No friendly politician is too obscure for insecure China, not even Barry Gardiner

Show caption Labour MP Barry Gardiner took £420,000 from Christine Ching Kui Lee, who MI5 says has established links to Beijing. Photograph: UK Parliament/PA Opinion No friendly politician is too obscure for insecure China, not even Barry Gardiner Nick Cohen The Communist party is obsessive in its demand for respect, at home and abroad Sat 15 Jan 2022 19.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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The Chinese Communist party appears utterly deluded. Hasn’t it learned in its 100-year history that some politicians aren’t worth buying? Wasting its money, or rather the money of the subjugated Chinese people, on Barry Gardiner, of all MPs, seems more silly than sinister. Why bother?

If you’ve never heard of him, Gardiner is an unremarkable Corbynista, who has continued the far left’s tradition of excusing anti-western dictatorships. The Labour MP took £420,000, a large whack even by the lax standards of Westminster, from Christine Ching Kui Lee, an influence-peddler MI5 said had “established links” for Beijing with British politicians.

Suddenly, Gardiner had to find excuses for himself rather than a regime that is terrorising the Uyghur people, occupying Tibet and crushing democracy in Hong Kong. He said he didn’t know Lee had links to a hostile foreign power – presumably, he thought she was rewarding his stand on renationalising the railways. And in any case he had been “critical of the Chinese government on many occasions”. This was news to the journalists who recorded the revolting moment when Gardiner was in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and deplored on the BBC, “the escalation of violence between protesters in Hong Kong and ordinary people in Hong Kong”, as if the threat to “ordinary people” is not a dictatorial superpower that stamps their rights into the dust. But when Gardiner said he was a “very poor investment” from a Chinese point of view, he was right, and he brought back my original question: why bother?

The answer is that, as Xi Jinping turns China from a one-party state into a one-man imperium, everything matters. No detail is too small to sweat. No sympathetic politician too obscure to ignore. With opponents, Xi demands a gangster’s respect by unleashing retaliation out of all proportion to the original offence. China explodes at trivial examples of opposition a stable superpower would have the self-confidence to ignore.

If you want to know why Muslim countries stay silent about the persecution of fellow Muslims in Xinjiang or why scientists were so quick to dismiss the theory that the Covid pandemic began with a leak from a Wuhan lab, look at China’s willingness to use overweening force to secure conformity with the party line. Filippa Lentzos, of the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College, London, was describing Covid scientists when she said they did not talk about lab leaks “because they feared for their careers [and] their grants”. But she might have been describing businesses and governments, too.

Last year, I heard the Czech politician Zdeněk Hřib explain to the leaders of European cities how he had learned the hard way why they should not allow Chinese technology in their infrastructure or have any dealings with the organs of the Chinese state. He discovered when he became mayor of Prague in 2018 that the city had committed itself to supporting Xi’s one-China policy, as part of an apparently harmless twinning agreement with Beijing. Hřib abandoned the policy because he was a liberal who did not agree with forcing Taiwanese people into a communist state against their wishes. In any event, he thought it ridiculous for a central European city to take a position on conflicts in the far east. China reacted as if he had declared war. It banned cultural contacts. Czech oligarchs with Chinese interests hired hack journalists and PR shills to attack him. Miloš Zeman, who was then the Czech republic’s Trumpian president, warned him and Prague of “unpleasant consequences”.

Today it is Lithuania’s turn. China is blocking imports and threatening multinationals with punishments if they do business with the tiny Baltic country, solely because it trades with Taiwan.

There is no greater intimidatory threat to Chinese people in the UK than the Chinese Communist party

We should bother, not out of admiration for this government’s apparent policy of committing British forces to fight alongside the US in a war over Taiwan, but because of what China is doing to Britain. The Chinese embassy showed why when it responded to the spying claims by accusing the security service of “smearing and intimidation against the Chinese community in the UK”.

Muslims, Jews, Chinese people and others undoubtedly worry about blowback when global politics turns national attention towards minorities. But in this instance there is no greater intimidatory threat to Chinese people in the UK than the Chinese Communist party. Or, for that matter, to Chinese people in China. Within hours of the Gardiner story breaking, a contact who works for the pro-democracy movement told me that, even after they have found asylum in the UK, Hong Kong activists communicate through encrypted apps because they worry about what could happen to them here and to their families in China. Just before Christmas, two activists who dared to speak publicly described their “never-ending fear” to the New Statesman. You could see why they were frightened. Anonymous spies had offered £10,000 on the Chinese social media platform WeChat for their work or home addresses.

Meanwhile, universities, so quick to atone for the slavery of the past, show little concern for modern-day slavery in Xinjiang as they hoover up Chinese money. They say they want safe spaces to protect students from the tiniest of micro-aggressions, and yet allow the Chinese state, via its on-campus Confucius Institutes, to keep tabs on Chinese students and their teachers. The government should close them, as the Swedish government has, and act to build the UK’s resilience against dictatorial enemies. But there’s the rub. It’s not just that the collapsing Johnson administration is incapable of taking serious measures. Even when the Tories were in their pomp, they showed no inclination to damn the sources of corruption.

Honourable MPs and whistleblowers have warned for years that the openness of the City, the libel law, estate agency and indeed the Conservative party to dubious Russian money undermined national security. Last summer, I wrote that all the professional services a dictatorship could want was on open sale in the capital, and warned that if Putin’s allies did not worry ministers, they “should reflect on what will happen when the Chinese Communist party realises what London has to offer”.

No worthwhile reforms followed, for a reason I should have grasped at the time. Worthwhile reform is impossible for as long as the Conservatives remain in power.

• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist