China spy cases sound like more Western paranoia

Sep 18, 2023
06/09/2022. London, United Kingdom. Official Cabinet Portrait; Minister of State (Minister for Security) at the Home Office – Tom Tugendhat MBE MP Pose for a photograph in 10 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street.

The China threat has much more to do with the insecurity and indecision of the West towards the country, the emerging multipolar world and the erosion of Western dominance.

First it was a big fat balloon observable from many kilometres from the ground that was supposedly spying on the United States. Now, a 20-something parliamentary researcher who liked to flirt on a dating app is suspected of being a China spy inside Westminster.

Some Anglo-American media are already warning or rather goading that the already fraught relationship between China and Britain is set for a free fall.

Frankly, the timings are more interesting than the disclosures themselves.

The Chinese weather balloon was tracked for many weeks by the Pentagon, which initially concluded it wasn’t a threat. Then some anti-China hawks in the US Congress were unhappy about a scheduled visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing, and suddenly, American news headlines were all about the spy balloon. That, in turn, caused Blinken to postpone his trip.

This time around, the exposé of a Tory parliamentary researcher as an alleged China spy coincided nicely with a diplomatic mission to China by British Foreign Minister James Cleverly, who has been trying to make nice with the Chinese, up to a point, as the Brits like to say.

But the suspected spy, it turns out, was actually arrested long ago in March under a section of the Official Secrets Act that dates from 1911, but is so far not charged. He must have been – allegedly – committing some really obscure offence(s) for the authorities to resort to such an archaic law.

British anti-China hawks were unhappy about Cleverly’s China trip. Conveniently, the story broke. His boss, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, was forced to confront Premier Li Qiang at the Group of 20 summit over the allegations, which no doubt made those same hawks rather happy.

Now they are demanding that China be formally labelled a threat to Britain’s national security and interests. That, however, is being resisted by the more pragmatic elements inside the Tory government, such as Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, who has pointed out that Britain does need Chinese trade.

All that seems a bit premature. Isn’t it the great British people who first taught the world that suspects are innocent until proven guilty. Yet, when it comes to China, mere suspicion is enough to imply guilt.

The suspect’s case is especially questionable. The guy is out on bail and no charge has been laid. The law cited to make the arrest is more than a century old and is rarely used, let alone successfully, to convict foreign agents.

He had worked for a conservative think tank set up by Tom Tugendhat, the security minister, when he was a mere Tory member of parliament, and Alicia Kearns, the chairwoman of the foreign affairs select committee. Kearns, an ultra-anti-China hawk, claims China has threatened her family and she has demanded extra protection. The suspect is said to have access to sensitive information, but presumably not cabinet-level secrets; he worked for Tugendhat’s think tank, not his cabinet office.

Is he guilty or not? We wouldn’t know unless his case is brought to court. But that may not even happen. Considering the time lapse from his arrest and the obscurity of his alleged offence(s), it’s possible he won’t be charged at all.

China is supposed to be such a threat that MI5 and MI6, the domestic and foreign intelligence services, now have full discretion to work together in cases involving China. Yet, so far, not a single spy case has managed to reach the courts.

The suspect has taken the unusual step of issuing a public statement denying his guilt, even claiming he has been working “against the Chinese Communist Party”. Is he a spy, a double agent or a triple one? Did he even know he was spying for someone or something? This is John Le Carre territory. It reminds me of his Little Drummer Girl, whose main character was so daft she thought she was working for one side but ended up spying for the other.

Or maybe there was no spying for the suspect at all, and he was just a pawn in the political infighting between the government and the security services, and the hawkish lawmakers. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that the hawks have forced the Sunak government, which has tried to pursue a more pragmatic approach with Beijing, into a defensive position and may have to adopt a tougher line with the Chinese.

In fact, we have seen the same kind of infighting in practically all the major Western countries – between those who realise they have to live with China one way or another, and those who want to start world war three with it.

The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has been forced to launch an official public inquiry into China’s alleged political interference in Canada even though a previous probe recommended there was no need for it.

The Labor government in Australia wants to sound more conciliatory with the Chinese than its Conservative predecessor, and yet has little room to manoeuvre under heavy pressure from Washington and the domestic hawkish opposition.

Meanwhile, mainstream Western news media have been drip-fed anti-China stories from undisclosed but official sources to compel public opinion to accept the China threat, however exaggerated.

The more I read those stories, the more I realise they are less about China than about the insecurity and indecision of the West towards the country, the emerging multipolar world and the erosion of Western dominance in global affairs.


First published in the South China Morning Post September 12, 2023

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