Could the next James Bond be a Chinese woman? Many will be outraged by the prospect. “How on earth can the next Bond be a woman?” I hear the 007 purists say. What is even more outrageous is how last week’s confirmation by MI5, the UK’s spy agency, could be used by those seeking to inflame the China debate in the UK.
I was as surprised as anyone to receive a Security Service Interference Alert about Christine Lee (a UK-based law firm owner) to my parliament inbox. It was like something straight out of a spy thriller. This matter was debated in the House of Commons on Monday and widely reported in the press.
A few current British MPs have accepted quite significant donations from Ms Lee, who according to the political interference notice, has been acting on behalf of China’s United Front Work Department. The British press covered the initial financial connection between Ms Lee and Barry Gardiner MP five years ago. This begs the question, why has it taken so long to notify MPs about the threat this individual poses, and why now?
Spoiler alert: foreign governments attempt to cajole and influence other governments. Who would have thought it? When I acted on behalf of the British state during those years with the Foreign Office in China, I spent every day trying not to influence the local population, businesses and government, right?
Wrong. That was the whole point of the job. It’s therefore incumbent on the UK parliament to outline what the red lines are when being lobbied by people and governments. Financial inducements and corruption are no-brainers, but there’s also a huge grey area. It would be both silly and dangerous to propose banning all contact with foreign diplomats. Closing up would be ironic as we claim that openness is what makes us different from authoritarian regimes. Some will suggest a “foreign government personnel contact register” and learning from countries such as Australia.
There is a creeping fear about China among some in Britain. Speaking with the media, a recent British shadow foreign secretary said when fulfilling her role, she assumed the Chinese were bugging her device.
Politicians would be naïve to think that the smartphones we use don’t hold the potential of being hacked by all sorts of disparate foreign and domestic actors. Concerning legitimate influence, however, there’s a constant battle or competition to persuade one another. The more important question is, who is doing it better?
In China, the British Council (BC), which is the UK’s main soft power and cultural organisation overseas, was so successful that the English language exam unit had to be spun out as a commercial entity. Yet there is a fear in the west and in the UK about Confucius Institutes and the “hidden hand” – which I argue has much less influence than BC. I think we need to be more confident about our assets and attractiveness. In the case of soft power influence, there aren’t many doing it better than the Brits.
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In the war of words, the US and western mainstream media seem to have largely coalesced around one view and tone on China. For Chinese students studying in our countries, however, the China analyst Vincent Brussee cites observations that anti-China rhetoric actually pushes these students to be more patriotic to their homeland. Additionally, the pandemic has reawakened dormant racist views and Sinophobia in the west.
If the “China fear” snowballs in places like the UK, we should guard against a steady rise in Sinophobia. The Chinese diaspora is one of the most successful in British society, whether in education, business or in employment. It would be shameful to tar the community with the brush of Chinese fear.
Protecting our way of life from nefarious interference is fundamental. Trying to stamp out legitimate influence is mission impossible. Relations may not be “from UK-China with love” at the moment, but you only live once and it’s too short to live in fear.
The west needs to remind itself of the many attractive parts of our civilisation and stop defining ourselves by the fear of some imagined “other”. And no, I cannot confirm who the next James Bond will be. MPs have little influence in the matter.
Mark Logan is the Conservative MP for Bolton North East
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