Last month's MI5 action alert on Chinese influence seems to have prompted some follow-up in the press in recent days.
This week's (paywalled) Sunday Times had this:
A Conservative peer’s wife attended a meeting of a branch of the Chinese intelligence and propaganda agency that MI5 has said covertly interferes in British politics.
Lady Bates, a Tory donor married to Lord Bates, met President Xi at a conference of the Chinese Overseas Friendship Association (Cofa). It is part of the United Front Work Department (UFWD), the state organisation responsible for intelligence and propaganda operations across the world, and is based at its Beijing headquarters.
The UFWD is the organisation that MI5 accused Christine Lee of working with to cultivate parliamentarians in its alert. Yet as with Lee, allegations linking Lady Bates to the Chinese state are not new.
Lee and Lady Bates were the focus of a July 2020 article in the Daily Mail, as part of a serialisation of Hidden Hand, a book on Chinese international influence by Clive Hamilton, an Australian academic, and Mareike Ohlberg, of the Atlanticist think-tank, the German Marshall Fund.
That piece noted that Lady Bates had already been embroiled in political controversy in Britain:
In 2014 Xuelin Bates was caught up in a property scandal involving Boris Johnson, then mayor of London, with whom she had developed a friendship. She suggested the Royal Albert Dock as a development site to a Chinese company, Advanced Business Park, described as China’s largest property investment in the UK.
It was claimed that Johnson gave preferment to ABP because of Bates’s donations to the Conservative Party — £162,000 between 2010 and 2012. Lady Bates said the money had not come from ABP but from her own pocket.
Criticisms of the deal at the time focused largely on procedural unfairness and potential corruption. However, Hamilton and Ohlberg's claims about Bates add another dimension:
Between 2010 and 2014 she was vice president of the council of the Zhejiang Overseas Exchange Association. It later merged with the United Front Work Department, an agency of the CCP tasked with liaising with all forces outside the party, such as recognised religious organisations and other interest groups. It’s also tasked with guiding the 50-60 million people of Chinese heritage abroad.
In one of the clearest signs of the CCP’s faith in her, Li Xuelin was executive vice-president of the UK Chinese Association for the Promotion of National Reunification, the British chapter of the Beijing body which promotes the CCP’s position on Taiwan.
The US, which like many states has its own history of using front organisations, has designated the Association for the Promotion of National Reunification as an arm of the UFWD.
If Hamilton and Ohlberg's characterisation is correct, Lady Bates' Conservative donations, and her business dealings with Boris Johnson's London Mayoralty, came at a time when she was affiliated to the UFWD, the same organisation which MI5 now says is seeking to covertly interfere in UK politics.
It should be said that Lady Bates has strongly denied that characterisation:
A spokesperson for Lady Bates has previously said she rejects 'in the strongest possible terms any suggestion she has been an “influencer on behalf of China”'.
Last night her representatives said the Cofa meeting was a 'social' event and she did not liaise or have ongoing contact with the UFWD.
The existence of so much open-source material prior to MI5's intervention underlines that the kind of covert action of which Lee and Lady Bates have been accused is inherently noisier than the truly clandestine business of espionage. Even their political donations were, in themselves, matters of public record.
While MI5 reduced its focus on foreign governments in the 1990s and 2000s, it has long had sections focused on China, and one might assume that monitoring attempts to use friendship groups and ethnic associations as vectors of influence was part of their routine business, like monitoring the World Peace Council during the Cold War.
This brings us back to the question why the action alert against Christine Lee was issued when it was. The Telegraph claims that Lee was targeting 'a new generation of future British leaders'.
The decision surely also owed something to the wider climate of geopolitical tension that has replaced the economically driven détente of the Cameron era. Activity that might once have been accepted or tolerated, now no longer is. The risk is that when the mood shifts, people involved in what they regarded as legitimate civil activity may find themselves on the faultline.
Greater transparency about political donations may be one way to dissipate that risk. Timely action could head off the kind of moral panic which could otherwise see ethnic minorities becoming scapegoats for the political cupidity of the recent past.