New British Prime Minister needs deeds not words to foil China

(this article was first published in The Times of London)

By Edward Lucas

UK has ditched the enthusiasm of the Cameron-Osborne years but failed to find a replacement

To attract the ire of a totalitarian superpower at the age of 23 is impressive. Drew Pavlou, an Australian student activist, has managed it. Chinese media lambast him as a racist “rioter”. Anonymous foes impersonate him online in the hope of discrediting him.

One such effort has just fooled the Metropolitan Police, which wildly overreacted to a “bomb threat” emailed to the Chinese embassy on July 21 in Pavlou’s name, conveniently timed to coincide with his planned protest there. Pavlou, bearing Uighur, Taiwanese and Tibetan flags, merely glued his hand to the embassy gate. But officers treated him like a terrorist. He was handcuffed painfully, held incommunicado without access to consular or legal representation and coerced into providing his phone passcode. 

They scoffed when he explained his mission and background, though a cursory internet search would show that he has a record of peaceful protest, including running for election and suing his university. After a gruelling 23 hours at Charing Cross police station he was freed, pending a bail hearing on August 14. All this took place in the central London constituency where I am a parliamentary candidate. I have made a formal complaint on Pavlou’s behalf and sought comment from the Met.

The episode has sinister echoes of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit here in 2015. On that occasion the police arrested Shao Jiang, a Tiananmen Square survivor, for a protest involving two sheets of A4 paper, and charged him with conspiracy, enabling them to raid his home and seize computers. An inquiry found political interference and police misconduct. Disciplinary proceedings, mystifyingly, stalled.

Given the supposed sea-change in Britain’s relations with China since then, the continued mix of heavy-handed policing and supine supervision is shocking. Far from foiling criminal conspiracies, our law-enforcement officers are aiding and abetting them. The Chinese authorities and their allies are abusing our legal system to intimidate their critics.

None of this seems to penetrate the tub-thumping discussion of China in our national politics. Rishi Sunak, belatedly, calls China “the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century” and says that if he wins the Conservative leadership contest he will close the 30 Confucius Institutes active in British universities, part of Beijing’s campus influence operations. The front-runner Liz Truss talks up the Commonwealth as the arena for a push-back and appears ready to go to war to defend Taiwan.

None of this yet amounts to a serious approach to the Beijing regime. Britain has ditched the headlong enthusiasm of the Cameron-Osborne years but has failed to find a replacement, despite repeated urging from our China-watchers. A parliamentary report last year decried our approach as a “strategic void”.

Unscrambling decades of greed and complacency is a mammoth task on which we have barely started. The CBI highlights the inflationary costs of rejigging our supply chains in a world where the West is “decoupling” from China. Our all-electric green future, for example, depends on rare earths and other critical raw materials: China takes a strategic approach to their mining and processing. We rely on market forces.

The Chinese leadership readily uses economic coercion to punish countries such as Lithuania and Australia that stand up to it: we need an economic version of Nato to blunt such tactics. The best response to Chinese efforts is to compete better. We far too readily dismiss countries in Africa, Latin America, eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific region as too small, poor or corrupt to merit our attention. China does not. It reaps the harvest of their votes in international meetings, and builds physical and human networks of influence across the world.

China is also forging ahead in century-shaping disciplines such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, materials science and nano-technology. It lavishes long-term cash on science and engineering. We scrimp and chase short-term profits. Britain has blocked Huawei, a regime-friendly technology giant, from the next-generation 5G mobile network. But  a forthcoming report co-authored by Charles Parton, formerly a leading government expert on China, highlights looming threats from the Internet of Things, the central nervous system of our economy in coming decades.

Remote-controlled, Chinese-made hardware modules in this vast device-to-device network potentially enable limitless sabotage and surveillance. The Beijing regime already hoovers up vast quantities of information about its own people in order to snoop and bully; it aims to do the same here.

Already, the tentacles of influence range wide and deep, while our response is fragmented, inexpert and naive. University administrators have too easily prized student fees and research income over principles: a new code, belatedly, lays out the need to preserve academic freedom. The new Conservative leadership might like to look at a new dossier compiled by the Centre for Foreign Interference Research into the activities of Lord Wei, a peer since 2010, and his links with Chinese Communist Party front organisations. (Lord Wei calls the allegations “fascist” and “paranoid”).

The people trying to disrupt Pavlou’s activities in London seem spookily capable; since his arrest they have sent numerous other emails, including one impersonating the Crown Prosecution Service. It would be nice if the guardians of our liberties showed similar savvy.

Edward Lucas is a writer and consultant specialising in European and transatlantic security. His expertise also includes energy, cyber-security, espionage, information warfare and Russian foreign and security policy. Read more about him here.