Trust me, I was an alleged Chinese spy too

The UK needs people who understand China to be working in parliament and government. We must be careful not to mistake expertise for espionage

September 19, 2023
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Illustration by David McAllister / Prospect

Many years ago, at the start of my career in journalism, I came to the attention of the British security services. I was unaware of this interest until 10 years later, but their influence had by that time blighted a promising career opening and has cast a long shadow over the rest of my working life.  

I had a degree in Chinese, had studied for two years in China on a British Council scholarship, had pursued two years of postgrad research, and was finally entering the job market. The uninvited attention was triggered by an application in 1976 for a vacancy at BBC Scotland, where Alistair Hetherington was then controller. I was the preferred candidate, but what were euphemistically called “procedures” then kicked in, and Hetherington was told that my close association with China debarred me from employment. Blissfully unaware of any of this for nearly a decade, I spent the next 20 years in print journalism.

Last week’s hue and cry in Westminster over allegations that a researcher was spying for China in parliament inevitably brought these distant events to mind. My blacklisting was revealed in the Observer newspaper by the investigative journalist David Leigh in 1985. The day after publication, to add to my apparently complicated career in espionage, the late MP Tam Dalyell revealed to me that he had had it “on the highest authority” in Argentina that I worked for MI6. 

I thought little of this revelation—I had covered the Falklands War from Buenos Aires and journalists in such situations are routinely suspected. I was less pleased to discover that he had shared this misinformation widely, since such rumours can get working journalists killed. I have since been further blacklisted by an Indian intelligence service and, to bring the circle neatly to a close, allegedly by the Chinese, all for the crime of doing my job. I do sometimes wonder why I seem to be so good at annoying intelligence services.

“Allegedly”, of course, weighs heavily in my case, as it does in the recent brouhaha in Westminster. But the caveat does little to protect the accused from the consequences of the accusation, no matter how scarce or non-existent the evidence. I know neither of the two men in the latest episode (the identity of the second has remained a secret so far) and perhaps the evidence behind their arrest in March might yet be tested in court. One of the differences between the UK and China, after all, is the idea that all are innocent until proven guilty, but so far, we have a reputation in tatters, no charges, a release on police bail and several leaks to a national newspaper six months after the arrest.   

I have no doubt that the Chinese state seeks to gather information and to exert influence in multiple ways. I have written and lectured extensively on the activities of the United Front Work Department and the risks of involving companies like Huawei (under New Labour) and China General Nuclear (warmly embraced by the Cameron government) in our national infrastructure. But this latest episode gave us the unedifying spectacle of a pack of hounds in full cry after something that may or may not be a fox. The Conservative party has gone from embarrassing enthusiasm for China to competitive hostility in less than a decade. It is time to calm down and think about what to do about this complicated and important relationship.

Decades of globalisation and outsourcing have left the UK deeply entangled with China in almost every sector, including our pharmaceutical supplies, our strategic minerals, our electronics—the list goes on. Our universities would be in dire straits without the more than 150,000 Chinese students who pay large fees to attend them. These are choices the UK has made over decades, rather than the outcome of wicked Chinese scheming, and untangling these connections would take almost as long as creating them did. Of course, there are security concerns over our dependency on China—they have been detailed in successive reports from the same Intelligence and Security Committee over many years. But there are also global problems, such as climate change, that cannot be solved without China and these are more profound and unresolved dilemmas than the alleged activities of a researcher with no access to classified material.  

For nearly 30 years, UK policy was driven by enthusiasm for Chinese inward investment and the promise of the Chinese market. Parliament boasted only one group devoted to China, the China All Party Parliamentary Group, which organised events that included breakfast meetings sponsored by Huawei. Today there is a rash of competing groups, each vying for political attention: the China Research Group, where the arrestee was employed as a researcher, the Interparliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), the newsletter Beijing to Britain and the thinktank Council on Geo-strategy, not to mention longer established thinktanks in the Westminster orbit that have developed new interests in Chinese affairs, or organisations such as the Conservative Friends of the Chinese.   

The approach of these competing groups to the UK’s dilemma varies widely, and relations between them are not always harmonious. All are peering into the black box of Chinese politics, as we must, and working on China’s legitimate and illegitimate UK activities. Given that China policy has sometimes been informed by suggestions tossed out by special advisers who have rarely been closer to China than their local dim sum restaurant and politicians given to grandstanding, we should be grateful to those who bring experience and good language skills to the task. Unfortunately, the arrest of a well-qualified researcher in an already polarised atmosphere is bound to have a chilling effect on any aspiring sinologist. It would be a pity if the atmosphere around this episode made serious and necessary work even more difficult.