How UK’s ties with China are being chafed amid global power play
London — As a prominent China critic and advocate of Hong Kong’s freedoms, Benedict Rogers is used to unwanted attention. But even he was surprised when he found out that the Chinese embassy in London had attempted to persuade members of the British parliament to warn him off.
The episode occurred in 2017 when Rogers was deputy chair of the governing Conservative Party’s human rights commission that he cofounded. According to three separate people familiar with the events, the embassy lobbied Conservative MPs to try to convince Rogers, who is not a legislator, to “shut up” about China.
His experiences are among the incidents revealed in interviews with MPs, diplomats, party officials and security sources that help explain the UK’s souring relations with Beijing, and show how far China is prepared to go to try to influence the narrative. Many asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of their interactions with Chinese diplomats.
Falling out with China is a risky path for the UK as it exits the EU’s orbit, leaving it more exposed to retaliatory action by the world’s number two economy, as Australia is witnessing. China was the UK’s third-biggest trading partner in 2019, after only the US and Germany; the UK ranked a distant 14th for China.
Having already barred Huawei Technologies from 5G networks from 2027 amid pressure from the Trump administration, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is considering a ban on installing the Chinese company’s equipment as soon as 2021 to appease his own Conservative MPs. It’s part of the price for their backing on telecommunications security legislation due in parliament next week. Separate national security legislation aimed at shielding British assets from foreign investment is another flash point that risks angering Beijing.
“This has severely undermined the legitimate interests of Chinese companies and impacted the basis of mutual trust between China and the UK,” foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a daily briefing in Beijing on Wednesday as he condemned the UK’s moves against Huawei as without evidence.
Johnson has called himself a Sinophile and expressed a desire to work with China, but that fine line between asserting Britain’s values without alienating Beijing is becoming harder to tread given his MPs’ increasing hawkishness. Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative leader and frequent critic of Beijing, called China “the single biggest threat and problem posed to the United Kingdom and the free world” last week in parliament.
While his is an outlier voice, it reflects the growing international headwinds Beijing is encountering as China flexes its muscles on issues as diverse as Hong Kong, human rights, and the acquisition of strategic infrastructure and companies overseas. The UK is one of nine major economies from the US to South Korea where negative perceptions of China have reached a record level, a global survey by Pew Research Center found in October.
An illustration of how strained ties have become came recently, when a group of legislators took part in a Zoom call with Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming to congratulate him on the occasion of the 71st anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. A Tory member brought up China’s treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority, and the ambassador slapped him down, telling the MP not to get involved, then proceeding to rebut his points for five minutes.
“It was quite tense,” said a participant. The Chinese embassy had no comment as of Wednesday evening, more than 48 hours after being asked for its response to the points in this story.
Against a backdrop of mutual suspicion, many MPs are pressing Johnson’s government to curb what they see as China’s creeping state-backed influence in critical areas of British life from energy to finance and technology.
Huawei’s lobbying has been particularly extensive. Many members of the upper House of Lords were approached to make the case for the Chinese company, according to a person familiar with the activities. “Most are avoiding them like the plague,” the person said. Huawei’s UK office declined to comment when contacted on Wednesday.
Huawei has publicly called on the UK government to revisit the ban in light of President Donald Trump’s election defeat.
The issue when it comes to China’s influence in the UK is one of “buying legitimacy”, according to a person familiar with the intelligence community’s thinking. “They will acquire businesses and firms which are both perfectly lawful and ethical, and that way acquire legitimacy,” the person said. “The British elite is soft and malleable and easily bought.”
To be sure, one Conservative legislator described interactions with the Chinese embassy as a two-way conversation: frank exchanges with efforts to persuade on both sides and no attempts to apply pressure. Another said the ambassador had never behaved in any way that could be considered improper, and that co-operation rather than confrontation should be the nature of the relationship.
The reality is still one of worsening relations that constitutes a setback for China’s international standing five years after then-prime minister David Cameron declared a “golden era” in bilateral ties, and even arranged for President Xi Jinping to be taken to Buckingham Palace in a golden carriage for an audience with Queen Elizabeth II. The government in Beijing has struggled to push back against the Trump administration’s efforts to paint China as a threat to the global world order, particularly in middle powers such as the UK.
“There has been a clear deterioration in China-UK relations in the last few years,” said Wang Yiwei, director of China’s Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University in Beijing. Wang attributed the change in part to the UK increasingly drawing on its relationship within the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, saying it “needs to improve its relationship with the US to counter the damage from exiting the European Union market”.
UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab was a signatory to a Five Eyes statement last week calling on China to live up to its duty to the people of the former British territory of Hong Kong. China issued threats to the UK on more than one occasion in November over its criticism of Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong, lumping it together with Australia, another Five Eyes member that is in the thick of a damaging trade conflict with China.
“Should they insist on going down the wrong path, China will make firm, legitimate and necessary reactions,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a regular news briefing on November 13, referring to both countries.
Rogers, the CEO of Hong Kong Watch, which monitors threats to the territory’s basic freedoms, says he found himself on the wrong side of such actions back in 2017. He said he wrote an article to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong that the Chinese embassy in London made clear it didn’t want to be published. An MP contacted him before the piece was published on the website ConservativeHome to alert him about the lobbying effort, raising questions of how Chinese authorities knew the article was coming.
Rogers, a former Tory candidate, was denied entry to Hong Kong in October that year. His case is not unique: Nigel Evans, a Conservative MP for almost 30 years who is now a deputy speaker of the House of Commons, is understood to have been denied a visa to enter China after visiting Taiwan as chair of the parliamentary group on Taiwan.
In the last few years, Rogers said he received anonymous threatening letters sent to his home address as well as to neighbours who were asked to “keep an eye” on him, and even to his mother. He received e-mails along similar lines, and said fake e-mails were sent in his name to MPs and journalists. The harassment got so bad that a cabinet minister raised the issue with intelligence services, according to a person familiar with the events.
The aggressive form of “wolf warrior” diplomacy displayed during the pandemic has contributed to a reconsideration of the relationship in the UK, according to Charles Parton, a former diplomat with more than two decades’ experience of China. That change of heart also goes for those who advocate on Beijing’s behalf, he said.
“Whereas before it was completely open season, if you wished to make money and drown your conscience in silver, that was very easy to do because no-one would hold you to account,” said Parton, a senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. “That is not the case any more.”
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