a highly successful Chinese government programme called ‘the United Front’, which began as a branch of Chinese Communist party activity intended to subvert counter-revolutionary forces. According to Mao Zedong, it was a ‘magic weapon’ that would help communists to victory, a phrase repeated by Xi Jinping as he has expanded its activities since 2015. Now, the term ‘the United Front’ applies to an array of Chinese government interests, from suppressing minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang to transferring technology from abroad and recruiting supporters for the CCP’s strategic aims through cash, persuasion or blackmail, both at home and among elites the world over.
In recent years, some democratic countries have been waking up to the fact that large chunks of their societies have fallen under the sway of a foreign force with truly malicious intentions. In New Zealand, a sitting member of the House of Representatives, Jian Yang, recently announced his coming retirement over a row about his links to Chinese military intelligence. In Australia, police raided the political office of sitting Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane, an outspoken supporter of Beijing, in a counter-espionage investigation. The US government is leading an assault on CCP influence over American society. Investigators have discovered that dozens of US scientists had not been declaring funding received from the Chinese government. Meanwhile, intensive lobbying by tech companies has created loopholes in legislation meant to stop sensitive, early-stage US technology being bought by China.
But as our allies take action, the UK remains detached. Huawei and Hong Kong might make headlines, but below the radar the CCP and its allies promote soft, soporific voices in the British establishment who insist we reject ‘protectionism’, embrace ‘global cooperation’ and ‘engage’ with Beijing, no matter how many international agreements it violates, how vile its policies are and how little we gain from this so-called ‘engagement’. The pro-China business group the China-Britain Business Council is lobbying the UK government to do more business with Beijing after Brexit. The CBBC’s chair, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, another former diplomat, is now head of public affairs at HSBC, which recently expressed support for China’s new security law in Hong Kong.
These ‘global cooperation’ arguments find purchase not because of their inherent value, but because of the people that voice them. Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg’s new book Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World describes just one of the vehicles for this influence operation: an organisation called the 48 Group Club founded by old UK allies of the CCP. The club organises free trips to China and promotes close links between senior communists and British elites, with a membership list that, according to Hamilton and Ohlberg, includes Tony Blair, John Prescott, Michael Heseltine, Alex Salmond, Jack Straw, Peter Mandelson, the Duke of Westminster, five former UK ambassadors to Beijing and an array of business people and academics.
Matthew Henderson, an old Foreign Office hand now at the Henry Jackson Society think tank, puts it well: ‘They’ve identified vanity, greed, a cosiness in the British establishment that they are now replicating — people who like funny academic caps and robes, people who like medals, slightly odd handshakes, guilds.’ Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs select committee, says: ‘The currency for MPs isn’t cash. It’s ego… You get flown over first class, treated like a king, interviewed for CGTN [China Global Television Network], picked up in a limousine, put through make-up. The waiting room has got lobsters in it.’
It isn’t just politicians, however. Academics are just as susceptible. British and Chinese academics regularly collaborate not just on commercially valuable technology like 5G — itself risky enough — but on research with clear military and security applications, like image recognition, drone communications, supercomputing and nuclear physics. Beijing’s ‘Thousand Talents Plan’, a scheme for recruiting foreign scientists, draws our underfunded researchers into Beijing’s orbit with prizes, junkets and grants, disguising its political or military intentions with empty rhetoric about free and open inquiry.
These projects frequently link UK universities with Chinese institutions that are intimately tied to Beijing’s defence programme. Sometimes they even use British taxpayers’ money to do it. Yet when I revealed these links in a Telegraph investigation with colleagues, it caused barely a ripple in academic circles. It is so widespread and so lucrative that our universities just accept it.
The sheer depth and breadth of the problem makes it seem overwhelming. Again, though, other countries have shown us where to start. In 2018, the US passed FIRRMA, a law that expanded national security grounds for blocking foreign takeovers and joint ventures involving technology transfer. And having let things slide for years, the FBI is now enforcing rules on academic funding transparency.
More broadly, the US debate is changing to reflect the fact that security and commerce cannot be separated any more. ‘They’re intertwined now in a way they weren’t during the Cold War,’ says James Lewis, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. In Beijing, this is a deliberate policy that has a name: ‘military-civil fusion’.
Despite these developments, however, UK authorities still preside over shockingly lax disclosure rules for academics and have utterly failed to advise universities on suitable research partnerships with Chinese institutions. Nor is the government doing anything to protect our campuses from Chinese censorship and spying on its students.
We could also learn a lot from Australia. In 2018, Canberra passed laws defining foreign interference and criminalising covert or coercive activities. Those engaged in foreign influence must now disclose what they are up to. The legislation is a well-targeted attempt to take on the United Front. Even so, Canberra is struggling to devote enough resources to the problem.
In Britain, there is talk of similar laws. No. 10 Sinosceptics such as Munira Mirza, head of the policy unit, are pushing for action, but despite Covid and Hong Kong, Boris Johnson still struggles to believe in the extent of the threat. If he won’t engage, his MPs may begin to force the matter. Bob Seely, a Tory member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has started work on a foreign lobbying act, which could take elements from US and Australian legislation. The aim is not just to take on spies, but to force the CCP’s covert influence activities out of the shadows. Foreign companies or states that meet particular criteria could be made to declare who and what they are funding. Likewise, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, the toothless system for vetting business jobs for ex-officials and politicians, needs a major overhaul.
The UK must pass laws and launch investigations. But even more than that, it must recognise that the CCP does not want to co-operate or be persuaded to adopt our values. It wants to subvert and supplant. On his blog, Dominic Cummings is fond of quoting Sun Tzu, so perhaps he will recognise this wisdom: ‘If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.’ Britain is already losing the war. Indeed, we have barely realised we are fighting it.
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