Concerns are growing over Chinese influence in the U.K. after a prominent member of a Chinese Communist Party-backed "friendship" organization was able to meet with five prime ministers and several members of the royal family, according to a recent report in the Daily Mail newspaper.
The Mail published a number of photos showing Hu Zhirong, a director of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), meeting with current prime minister Boris Johnson, as well as former prime ministers Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, and Tony Blair.
It said Hu had gained unprecedented access to the U.K. establishment via his friendship with Li Xuelin, also known as Xuelin Bates, a supporter of David Cameron and the wife of Lord Bates.
The report describes Li as "a prominent influencer on China matters" and claims she has succeeded in promoting a pro-China perspective to key figures in the British establishment. Bates is also a fellow of the pro-Beijing 48 Group Club, and Hu has attended some of their events.
The CPAFFC has been identified by Australian academic Clive Hamilton, an expert on Chinese influence operations, and co-author Mareike Ohlberg, as an organization set up to advance the agenda of the ruling party's United Front Work Department, which coordinates influence and outreach efforts both overseas and among non-party groups and communities.
The Mail is also serializing Hamilton and Ohlberg's new book, Hidden Hand, which says China is recruiting "useful idiots" to push the country’s agenda overseas.
Australia-based student and rights activist Feng Chongyi said the phrase "useful idiots" is a humorous description of China's strategy, but said the book is essentially accurate about the way Beijing conducts its foreign influence operations.
"China sends out its United Front agents to promote its political agenda and infiltrate other countries," Feng said. "The U.K. is an important country, and it has been totally infiltrated, including its government departments, universities, media, and research institutions."
"Some of its targets really are pretty naive ... but some are acting that way because they are being used, because they also have vested interests," he said.
The book was quoted by the Daily Mail report as saying of CPAFFC: "Just as in the United Kingdom no community organisation can use the word 'royal' in its title without official permission, in China, no community group would include the words "people" or "friendship" in its title without [Communist] Party approval."
The paper also cited a leaked report titled "China's Elite Capture," which it said describes a deliberate attempt to infiltrated the British establishment, and which was compiled with the help of a former MI6 [counterintelligence service] spy."
Promoting China's agenda abroad
The report also describes CPAFFC as having been set up "to pursue a United Front strategy ... in order to promote a [Chinese Communist] Party agenda abroad," the paper said.
The organization has branches and sub-divisions at every level of Chinese government, throughout major cities and provinces, according to its official website.
The website of the Beijing branch mentions the "Communist Party committee," or cell, a structure that is likely to be repeated at national and regional level.
The organization is funded by the Chinese government, and chaired by Lin Songlin, a former ambassador to South Africa.
Since its founding in the 1950s, its leaders have generally been drawn from the ranks of retired diplomats and vice foreign ministers or their close relatives.
In 2004, the CPAFFC celebrated its 50th anniversary in the Great Hall of the People, at the heart of the communist regime, and then Chinese President Hu Jintao gave a speech to mark the occasion.
Hu told that gathering that the CPAFFC should continue to "fully implement the diplomatic principles and policies of both country and party," as it had done over the past five decades.
U.K.-based scholar Wang Jianhong said there is growing awareness of China's "United Front" influence operations in the country.
"British public opinion has totally changed on this issue, from the general public to the ruling class, and now we are absolutely disgusted with the Chinese Communist Party," Wang told RFA.
"Everyone is watching what they are doing now, but is there any policy consistency [when tackling it]?" she said. "I think the key to resisting [China] is how united Europe can be."
Baroness Helena Kennedy, a member of the British House of Lords, said in a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) webinar on Wednesday that there has been a "breach of trust" over China's imposition of a state security regime on Hong Kong, citing long-running concerns over the country's human rights records.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Chen Pinjie for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.