LLast week, the British political establishment was rocked by a rare warning from MI5 about a Chinese party-state agent operating in parliament. Christine Lee, who, according to MI5, has engaged in both overt and covert activities in support of the Chinese Communist Party, cultivated links with British politicians for more than a decade (the Chinese embassy in London has denied these claims).
It is tempting to see this revelation as yet another sign that we are entering a new cold war. Indeed, the international landscape differs radically from the power struggle that defined the post-World War II period. To be sure, the world of espionage and espionage still exists, but the current relationship between liberal democracies and authoritarian states is more like a false peace. Globalization has entangled these opposing political regimes in complex and sometimes contradictory ways.
The political culture built around the ruling party in China centralizes power in a way that would be inconceivable in the UK. The CCP boasts an amazing reach in myriad aspects of society, as well as maintaining an armed wing in the form of the People’s Liberation Army. At the same time, some British and international companies now depend on access to Chinese markets and appear willing to do whatever Beijing demands to maintain their presence in China. The global economy is not easily understood through the lens of the cold war, when these international links were present but much less developed. Today, supply chains and financial markets ensure that nations are much more interdependent. If the cold war was defined by hostility short of direct military conflict, the false peace is an era in which interconnected nations are drawn into growing hostility.
These new conditions produce new challenges. First, liberal democracies must address a growing risk to Asian communities. As last week’s case in parliament demonstrates, scrutiny of Chinese party-state activity is in order. But there is always the danger that legitimate concern will turn into irrational suspicion. Australia is a good example: the country has seen a rise in anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment in the wake of party-state-linked scandals, such as that of political donor Huang Xiangmo. Any attempt to bolster resistance to authoritarian interference must begin by considering overseas Chinese communities, recognizing that they are often targeted by the Chinese party-state.
One of the most prominent geopolitical dangers now facing liberal democracies is the growing dependence on authoritarian states. Britain’s decision to allow Chinese party-state involvement in the country’s civilian nuclear power sector is a useful microcosm of this broader situation, and brings us back to Lee. While the decision to involve the Chinese party-state in the Hinkley nuclear power plant through a partnership with EDF was primarily a financial one, it was the first step for a Chinese-operated reactor on British soil.
In my own PhD research, I found documents showing that at a UK-China energy summit in 2014, the British government acknowledged to Chinese officials that Hinkley was a path to a “Chinese new-build project led by China.” majority that includes the use of Chinese reactor technology. ”. This was to be the Bradwell site, run by China General Nuclear Power Group, using the Hualong One reactor.
How does Lee fit into this picture? She has donated significant sums to Labor MP Barry Gardiner since the mid-2010s and has donated to his constituency office since 2009. Gardiner would play a major role in shaping the Labor Party’s response to Hinkley as the official opposition . The times reported that Gardiner “strongly opposed internal party criticism of Chinese involvement in the Hinkley Point project”, although Gardiner has said that Lee did not win political advantage of the.
In February 2013, Lee made a single donation to the Kingston County office of the Liberal Democrats, the constituency of MP Ed Davey, who, at the time of the donation, was the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Davey would plays a vital role in securing Hinkley’s future, most notably by almost single-handedly convincing liberal Democrats to back nuclear power. davey says he don’t remember lee.
However, Chinese party-state involvement in UK civilian nuclear power would not have been an option without the support of Conservative leaders, most enthusiastically George Osborne. A year after the 2014 discussions, Osborne publicly claimed that Hinkley “opens the door to Chinese majority ownership of a subsequent nuclear project at Bradwell.”
Multinational and transnational companies play an important role in this new panorama. Their reliance on markets and manufacturing sites in authoritarian states makes them potential channels of authoritarian influence in liberal democracies. Furthermore, the channels that these groups have forged can be used by authoritarian states. This was what happened in the Hinkley case.
The parliamentary groups of all the parties in Westminster represent one of these channels through which companies contribute to the British political system. The China APPG, the Nuclear Power APPG and the Energy Studies APPG have been sponsored by French energy giant EDF, CGN’s partner in the Hinkley project. In addition, members of the APPG for Energy Studies were brought to China by CGN to visit its Taishan nuclear power plant. at a cost of more than £52,500 to the Chinese party-state energy group. Following the trip, APPG President Ian Liddell-Grainger MP reported to parliament that CGN was working “together with EDF to develop as a major nuclear player, as well as develop its own reactors.” He said the Taishan Power Station was “very good” and “gets the job done”.
In addition to providing feedback to CGN, Liddell-Grainger also weighed in when ZTE, actually a Chinese company state owned technology group, was labeled a national security risk in official UK intelligence advice. The MP supported ZTE’s “Whitehall lobbying campaign”, backed by consultants from public relations firm Sovereign Strategy, according to reports At the time. These links are not uncommon in British politics. Given that we tolerate the channels through which commercial interests can influence political actors, we should not be surprised to hear accusations that adversary states like China employ the same means.
The UK is not an outlier in this regard. Germany also risks further dependency on an authoritarian state in the form of the controversial Nord Stream 2 project and the Russian gas it will supply. Unsurprisingly, we see some of the same patterns here, too, most notably in the form of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s position as chairman of the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream AG, as well as chairman of the board of Russian oil producer Rosneft.
Where cold war conditions generated spirited debates about ideology and military activity, the false peace demands that we pay greater attention to transparency and accountability. The growing scrutiny of Britain’s engagement with the Chinese party-state reminds us that better regulation of political donations and revolving door appointments is not just good governance, it is a matter of national security.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism