One of the interesting things about the Chinese “spy” story in Britain that broke over the past number of days is that neither the alleged “spying” nor the person named will have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with how the Chinese Communist Party operates in western countries, including Ireland you may be certain.
On Thursday, the Speaker of the British House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle circulated every MP with a note that passed on a warning from MI5 that Christine Ching Kui Lee had been “engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party engaging with members here at Parliament and associated political entities, including the former APPG[All-Party Parliamentary Group]; Chinese in Britain.”
The AAPG in question was referred to in Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg’s authoritative 2020 book on the Chinese Communist Party’s nexus in the West, Hidden Hand. Lee is a lawyer with offices in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and London. She was legal advisor to the Chinese embassy in London and the consulate in Belfast.
Lee founded the British Chinese Project in 2006 and the Labour MP Barry Gardiner, in whose office Lee’s son was working up until Thursday morning – while being paid for at least part of that time by Lee’s own firm – was one of the most prominent members of the group. It seems he was also the main beneficiary of over £675,000 in Chinese funds which were also channelled mostly to other parts of the Labour Party.
Gardiner’s receipt of the money is not even news as it was reported on in the Times in 2017. The Labour MP was a junior minister under Tony Blair and was once the subject of raised eyebrows when he strongly pushed for a Chinese state company to be given a contract for the building of a nuclear power station at Hinckley (Hamilton/Ohlberg, p134.)
More recently Gardiner, who was a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, came under focus when he attended a Black Lives Matter protest in London in 2020 that was in breach of the Covid restrictions. Those who have looked at Gardiner’s voting record at Westminster have claimed that his concern for the lives of darker skinned people does not appear to extend to those under the control the CCP.
On the other side of the aisle the former Conservative Prime Minister Teresa May presented Lee with a Points of Light award in 2019 for her work through the British China Project “in promoting engagement, understanding and co-operation between the Chinese and British communities in the UK.”
Surely there was someone in the security services who might have tipped Teresa May the wink and told her that all of these elite friendship groups are not only approved and funded by the Chinese state but are an integral part of the Chinese Communist Party structures?
Journalists and others knew this, and yet the political leadership in the UK claim all of this to be news. As did Gardiner when door-stepped on Thursday as he left his £900,000 house in Wembley.
The MI5 report specifically connects Lee to the CCP’s United Front Work Department which is responsible for supervising the activities of sympathetic members of the Chinese diaspora, but which was established in the 1930s long before the Communists took power. At that time it was part of the Stalinist Comintern’s efforts to fool naïve dupes into alliances with the Party around the world. United Fronts have variously encompassed the International Brigades in Spain and the campaign to pressure the west into nuclear defencelessness.
Now the CCP United Front Work Department is like a giant spider lying at the heart of the Party’s overseas network. The people who get money from the CCP fronts in Europe and the US are not selling them blueprints of naval destroyers or the Bord Gáis network. It’s plain that some of those accepting funding from China are agents of influence.
Their job is to encourage whatever entity they are part of; the political party, media outlet, university, trade union, church or whatever to either pitch views that are favourable to China or just as importantly prevent too much attention being paid to the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, the genocide of the Uyghurs, or even the ongoing detention of people like Irish citizen Richard O’Halloran.
Bear that in mind when their apologists sneeringly repeat the claim by Wang Wenbin of the Chinese Foreign Ministry who dismissed the claims about Lee with the remark that some people have “watched too many 007 movies.” Chinese agents of influence hide in public.
Agents of influence are often people who are able to plausibly pitch themselves as persons who agree with the objectives of the target entity, but are focused on changing particular strategies to the benefit of the agency on whose behalf they work.
Anyone familiar with the republican movement, for example, will know that some of the most influential people who became prominent behind the scenes in the past twenty years had no more interest in who was hiding weapons than the Man on the Moon. They were, however, very much interested in tailoring Sinn Féin’s political policy on specific issues, some of them unrelated to the north.
There is a separate and highly secretive apparatus that looks after all the cloak and dagger stuff. The UFWD does, however, in common with all sections of the Party have links to internal security which is responsible for monitoring Chinese citizens abroad and punishing those who come into disfavour.
Especially if they are regarded even tangentially as part of the democratic opposition, groups such as Falun Gong, and especially supporters of the suppressed national minorities like the Uyghurs and Tibetans and advocates of Taiwanese sovereignty.
Western support for the CCP is rarely ideologically driven other than by idiots who run party youth Twitter feeds and post photos of Chairman Mao like it was 1966 again, and they don’t matter. In fairness it should be said that there are traditional Marxists – unlike say Sinn Féin Marxists who probably think that Capital is about gender pronouns – who have opposed Chinese totalitarianism.
I would reference in that context the former Socialist Party leader Joe Higgins. Mostly, any connection with the CCP is purely opportunistic. Either based on money or influence, and maybe dressed up to take the mercenary look off it in references to China not being as bad for peasants as it was under the Qing dynasty in 1672 or some such nonsense. Every east Asian state other than socialist North Korea has a higher living standard than the 1940s and they didn’t have to murder a registered percentage of the population to do so.
The Confucius Institute, according to Hamilton and Ohlberg’s mapping of the Party network, comes under the control of the Chinese Ministry of Education, Hanban. The Trump administration designated it as an official Chinese state actor in 2020. This followed the closure of Institutes in many western universities following evidence of attempts to interfere with academic freedom, and the expulsion of the Brussels Confucius Institute Director in 2019 for alleged espionage.
Academic freedom is a concept that does not exist in a totalitarian state like China. In 2007 a leading member of the CCP Politbureau Li Changchun described the Confucius Institutes as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” Perhaps people in UCC are not aware of any of these. Perhaps not, but that matters not a twig as Kiri Paramore who the UCC Confucius Institute lists as its Director, is clearly not at odds with the Party’s worldview.
In December 2019 RTÉ decided that Paramore was the best person to explain to its website readers the background to the protests in Hong Kong that presaged the destruction of democracy there. The crushing of said protests and subsequent oppression on Hong Kongers are barely mentioned in Irish mainstream media or by our ultra-triggered Pollyannas who, they would have you believe, are alert 24/7 to attacks on global liberty.
Paramore’s explanation was that the “anti-Chinese protestors” – seriously, think about that for a minute – were basically middle-class student brats and that Hong Kong was really in crisis as the opportunities for the brats declined in comparison to Communist China where “millions of people continue to be pulled out of poverty every year.”
He said that Chinese or mainland graduates who are “prepared to work for less than half” of what the grasping youth of Hong Kong demand. Need you go any further really to find out what so many of our own bottom feeders are attracted by the “great achievement of General Secretary Xi”?
So, when you read about the Chinese “spy” scandal in Blighty, don’t be thinking to yourself “ah sure who’d be interested in little old Ireland.” Pause for a moment.
Ask yourself why it is that an Irish citizen Richard O’Halloran continues to be detained in China after almost three years now with no official protest from the Irish state. When Senator Michael McDowell tabled a motion on this early in 2021 he was asked to suspend it pending some official intervention that seems to have come to nothing.
Ask yourself too why you rarely if ever hear mention of the genocide of the Uyghurs or the ongoing occupation of Tibet where physical and cultural genocide began in the 1950s. Or why the foreign affairs spokesperson of the main opposition party was given a private briefing by the Chinese Ambassador after which the Embassy issued an uncontested statement that seemed to indicate that the Sinn Féin foreign affairs spokesperson Seán Crowe had accepted the Chinese version of what was happening in Hong Kong.
So, whether or not the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party has any interest in Ireland at all, at all – and you may be certain that they do – or whether they have active agents working here which is only a matter or surmise given that there is no one monitoring their What’s App, there are clearly no shortage of Irish apologists for the regime.
The Irish Times published last July a full page 1,500-word paean from the Party celebrating not even the foundation of the Chinese Communist State but the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party. Even its explanation in the face of criticism several days later managed to be mealy mouthed in not referring to any of the untold millions murdered by the Party but to those who just “died,” perhaps in some natural catastrophe? They also wish to see a “critical engagement” that would include a “determination to speak out” when the Party is bold.
Yeah, right. Sleepless nights in whatever office surfs the Irish mainstream in Beijing.
In relation to the extent of official Chinese supervision of how the Irish elite engages with it, the very best interpretation that might be placed on it is that “you don’t keep a dog and bark yourself.” The Chinese Communist Party clearly has no necessity to flex its muscles here. Which is an indictment in itself.