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I’d be the perfect communist shill

By Cindy Yu

August 27, 2022

Could I be the model communist shill? Consider these facts: I was born and raised in China. I speak and read Chinese. Some question my English accent, almost suspiciously posh given that I didn’t speak a word of the language until the age of ten. Before the pandemic, I visited China regularly. My podcast, Chinese Whispers, often explains the Chinese government’s way of looking at things. I studied at Oxford and now work at the heart of the British establishment. Am I not ideally placed to advance Beijing’s agenda?

When I started my career, this was all a joke. Now it’s less of one. The atmosphere in Britain towards China has soured. Over the past seven years, the government has gone from David Cameron’s kowtowing to Beijing to Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss jostling to out-hawk each other.

Some of our political class are now applying a new test: will you condemn China at every turn? If not, you’re probably an apologist. There seem to be only two categories: hawk or shill, with no shade in between. The S-word is thrown around with alarming frequency. It doesn’t matter whether you’re actually working for the Chinese Communist party; the point is, you may as well be. As Oxford’s Rana Mitter, perhaps Britain’s foremost academic expert on China, puts it: ‘We’ve gone from complacency to panic without the intervening stage of knowledge.’

I don’t deny that China poses a real challenge. In fact, on this I’m probably aligned with Steve Bannon, who said that the West should be more concerned about Beijing than Moscow. The CCP does plant shills. MI5 is right to warn about politicians taking dirty money from individuals linked to the United Front, which works to capture foreign elites and overseas Chinese. We also need to be clear-eyed about the lobbying efforts from major Chinese companies such as Huawei and question the role played by CCP-funded organisations such as Confucius Institutes.

But that makes it even more important to understand China properly, which is different from empathising or excusing.

We need to know the answer to questions such as: how does the Chinese government work? Who are the major influencers within the CCP? What do the Chinese really think? Yet some of us trying to answer those questions – rather than just campaigning against the CCP’s evils – fail the ideological purity test.

Take the Great Britain China Centre, an arm’s-length body of the Foreign Office founded in 1974 which supports liberal minds in China to push through legal reform. It has also been crucial in helping British politicians and civil servants learn about China. It regularly hosts experts to explain, for instance, what Beijing is doing in Xinjiang or how Chinese propaganda works. Officials from the Chinese government are sometimes guests, offering rare opportunities for our politicians to speak to – and challenge – their elusive CCP counterparts.

But as was revealed in June by The Spectator’s Steerpike columnist, the Great Britain China Centre may have to close, because Liz Truss has refused to renew its funding in one of her final acts as Foreign Secretary. The official reason given is ‘budget cuts’. It’s true that it never quite made sense to finance this Belgravia thinktank from the overseas aid budget, but it was only asking for £500,000 and some other pot of money could have been found. Those close to Truss tell me the real reason is that she sees it as a ‘China shill organisation’. It is too cosy with Beijing, says Team Truss, pointing to the meetings with CCP officials as evidence.

Here again is the insidious S-word. Calling someone a ‘shill’ means you don’t need to engage with their arguments. No matter that the centre has always been funded and directed by the Foreign Office (as well as other governments in the Five Eyes group, and corporate sponsors such as HSBC). Or that its director, Merethe Borge MacLeod, spent a decade in Beijing running a Swedish NGO specialising in human rights. She left at a time when foreign charities were increasingly targeted by Xi Jinping’s regime. She is more capable than most of pointing out China’s transgressions.

Anyone who writes about China is used to a little name-calling. I don’t usually mind it. I think it good banter to joke with people I know about how I’ve just received the day’s orders from the embassy. They don’t really think I’m a spy – or at least, I don’t think they do. But it’s no longer funny when real China experts are pushed out and their impartiality questioned just because what they say doesn’t fit a certain worldview.

In the Cold War, Whitehall was filled with spies and Russia experts. It was recognised that it was important for Britain to understand the USSR. People such as Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn were taught Russian during their military service. ‘Know thy enemy’ is surely one of the fundamental maxims of international relations, yet at this critical moment, Britain simply doesn’t understand China.

Last year, The Spectator revealed that there are just 41 diplomats in the Foreign Office who speak fluent Mandarin. A recent study found that, in the UK, there are only 300 graduates of Chinese language each year, a number that hasn’t risen since 1999. Who would train in China Studies if there were no jobs at the other end of it? If China is Britain’s number one threat, as Sunak puts it, then we should be doubling, even tripling the funding for organisations like the Great Britain China Centre. Even Tom Tugendhat, who has been sanctioned by the CCP, has written to the FCDO to protest the centre’s closure.

John Gerson, who was Margaret Thatcher’s adviser on China, told me his theory of the ‘Tiger Woods trap’: ‘When you fall asleep at the wheel and wake up to find traffic coming head-on, a massive overcorrection will land you into the nearest tree.’ Gerson doesn’t think Westminster is there yet, but I’m afraid I see some serious swerving. I just hope there’s still time to steer back.


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