By Amy Gibbons
April 16, 2023
Iain Duncan Smith - Rii Schroer
Prominent Conservative critics of China have revealed their fears that Beijing is monitoring their families as part of an intimidation campaign aimed at deterring them from speaking out.
A Tory MP’s child allegedly had their university application jeopardised amid warnings Chinese funding would be pulled from the institution, while the child of one politician was knocked off course when they were blocked from travelling with a Chinese airline.
Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative Party leader, told The Telegraph he believed Beijing was keeping tabs on his family members’ movements while Alicia Kearns, a fellow critic of the regime, said she would not rule this out as China would “want us to feel watched”.
The senior Tory MP also said she knew of one colleague whose child’s study plans had been thrown into disarray because their parent was a politician who had been sanctioned by the Chinese state.
She said the prospective student’s university bid was threatened when the institution in question was warned all Chinese funds would be withdrawn if they accepted the application.
It has also been claimed that one politician’s child ran into trouble after being assigned a flight with a Chinese airline when their original journey was cancelled.
They were allegedly barred from getting on the plane for the replacement trip because of their surname.
The claims have emerged as The Telegraph spoke to five prominent China critics in Westminster – four Tory MPs and one crossbench peer – about the pressures they believe they are under to keep quiet.
President Xi Jinping - Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images
The parliamentarians, most of whom are sanctioned by the regime, reported a cocktail of online abuse peppered with threats and sexually aggressive language, targeted cyber attacks and organised provocations.
One China critic said he was told his safety could not be guaranteed on a trip to the Middle East over fears he could be extradited to Beijing, while one was said to have been advised against going on holiday to a European country because they had been sanctioned.
It comes amid increased debate among Conservatives about how firmly Rishi Sunak’s Government should stand up to President Xi Jinping’s regime.
The Prime Minister has taken a softer line on China than that expected from Liz Truss, his predecessor, dialling down his own language by opting to brand the state an “epoch-defining challenge” rather than a blanket “threat” to Britain.
Politicians of all persuasions see the rise of China as one of the biggest geopolitical challenges of the 21st century, and there has been a marked hardening of rhetoric in recent years.
Some of those who spoke to The Telegraph were keen to stress that any inconvenience they had suffered would be dwarfed by the struggles faced by the likes of Chinese dissidents. A sweeping security crackdown over the past decade has snuffed out nearly all avenues for civil discourse.
Strong-arm critics into silence
But their personal accounts nevertheless reveal the potential extent of a suspected attempt to strong-arm Beijing critics into silence.
Ms Kearns, who is not sanctioned but believes she is on a “hit list” because of her record speaking out on China, was among many to report incidents of cyber intimidation, recounting a barrage of online abuse, including messages warning her that her “time is coming” and that she is “going to learn a lesson”.
The head of both the China Research Group and foreign affairs committee said she had been sent edited photos of herself paired with sexually explicit comments by someone she believed to be a Chinese hacker.
She said she suspected there were individuals linked to the Chinese state spending “enormous” amounts of time and effort impersonating MPs and their acquaintances for months on end with a view to souring their relationships.
Sir Iain suggested he had personally been the target of a similar campaign, whereby someone he claimed to have traced back to “the outskirts of Hong Kong” created a fake email purporting to be him.
This individual – who Sir Iain dubbed a “wolf warrior” – allegedly sought to convince politicians around the world that the ex-minister, a vocal critic of Beijing, had “recanted” his views and now considered the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to be a “beacon of goodness and decency”.
Sanctioned peer Lord David Alton said some of his own emails had been “mysteriously” wiped from his phone, while he suspected someone had spent “an awful lot of time” mounting “irritating” attacks on his website.
Bob Seely, the Tory MP for the Isle of Wight, also said he had managed to side-step one “unpleasant” attempt at an “organised provocation”. He said he had been tipped off a couple of times about “corporate spies crawling around the woodwork of my life” although he did not specify any link to China.
Mr Seely is not sanctioned by the regime but he is a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), founded by Sir Iain, which aims to pressure governments across the world to adopt a tougher stance towards Beijing.
Elsewhere, critics have been forced to think twice before they travel. Beijing’s sanctions mean targeted MPs and peers, as well as their families, are prohibited from entering China and Hong Kong.
Robert Seely - Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament
But further caution is apparently encouraged where officials fear those unpopular with the Chinese regime face a potential extradition risk.
Lord Alton recalled one occasion when he was warned the Foreign Office could not guarantee his safety if he went to see British troops in the Middle East with a parliamentary committee.
“It was necessary for three of us, members of the committee, to visit our military bases in the Gulf, and we went to Bahrain and Qatar,” he said.
“But I was given warning by the Foreign Office in advance that they couldn’t guarantee my safety.
“The anxiety would be that [China] might have an extradition agreement with a country you’re visiting, and it might just suit that country to ingratiate themselves with the People’s Republic of China because of, perhaps, indebtedness over Belt and Road.”
Ms Kearns also said people have markers on where they can and cannot travel, and she personally never flies across Chinese territory.
Tim Loughton, the Tory MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, said he had received letters in the past from the Chinese embassy advising him against going to conferences on Tibet, which contained “slightly veiled threats”.
All of the incidents cited by the five politicians are alleged – and it is hard to prove whether they are linked either directly or indirectly to the Chinese state.
Monitored by the growing power
But they shine a light on the extent to which British parliamentarians fear their lives and those of their loved ones are being monitored by the growing global power.
Despite the critics’ wide-ranging reports of hostile behaviour none seemed deterred by their experiences, with Sir Iain insisting “we will carry on for the sake of those being persecuted”.
Mr Seely also said politicians in free societies who “think they are being brave” by speaking out against threats overseas “need a reality check”.
“I take sensible precautions but I refuse to overreact,” he said.
“We should, on principle, be speaking our version of truth, and if that offends some, so be it.”
A spokesman for the Chinese embassy dismissed the accusations as “baseless” and “pure rumours”, and warned against “stoking rivalry and confrontation”.
“A sound China-UK relationship serves the fundamental interest of the two peoples and is conducive to world peace, stability and development,” they said.
Iain Duncan Smith: You have to assume someone is listening in
It is clear that if China wants to get to you, they’ll get to you. I’ve personally been targeted by “wolf warriors” – guys we suspect are set up by the Chinese government to track “annoying” or “bad” people, or those they consider a nuisance.
On this occasion someone created a fake email persona purporting to be me. We think we were able to track the culprit to somewhere on the outskirts of Hong Kong.
He’d been writing all over the world to various senators and MPs, people in Australia and America, telling them that I’d recanted my views and that I no longer believed that the Chinese Communist Party was bad. In fact, quite the contrary, apparently I now believed that they were a beacon of goodness and decency.
I started getting emails from people from around the world who knew of me saying they were sorry to hear it, or asking me why I was doing this. I had to explain to them that it was not me at all but an impostor.
That was at the low level. And it continues – every now and then it erupts, depending on how annoyed the Chinese government is.
The key is to be extra careful with how you handle information.
You have to assume automatically, all the time, that your telephone is a two-way listening device. It’s good to recognise that while these gadgets are clearly useful to us, they may also be useful to others.
We have certain things that we do and certain things that we don’t do. If you’re having serious conversations, put your telephone in a box somewhere and put it away. Don’t leave your phone on your desk.
Bots and denial of service
IPAC, which I founded, also suffered an almost immediate denial of service attack when we set up our first website. We have to be slightly careful about what we’re saying.
There are also people – bots – dumping on you on Twitter. In terms of threats, I’ve been personally identified by the Chinese embassy in the UK and accused of being a liar and a person that tells untruths about Beijing. They post that on their website.
It affects our families too. That’s the bit that never gets reported. Our families are all sanctioned as well, at the same time.
If they’re grown-ups, that means their lives also have to be readjusted, which is annoying. That is exactly what has had to happen, even though they themselves were not involved in this process.
And I am aware that the Chinese state notes who and where my family are.
We are sanctioned because we have all been active in calling out the many abuses of President Xi’s CCP, from genocide of the Uyghur people to slave labour, persecution of peaceful Hong Kong democracy campaigners and organ harvesting, not to mention their threats to invade Taiwan.
But we will carry on for the sake of those being persecuted, regardless of any threat.