With spies and students, Beijing is making its presence felt

In this country, Chinese dissidents don’t feel safe. Neither should those of us who care about democracy itself 

May 30, 2024
Hong Kong activist Simon Cheng speaks in a protest, against Hong Kong's new national security law, the Basic Law Article 23, recently approved by Hong Kong lawmakers, in London, Saturday, March 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung) Photo: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo
Even in London, Hong Kong activist Simon Cheng feels under scrutiny. Photo: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Hong Kong activist Simon Cheng is part of one of the UK’s least desirable unofficial clubs: China’s Most Wanted. For his involvement in pro-democracy circles, Hong Kong authorities have placed a hefty bounty of one million Hong Kong dollars on his head. So when we meet at a panel event at Exeter university, it’s no surprise that he is keeping a watchful eye. Later, he wants to know why someone only came to half the event. Did I think that was strange? Did I know who they were? Also, did I notice someone who looked of Chinese origin taking photos of us as we walked together before? 

Cheng’s fears are not the workings of a paranoid mind. It’s almost impossible these days to keep track of stories which show the long reach of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This month, Matthew Trickett, an immigration officer, security consultant and ex-Marine, was accused of spying for Hong Kong, joining two others. (Last week, it was reported that Trickett had been found dead in a Maidenhead park on 19th May. The cause of death is as yet unknown but it is not being treated as suspicious.)

There’s plenty of other evidence of Chinese interference in the UK from the recent past. This month Amnesty released an extensive report into how Chinese students live in fear in the UK due to the harassment they face, sometimes from other students and sometimes from individuals thought to be linked to the state, and which extends to threatening their families back home.

In March, an academic from UCL revealed that one of her modules had been cut because it highlighted China’s poor record on modern slavery, including in Xinjiang, which provoked complaints from Chinese students; a bit further back, in 2023, a report by the charity UK-China Transparency found that Chinese people applying to teach at Confucius Institutes in the UK—the main Chinese-language schools—were being vetted by the Chinese government for their political views on the CCP; and in 2020 it was reported that students at Oxford University were asked to submit some papers anonymously to protect them from retribution following the passage in Hong Kong of the National Security Law.

But, as the spying stories show, it’s not just in the ivory towers that webs are being spun. At Index on Censorship, where I am CEO, we spoke to many overseas dissidents who painted an alarming picture of China using every tool in its arsenal to silence them. Trolling. Death threats. Doxing. Leading MPs, lawyers and activists here have even had their identities stolen. The impersonation attempts aim to sow confusion and can be extremely successful. Luke de Pulford, executive director of Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, temporarily lost his Conservative Party membership after someone pretended to be him, he claims.

Then there are the actual physical attacks. In 2022, protester Bob Chan was dragged into the grounds of China’s consulate in Manchester, where he was beaten. Hong Kong activist Finn Lau was attacked in the street in 2020. He believes Chinese officials were responsible, though Beijing denies involvement. Attendees at protests report on the presence of middle-aged Chinese men who are, in the words of one, “not joining, just examining” the crowd.

Well-known activists such as the Hong Kong protest leader Nathan Law say such attacks have a very real impact on their lives. He has lived in the UK since 2020 and has said: “The threats from the Chinese Communist Party loomed large. I moved four times in the first year, living a discrete life, and had to be aware of my surroundings constantly to avoid tailing.” 

According to the most recent statistics around 150,000 Chinese students are studying in the UK, while a total of 191,000 people from Hong Kong have applied for the British National (Overseas) visa scheme since it opened in 2021. Add to these numbers the many Uyghurs, Tibetans and diaspora Chinese communities over here and those impacted by these nefarious practices is huge. 

While the most vicious attacks are reserved for China critics, many others are impacted too. MI5 estimates that more than 20,000 people in the UK have recently been approached by Chinese spies through professional networking sites such as LinkedIn, twice as many as three years ago. When the UK Electoral Commission was hacked in August 2021, up to 40m people could have had their personal details accessed. In an official statement the government said it was “highly likely” Chinese state-affiliated entities were behind the breach.   

The motivations for the attacks are disparate but are likely united by one overriding aim: to protect and promote the CCP. Critics must be neutralised, the technological and information landscape pruned to remove anything that could disadvantage China.  

The good news is there are signs the UK is waking up to the threat within its borders. Last year it passed a National Security Act which provided new powers to foil interference and other activity by foreign states. It was under these powers that the aforementioned five were charged. In the aftermath of accusations that China hacked the UK Electoral Commission, the UK and US governments also sanctioned a Chinese company and several individuals they believe were linked. 

As for the victims, while the tactics have undoubtedly silenced some, they’ve not deterred all. Campaigner Apple Peiqing Ni is setting up a new organisation, China Dissent Network, which aims to create a safe space for Chinese dissidents. She is also working with the group UK-China Transparency on a free speech campaign for Hong Kong and Chinese students on UK campuses. 

Cheng, meanwhile, is speaking out as much as possible. “Living with the constant fear of the CCP looming over me is incredibly challenging. It’s a feeling of perpetual uncertainty and anxiety, knowing that at any moment, I could face repercussions for speaking out or advocating for democracy and human rights,” he tells me, before adding that he refuses to let this fear dictate his actions or silence his voice. 

“The more the CCP tries to intimidate or suppress dissent, the more determined I become to push back and defend these fundamental values. My dedication to this cause outweighs any fear I may feel, and I draw strength from the support of fellow activists and supporters who share my convictions.”

Such determination is encouraging but strength is not limitless. The dissidents who have chosen the UK as a refuge and home should feel safe here, not just safer. The UK government’s pledge to step up efforts against espionage is a start. It’s just unlikely enough to tackle a problem that has become so all-encompassing.