“If the question is which state will be shaping our world across the next decade providing big opportunities and big challenges for the UK, the answer is China,” Britain’s new MI5 Director Ken McCallum recently told journalists. He added that Russia is currently “providing bursts of bad weather, while China is changing the climate”. McCallum said that countries such as China and Russia were no longer focused just on traditional espionage activities, such as stealing government secrets, but also on targeting Britain’s economy, infrastructure and academic research, while seeking to undermine its democracy.
“The UK wants to co-operate with China on the big global issues like climate change, while at the same time being robust in confronting covert hostile activity when we come across it,” he said. “[MI5 is] looking to do more against Chinese activity, carefully prioritised.”
That China targets the economy, infrastructure and even the democracy of other states is far from a new occurrence, but it is something that Western countries have only recently begun to acknowledge. For decades, the US — and with it most Western countries — believed that “constructive engagement” with the Chinese Communist regime, which included heavily aiding its economic, technological and even military rise, would lead to a prosperous China that would somehow evolve into a liberal democracy sharing Western views on global and regional issues. That belief turned out to be wishful thinking to a hallucinatory degree.
China’s goal, according to China expert Michael Pillsbury in his 2015 book, The Hundred Year Marathon, is to “replace the United States as the economic, military and political leader of the world by the year 2049”. The “marathon” was launched by Mao Zedong to “avenge a century of humiliation” at the hands of the West. The preferred strategy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to reach that goal is deception, according to Pillsbury, whether this be in the economic, business, political, technological, diplomatic or academic sphere. While deception forms a basic strategic principle for the CCP, it also, in the words of The Spectator’s Andrew Foxall, avails itself of methods such as, “economic coercion, military sabre-rattling, a mammoth state-sponsored media empire, and cohorts of witting and unwitting accomplices” to achieve its goals.
A recent book, Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World, by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, chronicles the extent of the CCP’s deception and subversion of Western elites and institutions for the purpose of achieving international dominance.
“Whereas analysts on both sides of the Atlantic continue to agonise over whether to label China an opponent or even an enemy, the CCP decided this matter thirty years ago”, Hamilton and Ohlberg write.
“For the CCP the Cold War never ended. The reshaping of alliances and remoulding of the way the world thinks about it are essential to the Party securing continued rule at home, as well as to its reach and eventually making China the number one global power. The Party’s plans have been explained at length in speeches and documents. Its implementation strategy is to target elites in the West so that they either welcome China’s dominance or accede to its inevitability, rendering resistance futile”.
In the UK, according to Hamilton and Ohlberg, the CCP has managed to “groom” British power elites to support China’s interests, especially through the networking group the “48 Group Club”.
“No group in Britain enjoys more intimacy and trust with the CCP leadership than the 48 Group Club… [It] has built itself into the most powerful instrument of Beijing’s influence and intelligence gathering in the United Kingdom. Reaching into the highest ranks of Britain’s political, business, media and university elites, the club plays a decisive role in shaping British attitudes to China… enthusiastically fostering the interests of the CCP in the United Kingdom…”.
The club features members such as former ministers, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, five former British ambassadors to China, leading business people, directors of large cultural institutions and professors, as well as a number of highly ranked CCP officials, including several former Chinese ambassadors to the UK.
“In our judgement, so entrenched are the CCP’s influence networks among British elites that Britain has passed the point of no return, and any attempt to extricate itself from Beijing’s orbit would probably fail,” write Hamilton and Ohlberg.
Britain, recently, did appear to seek to “extricate itself from Beijing’s orbit” regarding Huawei’s influence and potential security risk in the country, especially after US pressure. In July, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson banned the use of Huawei equipment in the UK’s 5G telecommunications network by the end of 2027. The move prompted China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, to threaten the UK:
“The way you are treating Huawei is being followed very closely by other Chinese businesses, and it will be very difficult for other businesses to have the confidence to have more investment”.
Liu later denied threatening the UK by making another threat:
“We make no threats, we threaten nobody. We just let you know the consequences. If you do not want to be our partners and our friends, you want to treat China as a hostile country, you will pay the price. That means you will lose the benefits of treating China as a friend.”
Meanwhile, Huawei’s plans to build a research center in Cambridgeshire are going ahead. Huawei has pledged to spend £1 billion on a massive campus, which will host R&D and manufacturing teams focusing on the creation of optical devices and modules. The US wanted the local planning committee to withhold permission, with Keith Krach, Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, reportedly calling the research center an “expansion of the surveillance state”.
When China imposed a new security law in response to repeated pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the law as a “serious breach” of the UK-China agreement on the territory. He also said he would open a path to citizenship for almost three million residents of Hong Kong, while Britain’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong would be suspended“immediately and indefinitely”. China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, on the other hand, accused the US and other critics of being “cold war warriors”:
“China and the UK should have enough wisdom and capability to manage and deal with these differences, rather than allowing anti-China forces and cold war warriors to kidnap China-UK relations.”
Boris Johnson, however, appeared to send a signal of having stood up to the CCP in a rather half-hearted way. “There is a balance here”, Johnson said back in July. “I’m not going to be pushed into a position of becoming a knee-jerk Sinophobe on every issue, somebody who is automatically anti-China. But we do have serious concerns.” Johnson said he would not “completely abandon our policy of engagement” with China, adding: “You have got to have a calibrated response and we are going to be tough on some things, but we are also going to continue to engage.”
More than anything, Johnson’s comment underscored just how much the UK lacks a consistent China policy.
Chinese influence in the UK extends to British universities. In November 2019, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, published a report, “A Cautious Embrace: Defending Democracy in an Age of Autocracies,” which found that British universities were not adequately responding to the growing risk of China and other autocratic states influencing academic freedom in the UK. The report stated:
“There is clear evidence that autocracies are seeking to shape the research agenda or curricula of UK universities, as well as limit the activities of researchers on university campuses. Not enough is being done to protect academic freedom from financial, political and diplomatic pressure…
“During our inquiry into China and the rules-based international system, we heard alarming evidence about the extent of Chinese influence on the campuses of UK universities. Despite the fact that there are now over 100,000 Chinese students in the UK, the issue of Chinese influence has been the subject of remarkably little debate compared to that in Australia, New Zealand and the US”.
Much of Chinese influence on British campuses is done through the CCP’s Confucius Institutes, of which there are at least 29 in the UK, according to a February 2019 report on the topic by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission:
“In Britain, there are at least 29 Confucius Institutes, the second largest number in the world after the United States, attached to major universities such as Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Cardiff and University College London. There are also 148 Confucius ‘classrooms’ in schools around the United Kingdom… Confucius Institutes…are directly controlled, funded and staffed by an agency of the Chinese government’s Ministry of Education, the Office of Chinese Language Council International, known as the ‘Hanban'”.
According to Hamilton and Ohlberg, Confucius Institutes were “initiated in 2004 as an innocuous way to spread the Party narrative… ostensibly devoted to teaching Chinese language and promoting Chinese culture they are, as former propaganda chief Li Changchun put it, ‘an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up'”.
Confucius Institutes are not all, however. The China Media Centre at Westminster University, for example, has hosted training courses for CCP officials, partly paid for by the British taxpayer through the Foreign Office, according to Hamilton and Ohlberg, who quote the head of spokesperson development for the Central Office of External Propaganda:
“Chinese Officials’ understanding of the functions of the media in Western countries and their ability to respond to and interact with the media has been much enhanced by the excellent intensive 3-week briefings by The China Media Centre and provided to ministries, provinces and cities over the past 7 years”. The China Media Centre, according to Hamilton and Ohlberg “has brought many party officials to mingle with the media and political elite, including five seminars at 11 Downing Street, at the invitation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer”.
“Those arguing in favor of these kind of courses maintain that they will help bring about a more open media in China”, write Hamilton and Ohlberg.
“In fact the opposite is the case: they help the CCP fine-tune its propaganda and use it more effectively across the globe. The courses teach techniques used by Western journalists to extract answers, and also how government officials can handle adversarial questions in press conferences. At a time when official Chinese spokespeople are regularly under fire for the Party’s concentration camps in Xinjiang, and other human rights violations, teaching them how to ‘handle’ questions seems to be more in the CCP’s interest than the British public’s”.
The large extent of Chinese influence in British society will make the MI5’s task of tackling hostile covert activity complicated — but Britain is at risk.