British government pledges to curb overseas influence, Chinese infiltration

Security official says 'urgent' probe under way after Manchester consular staff attack Hong Kong protester.
By Yitong Wu and Chingman for RFA Cantonese
2022.11.03
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British government pledges to curb overseas influence, Chinese infiltration Home Office minister for security Tom Tugendhat has said that China’s "Confucius Institutes pose a threat to civil liberties in many universities in the United Kingdom and he will be looking to close them."
Credit: Reuters

The British government is planning a slew of measures aimed at curbing infiltration and influence operations by foreign governments, including probing recent attacks inside the Chinese consulate on a Hong Kong protester and the possible closure of the Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes in universities.

Home Office minister for security Tom Tugendhat said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had pledged during his bid for leadership of the ruling Conservative Party that "Confucius Institutes pose a threat to civil liberties in many universities in the United Kingdom and he will be looking to close them."

He said the government is assessing how to respond to the beating of Hong Kong protester Bob Chan by Chinese consular staff on Oct. 16.

"There is no place for those who abuse their diplomatic privilege or the liberties of this country in order to oppress citizens here," he told the House of Commons on Tuesday.

"The assessment will be coming forward urgently," Tugendhat said of the probe into the Manchester attack, and promised a coordinated response.

Speaking amid a global investigation into Chinese police-run "overseas service centers," some of which have been ordered to shut down by foreign governments for operating outside of diplomatic channels, Tugendhat said a forthcoming national security bill would strengthen the government's legal powers to deal with agents of foreign governments operating on British soil.

"Coercion, harassment or intimidation linked to a foreign power that interferes with the freedoms of individuals will be criminalized under the new foreign interference offense in the bill," he said. "Existing criminal offenses against a person, such as assault, may also have sentences increased using the state threats aggravating factor in the Bill where they are undertaken for, on behalf of or with the intention to benefit a foreign power."

He said the bill would also include a foreign influence registration scheme, in which organizations with close ties to overseas governments would be required to register as agents of a foreign power. Similar measures are already in place in Australia and the United States.

British media have reported the existence of three undeclared "service centers" in the United Kingdom, including Hendon, Croydon and Glasgow.

Chinese dissidents in exile and the Spanish-based rights group Safeguard Defenders have reported that dozens of such "service centers" operate outside of China, and that people associated with them have targeted dissidents for harassment and threats, including coerced repatriations.

Newcastle cuts ties

Meanwhile, councilors in the northeastern city of Newcastle on Wednesday voted unanimously to end the city's "twinned sister" status with the northern Chinese mining city of Taiyuan.

Moving the motion, Liberal Democrat Cllr. Wendy Taylor said the Chinese government under Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping had ignored international norms and showed scant concern for universal values ​​like human rights, freedom and democracy, according to an account of the meeting on the Newcastle Stands With Hong Kong Facebook page.

Cllr Jane Byrne cited a recent Amnesty International report detailing a deterioration in China's human rights record, including unfair trials, intimidation and torture, saying she would stand with those fighting for freedom and democracy, the report said.

A Newcastle Stands with Hong Kong spokesperson, who gave the pseudonym K for fear of reprisals targeting loved ones back home, said many British officials are aware of the seriousness of the threat posed by Chinese infiltration.

"Everyone is very concerned right now about infiltration via Confucius Institutes and overseas law enforcement, but they have yet to act on that," K said.

K said part of the issue was that many countries feel economically dependent on China.

"The fundamental issue is whether other countries are so economically dependent on China that China feels it can ignore international law and human rights law," K said. "Continuing to allow slow infiltration by China will only expand its ambitions, and sooner or later lead to the same situation as we have seen with Russia."

"The international community, while reducing Chinese infiltration, must also reduce its dependence on China," they said.

International Threat

British-based scholar Wang Jianhong said such infiltration is a threat to the international order.

"The United Kingdom was relatively slow to recognize and act on that threat," Wang said. "But the fall of Hong Kong and the beginnings of the pandemic in Wuhan as well as the human rights crisis in Xinjiang have all prompted the British government to change policy."

"I hope they actually follow through with shutting down the Confucius Institutes, expelling the Chinese Consul-General in Manchester and thoroughly investigating the Chinese Communist Party's secret police stations," Wang said.

Analysts have told RFA they expect China's "wolf-warrior" diplomacy to become more entrenched now that Xi Jinping has begun an indefinite third term in office, amid growing reports of bullying and physical violence by Chinese diplomats overseas. 

Britain’s foreign secretary urgently summoned a top Chinese diplomat in response to the assault on Chan, who was dragged into the Chinese Consulate in Manchester and beaten by a group of unidentified men during an altercation over a ripped protest banner on Oct. 16. 

But protesters and MPs have said the response hasn't gone far enough, calling for the expulsion of those involved, including Consul General Zheng Xiyuan, who admitted to pulling Chan's hair

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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