China–UK Relations: Where to Draw the Border Between Influence and Interference?

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Performers taking part in a parade involving costumes, lion dances and floats, during Chinese New Year celebrations in London's Chinatown, January 2019, Courtesy of Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images.  

This Occasional Paper seeks to outline the likely extent of the Chinese Communist Party's interference activities in the UK and to make some recommendations on what needs to be done to counter them

The boundary between influence (legitimate) and interference (unacceptable) in another country’s affairs is hard to define. Unlike Moscow, Beijing’s interference is not aimed at subverting the West, but represents a rigorous, ruthless advancement of China’s interests and values at the expense of those of the West, including through actions which encourage self-censorship and self-limiting policies.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees controlling the narrative about China abroad as important for reinforcing its legitimacy and justifying its monopoly on domestic power. It is also important for advancing its geopolitical aims. This work is led by the United Front Work Department (UFWD), with the support of other major departments and agencies of the Party and state. 

The UK’s Five Eyes allies have been important targets of CCP efforts: these countries have large Chinese ethnic communities, which the CCP sees as its starting point for interference. The UK is also a target due to its economic importance, geopolitical standing, number of Chinese students, innovation and technological expertise, and open markets. 

In countering Chinese interference, the UK should distinguish between what cannot be tackled, what is not worth addressing because CCP efforts are ineffective, and what is harmful to the UK and must be stopped. This paper covers seven areas: academia/think tanks; interference in the Western press and freedom in publishing; freedom of speech and rule of law; public policy and politics; espionage; threats to critical national infrastructure; and wider technological threats including the spillover from surveillance and control technology/systems and internet governance. It includes recommendations for action in each of these areas.

Defence against Chinese interference requires: knowledge (of how the Party works and of China’s foreign policy and external actions); transparency (particularly relating to funding); publicity (of unacceptable activities); unity/solidarity (within government and with allies); and reciprocity (would China allow the equivalent actions/interference by foreigners in China?). Some turbulence in relations is unavoidable, but risks are manageable. The greater risk is inaction, which will make longer-term resistance to interference harder. Ultimately, the UK’s goal must be genuine reciprocity and an equal, mature and comprehensive relationship with China.

Charles Parton
Charles spent 22 years of his 37-year diplomatic career working in or on China, Hong Kong or Taiwan. In his final posting, he was seconded to the EU Delegation in Beijing, where, as First Counsellor, he focused on Chinese politics and internal developments, and advised the EU and its member states on how China’s politics might affect their interests. He has also worked in Afghanistan, Cyprus, Libya and Mali. In 2017, he returned to Beijing for four months as Adviser to the British Embassy to cover the CCP’s 19th Congress. He is an Associate Fellow at RUSI, and Specialist Adviser on China to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.


Charles Parton OBE

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