London: On 1 March, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) in Beijing published their report on media freedom in 2020. They revealed “Chinese authorities dramatically stepped up efforts in 2020 to frustrate the work of foreign correspondents. Alarms of state power—including surveillance systems introduced to curb coronavirus—were used to harass and intimidate journalists, their Chinese colleagues, and those whom the foreign press sought to interview.”
Visas were not renewed or shortened, 18 journalists were expelled and some detained. Reporting on Sichuan or Ganzu, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia was prevented, 40% of correspondents said they had reason to believe their internet accounts had been targeted in attempted hacks, interviewees were barred from speaking to foreign journalists and local authorities increasingly used the threat of quarantine to prevent reporting. News outlets from UK, Europe, US, Italy, Japan and New Zealand all complained of visa harassment. The report is loaded with distressing personal accounts.
There are similar issues in Hong-Kong where 47 pro-democracy activists were arrested over alleged “subversion” under Beijing’s new National Security Law.
Her Excellency Caroline Wilson, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the PRC, has also encountered some censorship over her op-ed in Mandarin published in good faith on WeChat. Ambassador Wilson wrote “I’ll explain in this article why foreign media criticism of the Chinese authorities doesn’t mean they don’t like China. On the contrary, I believe that they act in good faith and play an active role as supervisory bodies for government actions, ensuring that people have access to accurate information and protecting those who do not have a voice.” Ambassador Wilson references the origins of a free press and the value of constructive analysis, she concludes with the motto of the French newspaper Le Figaro: “If criticism is not free, praise is meaningless.” WeChat objected to the content and limited the ability to share her piece. The Global Times promptly issued counter narratives, claiming a cognitive gap in communications and understanding between the West and China. Ambassador Wilson stood firm, politely tweeting “I stand by my article. No doubt the outgoing Chinese Ambassador to the UK stands by the 170+ pieces he was free to place in mainstream British media.”
For context remember on 4 February Ofcom withdrew CGTN’s licence to broadcast in UK after it was concluded that the licence holder did not have editorial oversight over the programmes shown, under UK law licence holders cannot be controlled by political bodies. On 12 February, China banned BBC World News for its reporting on the persecution of Uyghurs and coronavirus. Now an open letter from the No Cold War campaign and some celebrity left-wingers is asking Ofcom to reverse their decision.
This week, King’s College Policy Institute and the Harvard-Kennedy Mossavar-Rahmani Business Centre published their report on China’s collaboration within the UK university system and R&D which is currently “inadequately mapped”. This collaboration creates a significant proportion of UK’s science, yet the associated risks need to be understood and better mitigated.
The report shows that collaboration between China and the UK has increased from fewer than 100 co-authored papers before 1990, to around 750 per year in 2000 (about 1% of UK output), and then to 16,267 papers in 2019 (about 11% of UK output). Highlighted further by the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK’s dependence on a neototalitarian technology power for the financial health and research output of its universities is now regarded as a particular point of vulnerability. In three key subjects: automation and control systems, telecommunications and materials science, ceramics; collaborations with China represent more than 30% of output.
Opinion in the UK is divided about collaborating with China. Earlier this year, the Times discovered some 200 British academics were suspected of violating the 2008 preventative export laws for intellectual property and could unwittingly be helping the State of the PRC build weapons of mass destruction. A Civitas think tank report found UK could inadvertently be arming China: “There is a pervasive presence of Chinese military-linked conglomerates and universities in the sponsorship of high-technology research centres in many leading UK universities and in their research relationships”.
Jim Hockenhull, UK’s senior military intelligence officer has warned UK must keep up with investments in artificial intelligence and machine learning technology made by adversaries such as Russia and China. Thus the benefit of the existing degree of integration-collaboration with China in artificial intelligence, machine learning, cyber, space is questionable.
The report makes the case UK needs to improve measuring, managing and mitigating risks inherent in the current university system, and yet UK’s Higher Education exports to China represent the single largest services export to any country but reliance on significant tuition fee income from Chinese students to cross-subsidise loss-making research creates a strategic dependency and potential vulnerability.
Boris Johnson told a recent roundtable of Chinese businessmen that he was “fervently Sinophile”, although Johnson has not succumbed in the same way as Cameron and Osborne to the charms offered by China, it seems he still wants a healthy economic relationship with the PRC. Johnson wants an annual discussion between UK and China and to revive Jetco, both which were suspended after China suppression of civil rights in Hong Kong.
Roger Boyes, diplomatic editor of the Times, suspects that the new Chinese embassy located in the extravagantly remodelled Royal Mint will become “a nest of spies”, as China fears the BNO settlers from Hong Kong might become an opposition in exile.
UK has been unconvincingly mulling Magnitsky-style sanctions against Chinese officials involved in Uyghur detention camps, but Yang Xiaoguang Chargé d’Affaires Minister in London told the BBC “It is our firm willingness to safeguard our interest at any cost. And don’t underestimate our strong will defend our interests, as well as our dignity”. Chinese diplomats and “wolf-warriors” have made it crystal clear there will be no compromise in Chinese characteristics.
Thanks to several British China awareness groups many Tory MPs have become more sceptical and hawkish about China. The King’s report notes “Pugnaciousness towards China has replaced Euroscepticism as the key test of virility on Tory benches.” Everyone is pinning their hopes on the Integrated Review, which is to be published on 15 March, willing it to provide a clear 360-degree strategy for a whole of government approach to China.