Beijing to Britain

Queen's Speech, Twitter, BRI

Hello,

The United Kingdom now has the starting point of a new ‘China Strategy’ - albeit a modest couple of pages in a much longer document, the Integrated Review, setting out the country’s foreign policy. Government will use this to attempt to align political behaviour with regards to Departments, and provide clarity to businesses operating between both countries.

This starting point on a strategy for China will continue to prove highly contentious. Political views will remain polarised, and those MPs active on China will likely push for further clarification.

The Review adds credence to our view that two loose schools of thought have emerged in Westminster. One calls for a fundamental reset of British relations with China, championing human rights over trade, and pushing for all engagement to be through a values-led approach. The other school pushes for a realpolitik approach; while the so-called ‘Golden Era’ may be over, it is better to keep China at the table through diplomacy and trade, even at the expense of human rights - without these, the UK has no leverage or bargaining chips.

The majority of China-centric politicians in the UK can roughly be placed into one of these schools, although their views often change depending on the issue at play. It’s worth noting that neither school believes that an enriched Chinese middle class will steer the country towards democracy. While the Government may pretend that is has strategised around the values-led approach advocated by the first school, is the latter approach that it has chosen to embrace in a hybrid fashion, by portraying trade as a vehicle to hold China to account.

And so ‘Beijing to Britain’ was born - a weekly overview of the ebbs and flows of this discussion, and how it impacts politics, the private sector and society.

As always: tips, feedback, and your views to BeijingToBritain@protonmail.com.

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Politics

  • What was achieved last Parliament?

  • Which bodies guide engagement with China?

  • Taiwan

  • UN and Xinjiang

Business

  • Government response on supply chains

  • BlackRock in China

  • Solar

Society

  • Fake social media boosting


First, a quick look at this week for China in Parliament

  • 4 mentions of China

  • No mention of Xi Jinping

  • 2 mentions of Hong Kong

  • No mention of Uyghurs

  • No mention of CCP

  • 1 mention of Magnitsky

  • 589 out of 650 MPs (90.6%) have a Twitter account.



Who’s asking what?

Order! Order!

Some of the more notable tweets this week



Spotted

Timely Twitter post from the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), shared with us by a reader. The link goes through to the Government’s ‘Digital and Tech China’ campaign.

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Politics

Tick lists, UK engagement with China, Taiwan, Xinjiang

Who doesn’t love a list?

On Tuesday, a new Parliamentary session began. The previous Parliamentary session lasted from 2019-2021 and saw a raft of legislation with a China focus debated and discussed. It also saw the emergence of two significant China-focused groups; the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), and the China Research Group (CRG).

Inspired by the CRG’s excellent weekly briefing (subscribe here), we’ve put together a handy tick list of important Bills, inquiries and general content passed or underway in Parliament that may impact UK-China relations:

  • The National Security & Investment Bill was granted Royal Assent. This Bill aims to stop any transaction which involves a “national security interest”. It specifically looks at 17 key sectors; advanced materials, advanced robotics, AI, civil nuclear, communications, computing hardware, critical suppliers to the emergency services or government, cryptographic authentication, data infrastructure, defence, energy, military and dual-use technologies, quantum technologies, satellite and space technologies, synthetic biology (prior to the consultation this was engineering biology) and transport. Worth reading about in more detail, as it will likely be deployed in the near future.

  • The Trade Bill was granted Royal Assent. Readers may remember the effort to add in a Genocide Amendment to this Bill. Put forward three times by Tory rebels and backed by every other party, this would have stopped the UK seeking preferential trade agreements with countries believed to be committing genocide. Although the Amendment failed to receive the votes it needed, the rebels did secure significant concessions including a provision requiring the Government to respond to parliamentary committee reports on genocide.

  • The Counter-State Threats Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech and falls under the remit of the Home Office. This “will provide the security services and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to tackle the evolving threat from hostile activity by foreign states and foreign actors.” It will include the “creat[ion] of a Foreign Influence Registration Scheme to help combat espionage, foreign interference, and to better protect research.” The Foreign Affairs Committee is chalking it up as their win.

  • The Telecoms (Security) Bill is still being scrutinised. This Bill aims to give Government new powersto boost the security standards of the UK’s telecoms networks and remove the threat of high risk vendors” such as Huawei. Worth noting but flying under the radar is the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill, one of the aims of which is “preventing the sale of insecure devices with default passwords which are easy to hack.

  • The Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill (ARIA) is still being scrutinised, and featured in the Queen’s Speech. ARIA will be a “new agency to fund high-risk, high-reward research, to enhance the UK’s R&D offer and help cement the UK’s position as a global science superpower.” Readers may remember that it will be immune from Freedom of Information requests, and will not have to disclose what it invests in.

  • The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, with an aim “to strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities in England”, has been chalked up as a win by the Government as part of its never ending ‘culture wars’ with liberal university students. In reality, we may see this Bill used in the context of the China discussion in higher education.

  • The Integrated Review was given a mention in the Government’s notes on the Queen’s Speech. This caught our eye “we will play a more active part in international institutions including the United Nations, World Trade Organisation, World Health Organisation and the international financial institutions. We will seek to shape the international order of the future, extending it in areas such as cyberspace and space, and protecting democratic values…[and recognise] no relationship is more valuable than our one with the United States.”

  • The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is about to conclude an inquiry into Forced labour in UK value chains, which could significantly impact the way British businesses operate in Xinjiang. More on that later.

  • The BN(O) scheme was launched for Hong Kongers. The most recent reports estimated around 3000 people were applying a week. The Government also extended its arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong, and suspended its extradition treaty with city.


Suddenly the fog is lifted

Last month, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ACAI), an independent non-departmental public body responsible for scrutiny of UK aid and sponsored by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), published an excellent report. What makes this report so special to UK-China geeks like your writer is that it contained a multitude of information that was previously obscure and hard to find. It looks at how the UK engages with China at an aid level and which Departments are calling the shots.

Let’s take a look, starting with this handy graphic.

The UK’s aid engagement with China - an information note’ does what is says on the tin. Coming in at a healthy 26 pages, this note enjoyed access to Government information, and as a result is a fantastic resource. The Lead Commissioner on this particular report was Sir Hugh Bayley, former Labour MP for York Central and Minister for Social Security. He was a member of the Commons’ International Development Committee, chaired the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank, the Africa All-Party Parliamentary Group, and was knighted in 2015 for services to NATO and international development.

Let’s look at two notable things in this report:

  1. The Government currently has a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) strategic oversight board, founded in 2017. Spanning multiple Departments, engaging the FCDO, Treasury, Cabinet Office, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Justice and Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, it seems a Goliath undertaking but appears almost nowhere on public records. Who sits on it? How often does it meet and what does it discuss? Who advises it?

  2. The Government’s strategic approach to China is underpinned by detailed interdepartmental implementation plans, which are used to monitor and direct progress through meetings of the China National Strategy Implementation Group, chaired by the deputy national security adviser (Sir Stephen Lovegrove). Again, who is part of this Group?

Some of the interesting bits of information and graphs from the report, which readers may or may not already know:

  • The Department for International Trade (DfIT) has signed an agreement to guide collaboration on infrastructure projects along the BRI in third country markets between UK and Chinese companies in third countries.

  • Germany is by far the largest OECD donor to China, providing $522 million in net ODA in 2019.

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Taiwan

As we noted a fortnight ago, Taiwan is quickly becoming the new political issue fixating British politicians. This week, The Times published a Thunderer by Azeem Ibrahim, ‘Britain should invite Taiwan to the G7 and Cop26’. In his piece, Ibrahim (Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, and a Director at Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy) makes the argument for Taiwan’s inclusion:

Taiwan is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia, and at the global forefront of some of the most significant technologies, especially microchips. It is an island nation just as dependent on global trade as Britain. We have much in common in commercial interests, culture and security needs.

Taiwan is a benign democracy and exactly the kind of country Global Britain sees itself forming alliances with. China is the main antagonist to Britain’s views on global democracy, peace and co-operation among equal partners — but also to Taiwan’s very existence as a nation and the desire of the people of Taiwan to determine their own future.

Britain can bring Taiwan into the global diplomatic spotlight. Doing so would be morally right, relatively easy and in line with the UK’s vision of its own place in the world. And it would also gain Britain a close friend and ally in a world where Chinese aspirations threaten both nations.

The piece was picked up by Tom Tugendhat, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and co-founder of the CRG. This is notable for two reasons; first, Tugendhat has a reputation for being more nuanced and moderate in his views of the UK-China relationship than some in his party, and second, being Chair of the FAC carries weight to this tweet.

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Xinjiang

This week, the United States, Germany and Britain hosted a virtual event at the United Nations which covered the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Attended by various countries and multiple NGOs, it was criticised by China as being "lies and false allegations", with its organisers portrayed as being "obsessed with provoking confrontation with China."

Because the Chinese Embassy in London often uses points first raised by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, it’s worth looking at what MFA said:

Hua Chunying: The United States, Britain and Germany ganged up with some NGOs to host a virtual conference on Xinjiang's human rights situation based on lies and political prejudice falsely in the name of the UN. China deplores and rejects it. The conference was awash with outrageous lies and disinformation. It was another despicable shoddy show and sheer political farces put together by a handful of countries including the US. In fact, it was firmly rejected by the vast UN membership.

I must point out that these countries that are always trying to lecturer others on human rights issues actually have a deplorable record on human rights and have committed piles of crimes. The false allegations they launch against China mirror their own historical crimes and sinister mentality.

US history has recorded the horrific systemic ethnic cleansing and slaughter of Native Indians, which constitute genocide and crimes against humanity. Between the 19th century and the 1970s, the US government sent a large number of Indian children to boarding schools, which can be called the progenitor of concentration camps. An American historian at the University of Hawaii points out that the US warfare against the Native American population was the largest genocide in history. Pulitzer Prize winner John Toland wrote in his book Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography that Hitler attributed his idea of concentration camps and his practice of genocide to his study of British and American history. In the US today, racism is still a systemic and persistent existence penetrating every aspect of life...

Britain committed countless horrifying crimes all over the world during hundreds of years of colonial rule. The world's first concentration camp in South Africa carries with it the disgraceful brand of the British Empire. British forces killed innocent people and committed torture in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but the culprits are sheltered by the government and remain beyond the law. Where is the UK concern for human rights?

In the beginning of the 20th century, German colonists slaughtered over 100,000 indigenous Namibian tribespeople. United Nations Economic and Social Council Commission on Human Rights said in a report that this is the first genocide in the 20th century. During WWII, Nazi Germany slaughtered almost six million Jews. Where is Germany's concern for human rights?…

Some people said,"If you have nothing to hide, why don't you grant unimpeded access to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights?" My question is, if someone makes a false accusation against you and arbitrarily asks you to open the door unconditionally so that they can rummage through your chests and cupboards, will you allow it? This is not about facts, but sovereignty and dignity! We welcome all unbiased people to visit Xinjiang. That said, we firmly reject so-called investigation with presumption of guilt by citing lies and rumors, firmly reject interference in China's domestic affairs under the pretext of human rights, and firmly reject playing up the so-called Xinjiang-related issues to undermine China's stability and contain China's development.

Don’t be surprised to see many of these points now become regular tweets from the Chinese Embassy in London, or Minister Ma Hui. For what it’s worth, the British Embassy in China addressed this issue in a long and thoughtful post for Human Rights Day last year. It said:

Between 1899 and 1902, Britain participated in the Boer War in South Africa with two Boer countries: the Republic of South Africa (South African Republic) and the Orange Autonomous State. During the war, the British army tried to break the guerrilla war by burning crops and keeping the families of soldiers in concentration camps.

Concentration camps were first used by the Spanish in Cuba. Since then, concentration camps have been used as detention centers for political prisoners and minorities.

In South Africa, many detainees died due to poor sanitation and lack of modern medical facilities.

British newspapers reported on the situation in the concentration camps, which aroused more and more concerns-including attacks from the public and opposition MPs on government policies in Parliament.

At first, the British government also defended the concentration camps, saying that everything was voluntary, and claimed that the detained Boers were "satisfied and comfortable." But after the British welfare activist Emily Hobhouse (Emily Hobhouse) visited the refugee camp, the British government was forced to change its position.

This is a severe and condemned period in British history. But we believe in the importance of openness to ensure that lessons from the past are learned, and we support the importance of public debate in holding the government accountable.

Since the Boer War, the United Kingdom has been openly opposed to human rights violations and helped establish the United Nations after World War II.

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Odds and ends

  • Following a report in March examining universities and their relationships with China, Baron (Jo) Johnson warned this week told an audience “I think, to my mind, the most important freedom of speech issue facing universities today relates to self-censorship around China ... that is going to be a very, very important, long-running structural question. And that’s why it’s so important that universities can contract with China in full confidence that they are doing so using a common framework that’s established by the sector and supported by their own government and possibly also in alliance with other governments around the world. That will enable them to genuinely have freedom of speech and freedom of research in all areas that might touch on China’s interests.”

  • The Home Office has begun seeking consultation on Legislation to counter state threats. The Telegraph thinks this “will give ministers civil powers to impose legally binding curbs on individuals suspected of spying, sabotage or stealing secrets even before there was evidence to justify a prosecution or expulsion.”



Spotted

The British Embassy in China taking part in the FCDO’s continuous 24 hour global mile around the world to raise money for mental health charities in UK and overseas. Honourable mention to the Consulate General in Hong Kong too.

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Business

Supply chains, wealth management, solar

Hear ye hear ye all those with a business interest in China. Tomorrow is the deadline for the the Government’s response to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee report looking at forced labour in UK supply chains. This inquiry had a particular focus on Uyghur slave labour in Xinjiang, and heard evidence from a wide range of companies including Disney, TikTok, H&M, Nike and Adidas, as MPs sought to find ways to bring transparency to the supply chain (read it here).

On 17 March, the Committee published its report and a series of recommendations, two of which in particular are worth reminding ourselves of:

  1. The creation of a white and blacklist of companies which do and do not meet their obligations to uphold human rights throughout their supply chains. This would be publicly available for anyone to see.

  2. That Government accelerates proposals to amend and strengthen the Modern Slavery Act 2015, enhances the transparency and accessibility of modern slavery statements, and develops options for civil penalties in the event of noncompliance.

Tomorrow, the Government should publish its response to these recommendations and others (it may of course choose to delay its response.) While one can speculate over how strong or weak Government action may be, companies should be under no impression that this issue will simply fade away for MPs or the Government itself. For many companies operating a supply chain in the region, it’s now a case of when, not if, it comes under scrutiny.

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Business carries on

A win for the world’s biggest asset manager, and one time employer of the architect of the Golden Era, George Osborne. This week, BlackRock gained approval to launch a wealth management business in mainland China. The company holds a majority 50.1% stake in BlackRock CCB Wealth Management; China Construction Bank has 40% and Temasek holds the remaining 9.9%. Bing Ji, previously head of BlackRock's China institutional client business, has been named head of the joint venture. The joint venture:

Will draw on BlackRock's expertise in investment and risk management, as well as China Construction Bank's client base and national distribution network to meet Chinese investors' demand for diversified asset management solutions and support the development of the local wealth and asset management industry. Temasek will also contribute its experience and strengths to deliver long-term value for the development of the WMC.

Quoted in the Financial Times, Stewart Aldcroft, Asia chair of Cititrust, an arm of Citigroup, said:

The whole point of what’s going on at the moment [with Chinese reforms] is for global companies to enter the fund management business in China.

On the topic of wealth funds, we read with interest that Scottish Mortgage had sold 80% of its Tesla holding over the past 12 months (now its fifth-largest holding at the end of March, down from second place a year earlier), and increased its exposure to China with stakes in tech giant Tencent — now its top holding — and food delivery group Meituan. The latter of these two companies has recently seen a slew of negative headlines in China and a dip in its share price following an undercover official pretending to be one of its delivery drivers, and a poem posted by the CEO on Weibo.

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Solargh

Rumours abound of incoming US sanctions on solar panels produced in Xinjiang. This week, ‘In Broad Daylight’, a British-led investigation into solar panels from the region, found that:

  • 95% of solar modules rely on one primary material – solar-grade polysilicon.

  • Polysilicon manufacturers in the Uyghur Region account for approximately 45% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon supply.

  • All polysilicon manufacturers in the Uyghur Region have reported their participation in labour transfer programmes and/or are supplied by raw materials companies that have.

  • In 2020, China produced an additional 30% of the world’s polysilicon on top of that produced in the Uyghur Region, a significant proportion of which may be affected by forced labour in the Uyghur Region as well.

In addition, the researchers found:

  • 11 companies engaged in labour transfers

  • 4 additional companies located within industrial parks that have accepted labour transfers

  • 90 Chinese and international companies whose supply chains are affected

Analysts coupled this information with a quote from John Kerry, the Biden Administration’s Climate Envoy. Speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he discussed this complex issue:

“How can you assure us that … slave labor coming out of China, where genocide is taking place as we speak, are never a part of the climate solution in the United States?” asked Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the senior Republican on the committee.

Kerry told McCaul he was “absolutely correct” to raise the concern.

“It is a problem,” Kerry said. He cited “solar panels that we believe in some cases are being produced by forced labor.” Kerry also listed rare earth minerals produced by China and used in things such as magnets for wind turbines, among other uses.

Kerry said the administration was assessing whether to add those to the list of products from Xinjiang province that the United States is already penalizing. He said he did not know where the administration was in that review. The State Department did not immediately respond to a question seeking details.

The report identifies an example with the firm LONGi Green Energy Technology Company (隆基绿能科技股份有限公司), a firm mainly engaged in the research and design, production and sales of monocrystalline silicon ingots, silicon wafers, cells and modules. It found modules from this company sold in the UK by Solar SuppliesUK, Plug-inSolar, and Segen. The report adds “LONGi does engage in “poverty alleviation” programmes in the Uyghur Region, but, as far as records reviewed for this report show, its poverty alleviation efforts generate power for the grid in that region and are not involved in any identified labour transfers.”

China has pushed back, with its Ministry for Foreign Affairs saying:

"After targeting Xinjiang's cotton industry, now some Western countries and anti-China forces are extending their dirty hands to the solar energy industry. Their intention is to fabricate lies such as 'forced labor' to seek 'forced industrial decoupling' and 'forced layoff' in Xinjiang."

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Odds and ends

  • One of the companies targeted by a Chinese consumer backlash over firms seen to be shirking Xinjiang cotton, Burberry has told analysts “I will restate that we have seen a limited impact in China for the time being”, and “China is a primary focus for us, so we remain extremely, extremely confident and we will continue to invest in the market.” (Telegraph)


Spotted

The UK’s Minister for Science, Research and Innovation Amanda Solloway and Vice Minister Huang Wei on a video call. The pair “discussed ambitious joint research on pandemic preparedness and climate change as well as IP protection and data sharing”.

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Society

Fake views, fake news

All of us are by now used to the discussion around Wolf Warrior diplomacy, a form of confrontational rhetoric and action used by many PRC officials online, said to be favoured by the leadership in Beijing. While often controversial (a recent example being one PRC official’s tweet mocking India’s horrific Covid-19 situation), it does appear to garner significant engagement online. However, how much of this is genuine?

On Tuesday, the Oxford Internet Institute (a branch of Oxford University) published a timely paper by Marcel Schliebs, Hannah Bailey, Jonathan Bright and Philip N. Howard. Coming in at 36 pages, ‘China’s Inauthentic UK Twitter Diplomacy’ examines all tweets, retweets, and replies to tweets by the PRC Ambassador to the UK at the time of the analysis, Liu Xiaoming, as well as the official account of the Embassy in London. It took place during an observation period from the 9th of June 2020 to the 31st of January 2021. In total, these two accounts tweeted 3,070 times during that period, 2,375 tweets from the ambassador’s account, and 695 from the embassy twitter. These tweets were retweeted by third party users 45,332 times and replied to 52,733 times.

The core takeaways are as follows:

  • The network boosting UK PRC officials consists of 62 accounts in total, 29 of which were recently active until flagged to Twitter. Many accounts impersonate UK citizens, with biographies such as “political affairs commentator from London” and usernames such as @JenniferatUK, @UKJenniferin, or @GraceUK5

  • Account creation appears coordinated. Nearly a third of the accounts were created within minutes of each other and the vast majority only amplify and engage with the PRC’s diplomats to the UK

  • Account use appears coordinated. Many accounts sit dormant for extended periods and are activated together at chosen moments. Most parts of the network tend to be active for the morning and early evening hours when social media use in the UK is highest

  • This coordinated information operation drives a significant proportion of the engagement with the PRC’s UK public diplomacy on Twitter. Over the eight month period, 44% of the ambassador’s retweets and 20% of his replies came from the coordinated network. At several critical moments, as much as three-quarters of the engagement with the PRC’s top diplomat in London came from this inauthentic public diplomacy network.

  • The accounts often tweeted the same phrases, which themselves had also been used by PRC diplomats months prior.

The use of bots and fake accounts to boost messages is not new, or novel to China. However, it does lead one to conclude that many of the key messages the Chinese Embassy and former Ambassador were trying to land simply did not get beyond the bubble of fake accounts sharing them. Ironically, in attempting to boost these key messages (around UK-China relations, Xinjiang, Hong Kong etc.), these bots just ended up sharing the message in their own small echo chamber.

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Reading list

What we learned from this week