Until recently, China was seen by the United Kingdom mainly as a business opportunity and a welcome source of cheap goods. But there’s now a growing realization that the communist regime in Beijing poses a serious threat, not just to British values, but also to the UK’s national security.
While the recent row over Chinese telecom company Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network drew considerable UK media attention, the Chinese regime’s influence operations in Britain started decades earlier.
As detailed in the book, "Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World" by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, the “48 Group Club” grew out of a drive to promote closer relations between Britain and communist China in the early 1950s.
United Front and Friendship GroupsAnother influential group is the United Front Work Department, a department that reports directly to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.
“Ten years or 15 years ago, it was a bit of a backwater. But it's now become far more extensive, far more powerful, and far more influential within government,” Hamilton told The Epoch Times. “The United Front Work Department stands at the apex of this vast apparatus of influence around the world, as well as in China itself.”
This unit coordinates thousands of groups to carry out foreign political influence operations, suppress dissident movements, gather intelligence, and facilitate the transfer of other countries’ technology to China, according to a recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Its political influence initiatives target foreign elites, including politicians and business executives, and are often covert in nature, according to the report. Overseas Chinese communities are also key targets, with the Party seeking to co-opt and control community groups, business associations, and Chinese-language media.
One of the mechanisms used by the United Front is “China friendship groups,” civic organizations set up ostensibly to foster ties with China but are, in fact, front groups for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a report by the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a Washington-based think tank, said.
These groups are often disguised as homegrown organizations run by the host countries’ own citizens—often elites drawn from Europe’s political class and business community, the CSBA said.
The notion of friendship has particular connotations for the Communist Party, and isn't how we think of friendship in the West, Hamilton says.
Media and CultureThe CCP’s Central Propaganda Department is also actively involved in overseas influence operations. Nearly all Chinese-language media in the UK are effectively under CCP control, and even some mainstream UK media outlets have come under the CCP’s influence.
The Chinese state also partially funds Confucius Institutes (CIs), which have been accused of promoting Chinese communist propaganda on British university campuses, under the pretense of promoting the Chinese language and culture. There are hundreds of CIs all over the world, including about 30 in the UK at universities and over 100 Confucius ‘Classrooms’ in schools.
The provision of grants and research funds is another way in which the CCP exerts influence over UK institutions. Arts organizations have also been influenced in this way.
Exploiting PandemicMeanwhile, a report published in March determined that Beijing was exploiting the global CCP virus pandemic, which first broke out in Wuhan, China, to advance its economic goals and fulfill its wider ambitions.
“Beijing intends to use the global dislocation and downturn to attract foreign investment, to seize strategic market share and resources—especially those that force dependence [on China],” according to a report by Horizon Advisory, a U.S.-based independent consultancy.
But many of the CCP's actions have backfired and a growing backlash is mounting.
During the pandemic, Beijing sent a slew of medical experts and supplies, such as masks and respirators, to countries where they were desperately needed in a bid to improve its image. But the products it delivered often turned out to be defective, leaving countries no choice but to reject the faulty goods.
The British government paid $20 million for COVID-19 antibody tests from two Chinese companies, only to later find they didn’t work properly, it was reported in April. Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Turkey, the Czech Republic, and Finland also received substandard Chinese supplies.