Before the upheaval caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had created extensive influence networks in the United States, Canada, and Europe.
But the most heavily infiltrated were Britain and Germany, says Australian scholar Clive Hamilton, co-author of “Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World.”
“The Chinese Communist Party has a vast network of influence agencies and personnel who have for at least a couple of decades been systematically attempting to insinuate themselves into institutions and political processes in Western countries, including Britain,” Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, told The Epoch Times.
“They’ve done so using really quite sophisticated and subtle influence techniques. And they have been really very successful.”
“Hidden Hand,” co-written with Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow in the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund, a U.S. policy think tank, lays out the CCP’s wide-ranging influence operations in Western democracies.
But why does the CCP go to all the trouble?
The enormous amount of money and resources invested by the CCP in its foreign influence campaigns are “essential to Xi Jinping’s broader campaign to make China the dominant power,” Hamilton said.
“The campaign to become the dominant power in the world is not principally through the traditional means of building up military forces … but instead, to carry out political warfare, which is what influence and interference work is all about, along with information warfare, cyber warfare, and one or two other elements of it,” he explained.
Britain and Germany were considered the most severely affected “because of their role in the world and because of the naivety of the top elites in those countries” in politics, business, academia, culture, and media, he said.
Hamilton says there’s been a significant turnaround in Britain in the last few months, but warned that “it is far too early to start celebrating.”
The Huawei 5G U-turn
The UK government announced in July a ban on the purchasing of new Huawei 5G equipment beginning Dec. 31, and the removal of all Huawei equipment by the end of 2027. That reversed the decision made in January that allowed the Chinese telecom giant’s involvement in up to 35 percent of the non-sensitive parts of the 5G network.
Hearing the initial decision to allow Huawei in the UK network, Hamilton said that he and his colleagues “were really dismayed and despondent that the UK had essentially decided to go against the evidence” that had led Australia to exclude Huawei from its 5G network more than two years ago.
“Britain’s intelligence services were naïve,” Hamilton said, adding that they were wise to Russian tactics, but “I don’t think they understood what the CCP was, how they operate, how they influence things, and what a threat they pose.”
The conclusion that “yes, Huawei might be a bit of a problem, but we are confident that if we put in place some monitoring and checking mechanisms, then basically … everything will be alright” was “absurd,” Hamilton said.
The turnaround a few months later likely wasn’t due to a change in evidence, but a shift in the political environment, Hamilton says.
“I think that the influence of the intelligence advice … was outweighed by the optics, given what had happened in Wuhan and Beijing as a result of the COVID [pandemic], and particularly what had happened in Hong Kong, not to mention Xinjiang,” he said.
“To bring into Britain’s essential communications network this company with close links to the People’s Liberation Army … just made it look very, very dangerous, and contrary to Britain’s interest.”
A revolt from Conservative backbenchers added pressure to reverse the Huawei decision.
“There’s been an awakening within the British Parliament. People realize that [China] is a major focus of concern. And they’re starting to do something about it,” Hamilton said.
The 48 Group Club
Discussed in the book is the 48 Group Club, a low-profile (until recently) networking organization that grew out of a mission to establish closer trade relations between Britain and China in the early 1950s. It was the “work of three secret members of the Communist Party of Great Britain”: founder Jack Perry, Roland Berger, and Bernard Buckman, the authors write.
Stephen Perry, Jack Perry’s son, is the club’s current chairman.
The club’s name stemmed from a trade mission to China by 48 British businessmen in 1954, during a U.S. trade embargo against China for its involvement in the Korean War.
It was against this background that “the club quickly developed an unrivaled level of trust and intimacy with the top leadership of the CCP, and has built itself into the most powerful instrument of Beijing’s influence and intelligence gathering in the United Kingdom,” Hamilton and Ohlberg explain in their book.
The club “has become over the decades, a very, very influential pro-Beijing networking organization with links into the very highest levels of Britain’s elites,” Hamilton said.
Among the members mentioned in the book are prominent politicians, such as former Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Deputy Prime Ministers Michael Heseltine and John Prescott, former Foreign Minister Jack Straw, and former European trade commissioner Peter Mandelson.
Masters of colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, executives of major cultural institutions and business, a retired general, five former British ambassadors to Beijing, and people closely linked to the Bank of England, Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan are also on the list.
According to the authors, Stephen Perry had an audience with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in October 2018, access that British diplomats don’t have, signaling the club’s importance to the CCP leadership.
Through various events, sometimes in collaboration with the Chinese Embassy, the club has played a major role in shaping British opinion about the Chinese regime, the authors wrote.
Since the book was published, Hamilton said they had received a threat of legal action from the 48 Group Club.
“But we have demonstrated, I think, in a very detailed response that, in fact, they have a great deal to hide. And, in fact, if they were to pursue legal action against us, a great deal more would emerge into the public domain,” he said.
Another threat came from a person discussed in the book.
“That person also has operated on behalf of Beijing at very high levels in Britain’s elites,” Hamilton said. “We have, as a result of that threat, compiled an exceptionally detailed dossier on that person’s extraordinary links into the Communist Party network and specifically to the United Front Work Department.”
We haven’t defamed anyone, he says.
“What we’ve done is provide to the British public a detailed account of some of the Chinese Communist Party’s influence operations in that country.”
The 48 Group Club has issued two statements since the book was published. In both statements, the club stressed that they hadn’t initiated legal proceedings against the authors as reported by some media, and stated that the group has no formal relationship with any organization inside or outside of China.
The 48 Group Club didn’t immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.
Why Have British Elites Been Duped?
Many senior people, whom you would expect to be more savvy, have fallen for the grooming techniques of the CCP—a phenomenon Hamilton thinks has as much to do with psychology as it does with politics.
“There are quite a number of people who work, in effect, in the interests of Beijing because they are what Vladimir Lenin called ‘useful idiots,’ the people who are just drawn in without understanding what they’re doing and what kind of regime they are defending in practice,” Hamilton said.
“There are other people, particularly in the business community, who are drawn in by greed and are willing to be tools to promote Chinese interests in Britain because it’s profitable for them, or they anticipate profits. That goes, for instance, for many people in the City of London.
“Then, there are people with more sinister aims who are consciously doing what they’re doing because they support the Chinese Communist Party.”
While it’s natural for countries to try to affect each other, the CCP’s influence is different.
“It certainly corrupts, through its coercion and covert nature, the activities of or the operation of the democratic process and the exercise of civil rights,” Hamilton said.
“What the CCP does, and is a very deliberate strategy carefully worked out and widely practiced, is to use the institutions of democracy—the free press, free association, elections and so on—in order to undermine the democratic process to increase the power of a foreign nation over the sovereign decision-making of other countries.”
One of the things the authors warn about in the book is a common strategy used to dismiss the influence of the CCP and to paint it as “benign or at least no worse than anyone else.”
“It’s a tactic we called whataboutism,” Hamilton said, explaining that people, especially those like himself who are on the left of the political spectrum, will often bring up the perceived evils of the United States. But the two countries can’t be compared, Hamilton said.
“Even under Donald Trump … institutions of democracy continue to operate. … There is still free press. There’s still a robust civil society. Political prisoners are not thrown in jail. The courts remain largely independent. There are elections—Trump might lose. And none of these apply in China. And we are free to criticize the United States as much as we like.”
Turning Tide of Opinion
Although the authors remarked in their book that the situation in Britain has “passed the point of no-return,” Hamilton is hopeful that the UK will follow Australia’s path.
“Australia has undergone a real kind of awakening to [CCP influence] in a way that I hope Britain will over the next couple of years,” he said.
Following Beijing’s imposition of a new security law on Hong Kong, a poll commissioned for the China Research Group revealed that British voters favor a tougher stance on the Chinese regime and would support targeted sanctions as a response.
In the end, “it’s just a matter of decency,” Hamilton said.
“When you see the brutality of Beijing and its proxies in Hong Kong; when you see the brutality of Beijing’s surveillance and oppressive system in Xinjiang where at least a million people are incarcerated and undergoing a kind of cultural brainwashing to get rid of their Uyghur and Muslim identity, you know, it’s natural for any decent person to feel revulsion and not want a regime capable of doing that exercising any kind of influence in their own country.”
Jane Werrell of NTD, an affiliate of The Epoch Times, contributed to this report