No friendly politician is too obscure for insecure China, not even Barry Gardiner
By Nick Cohen
15 January 2021
If you want to know why Muslim countries stay silent about the persecution of fellow Muslims in Xinjiang or why scientists were so quick to dismiss the theory that the Covid pandemic began with a leak from a Wuhan lab, look at China’s willingness to use overweening force to secure conformity with the party line. Filippa Lentzos, of the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College, London, was describing Covid scientists when she said they did not talk about lab leaks “because they feared for their careers [and] their grants”. But she might have been describing businesses and governments, too.
Last year, I heard the Czech politician Zdeněk Hřib explain to the leaders of European cities how he had learned the hard way why they should not allow Chinese technology in their infrastructure or have any dealings with the organs of the Chinese state. He discovered when he became mayor of Prague in 2018 that the city had committed itself to supporting Xi’s one-China policy, as part of an apparently harmless twinning agreement with Beijing. Hřib abandoned the policy because he was a liberal who did not agree with forcing Taiwanese people into a communist state against their wishes. In any event, he thought it ridiculous for a central European city to take a position on conflicts in the far east. China reacted as if he had declared war. It banned cultural contacts. Czech oligarchs with Chinese interests hired hack journalists and PR shills to attack him. Miloš Zeman, who was then the Czech republic’s Trumpian president, warned him and Prague of “unpleasant consequences”.
Today it is Lithuania’s turn. China is blocking imports and threatening multinationals with punishments if they do business with the tiny Baltic country, solely because it trades with Taiwan.
We should bother, not out of admiration for this government’s apparent policy of committing British forces to fight alongside the US in a war over Taiwan, but because of what China is doing to Britain. The Chinese embassy showed why when it responded to the spying claims by accusing the security service of “smearing and intimidation against the Chinese community in the UK”.
Muslims, Jews, Chinese people and others undoubtedly worry about blowback when global politics turns national attention towards minorities. But in this instance there is no greater intimidatory threat to Chinese people in the UK than the Chinese Communist party. Or, for that matter, to Chinese people in China. Within hours of the Gardiner story breaking, a contact who works for the pro-democracy movement told me that, even after they have found asylum in the UK, Hong Kong activists communicate through encrypted apps because they worry about what could happen to them here and to their families in China. Just before Christmas, two activists who dared to speak publicly described their “never-ending fear” to the New Statesman. You could see why they were frightened. Anonymous spies had offered £10,000 on the Chinese social media platform WeChat for their work or home addresses.
Meanwhile, universities, so quick to atone for the slavery of the past, show little concern for modern-day slavery in Xinjiang as they hoover up Chinese money. They say they want safe spaces to protect students from the tiniest of micro-aggressions, and yet allow the Chinese state, via its on-campus Confucius Institutes, to keep tabs on Chinese students and their teachers. The government should close them, as the Swedish government has, and act to build the UK’s resilience against dictatorial enemies. But there’s the rub. It’s not just that the collapsing Johnson administration is incapable of taking serious measures. Even when the Tories were in their pomp, they showed no inclination to damn the sources of corruption.