ANDREW NEIL: China is not invincible or unstoppable but until we stand up to it Beijing will be right to see us as a paper tiger
News that a parliamentary researcher at Westminster has been arrested on suspicion of spying for China should surprise nobody.
Only two months ago, the well-briefed Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament reported that China has been ‘prolifically and aggressively’ targeting Britain for quite some time.
The suspect denies he’s a spy and, of course, he must be regarded as innocent until proven guilty (that is our way, if not China’s).
But even if it turns out he’s been falsely accused, there are plenty of others doing their bit for China across huge swathes of British society, not just in Parliament and Government but in business, academia, media and even local government.
The goals are always the same: to dissuade important institutions and people of influence in Britain from being critical of China; to intimidate those who are not easily dissuaded so that they might then fall in line from fear; and to threaten with violence or worse any anti-Communist China dissent within our own hugely successful and patriotic Chinese community.
Nor is Britain anything like alone in being targeted by China. All our major allies are enduring the same unwelcome attention. China knows what it’s doing by targeting Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Together they make up the ‘Five Eyes’: the world’s most sophisticated intelligence-gathering and sharing alliance. Get inside their systems and the world is your oyster.
Only two months ago, the well-briefed Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament reported that China has been ‘prolifically and aggressively’ targeting Britain for quite some time
China has been active in the parliaments of Australia and New Zealand. The head of Australia’s Security Intelligence Organisation has revealed a ‘Chinese plot’ to have sympathetic candidates elected to parliament as Labour MPs. His Kiwi equivalent has spoken of China’s ‘growing aggression’ and its ‘significant interference’ in New Zealand politics.
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Its MPs are subject to a constant barrage of Chinese propaganda. China’s ambassador to Wellington, in his sixth letter to New Zealand lawmakers this year, was blunter than ever in reminding them how dependent the Kiwi economy is on China: 25 per cent of its exports go there and most of its tourists are Chinese.
Canada is investigating Chinese interference in its elections in 2019 and 2021, so much so that it is thought China was instrumental in unseating a conservative Canadian MP, Kenny Chiu, who had emigrated from Hong Kong.
Beijing is obsessed with suppressing dissent among ethnic Chinese living in democracies and has no hesitation intimidating human-rights activists and dissidents in the West.
The FBI recently discovered China was running a secret police station in New York whose main purpose was to spy on the city’s Chinese population.
Chinese police are not just in Manhattan. They’re everywhere. We know this thanks to the brave folks at the Spanish human rights group, Safeguard Defenders, which last year revealed there were over 100 secret Chinese police stations on five continents, including in London, Glasgow, Belfast and Dublin, as well as across most of Europe, whose primary purpose was to silence critics of China. It is important to understand what’s going on here.
‘What we see coming from China are increasing attempts to crack down on dissent everywhere in the world, to threaten people, harass people, make sure that they are fearful enough so that they remain silent or else face being returned to China against their will,’ Safeguard Defenders told CNN.
‘It will start with phone calls. They might start to intimidate your relatives back in China, to threaten you, do everything really, to coax the targets abroad to come back. If that doesn’t work, they will use covert agents abroad. They will send them from Beijing and use methods such as luring and entrapment.’
The suspected Chinese spy in Westminster denies he’s a spy and, of course, he must be regarded as innocent until proven guilty (that is our way, if not China’s)
China thinks it has a right to enforce this because, under Chinese law, its citizens are subject to Communist Party law wherever they live
Beijing calls it, euphemistically, ‘persuade to return’ and thinks it legitimate because democracies will, by and large, not extradite people to dictatorships like China. Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights has effectively banned its member states (which include Britain) from extraditing to China anyone under their jurisdiction. Hence the ‘persuasion’.
READ MORE: Fury as ex-Foreign Office mandarin suggests MPs have over-reacted to claims of a Chinese ‘spy’ in Westminster and says Beijing operatives have ‘legitimate’ right to find out ‘what is happening in Westminster’
China thinks it has a right to enforce this because, under Chinese law, its citizens are subject to Communist Party law wherever they live. And China’s National Intelligence Law requires its people and companies to assist Beijing’s spies whenever requested — and to keep that assistance secret.
It’s not just ethnic Chinese being targeted. A prominent Belgian politician, Samuel Cogolati, decided to draft a resolution for the Belgian parliament condemning China’s ‘crimes against humanity’, referring to its genocidal treatment of Uighur Muslims.
His email system was immediately attacked by Beijing-sponsored hackers. When Belgian MPs scheduled hearings on the Uighurs in May 2021, parliament was shut down by a mass cyber-offensive. Australia’s parliament has been similarly attacked.
Given all this — and more — it beggars belief that British ministers are still debating whether China should be designated a ‘threat’ rather than just a ‘systemic competitor’. How much more evidence do they need?
Or perhaps, it doesn’t beggar belief. The former top civil servant in the Foreign Office, Simon (now, inevitably, Lord) McDonald opined this week in response to the arrest of the suspected spy that it was a ‘legitimate objective’ for China to want to find out what was happening in Westminster. We can’t have ‘one rule for the U.S., France and Germany and another for China’, he added.
It’s a long time since I’ve heard such arrant nonsense, even from a Foreign Office mandarin. Of course we should have different rules for close allies, with whom we share intelligence, versus aggressive totalitarian states trying to steal our secrets. The idea we should be ‘consistent’ in this regard is stupidity on stilts.
But I fear it’s all too common in our ruling establishment. McDonald may be gone from the FO but his attitudes still linger there, as can be determined by the milk-and-water approach to China of Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.
The former top civil servant in the Foreign Office, Simon (now, inevitably, Lord) McDonald (pictured) opined this week in response to the arrest of the suspected spy that it was a ‘legitimate objective’ for China to want to find out what was happening in Westminster
It’s time to get serious about China. It has only been emboldened by our weak response to its depredations. We did next to nothing when thugs from the Chinese consulate in Manchester dragged a peaceful Hong Kong protester into the consular grounds to beat him up.
We know, using the sinister United Front Work Department, a Chinese Communist vehicle for influence and infiltration, that Beijing is headhunting sympathisers of Chinese heritage to pursue political office and that it is actively hiring former MPs, military personnel and officials for lucrative posts in Chinese companies. The government must be far tougher in holding those who take the Chinese shilling to account.
The head of MI5 says China is the ‘most game-changing strategic challenge’ Britain faces. Its aim is to undermine democracies like Britain to make the world safer for autocracy. As befits the Middle Kingdom, the world’s oldest civilisation, it is in this for the long-term. So must we be.
For a start, China needs to be placed in the ‘enhanced tier’ of the Foreign Influence Registration Scheme, which requires rigorous checks on all organisations with links to China, including companies and universities. Failure to register such links is a criminal offence which carries a five-year jail sentence. That will help us get a grip on China’s nefarious dealings.
We need to be clear what we’re up against. China is a totalitarian state with a massive annual military budget which it is using to create armed forces strong enough to dominate the Asian Pacific Rim. Yet for all it spends on defence it spends even more surveilling and suppressing its own people. We cannot allow it to get away with that in our own sovereign territory, too.
China is not invincible or unstoppable, despite the many commentators who paint it as such. Its economy is stuttering, its debt mountain is the biggest the world has ever seen, its currency is falling like a stone, just like its population. Its ability to attract foreign investment has collapsed and its young are now experiencing mass unemployment.
Our adversary is not 10ft tall. But unless we stand up to it on our home shores, it will be right to continue to regard us as a paper tiger.
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