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The discovery of a single alleged Chinese spy strolling through Whitehall and Westminster should set heartbeats racing in that ugly building near Vauxhall Bridge where Britain’s spies play out their craft. It means there are many more – probably a great many more. Some may not even realise that they’re spies.
Most people won’t be panicked by the allegation. After all, countries spy on one another, even on their allies. Chinese dissidents exiled in Britain, though, will be panicked. Many have prices on their heads and others are convinced that Beijing operates illegal “police stations’’ in major British cities. That’s not been proven, but the rumour continues to spark real fear because it’s not just Russia and Rwanda that act against their exiles. China does, too.
Britain should, and usually does, protect exiled dissidents. In recent years it’s warned displaced Rwandans and Russians about probable assassination attempts. When it comes to China, however, much of the West is on the back foot because it hasn’t been a historical threat. Spying as we know it today emerged from the ashes of World Wars, then the Cold War, and then an overblown fear of Islamist terror. At best, China was a second-tier threat.
That all made sense at the time, but now China has emerged as a greater threat than Russia, despite Ukraine. In the New Cold War, China is richer, more populous, and the dominant power pitted against the West. Russia is the junior partner, as Putin’s fawning toward both China and North Korea proves.
Still, China’s espionage skill is largely technological. Its ability to garner human intelligence is notoriously weaker, hampered by a genuine culture gap and Confucian and Manichean analyses. The West’s ability to change course and policy on a dime is seen as a weakness, when in fact it’s often a strength.
China’s other weakness is Xi Jinping’s overweening centralized power. Much has been said about his debilitating control of an increasingly weak economy, but that same control cripples China’s hugely increased efforts to spy on its enemies – and despite all the friendly talk about trade, Xi sees democracy as an illness and the West as his enemy. China’s aim in emerging economies is to obtain commodities and control the market, as it does with chrome. Its aim in the West is to decapitate democracy.
Xi faces another weakness, both in the West and in the developing world. He’s an idealist in a mainly pragmatic world. As the G20 and the earlier BRICS summit showed, developing economies, most with strong economic growth, didn’t rush in to support China or Russia. At the G20, now G21, they may have watered down the condemnation of Vladimir Putin, but it was condemnation for all that, no matter Sergei Lavrov’s feigned boast. They also sidelined Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative by signing trade agreements with Western powers.
No doubt Xi feels confused and betrayed. And perhaps he regrets boycotting the G20 summit over his intense dislike and suspicion of India — a mutual, centuries-old animosity. Whatever the reason, it’s China that’s backfooted, mired by debt, a collapsing property market, a massively corrupt bureaucracy, and an ageing population that has no welfare system. It’s economy is bigger than India’s but won’t be forever. Most projections put India overtaking China slowly but steadily, and India’s democracy may be experiencing a wobble under Narendra Modi, but it is the world’s most populous democracy. It’s that democracy word again that gets to Xi.
For the West’s part, it should stop worrying when smaller nations flirt with China or Russia. They’re simply being pragmatic when they buy Russian oil at knockdown prices or play with China. They’re poor and they need money, but they’re not stupid. They know that overwhelmingly ordinary people, the people who vote, distrust China in particular.
Back home in Britain, people should expect more Chinese wrongdoing. It’s inconceivable that China would place a single spy close to the centre of power when its tradition has been to ‘’flood the market’’ and hope for the best. To use an angling analogy, Chinese intelligence prefers fishnets to a line and hook. There’ll be more, perhaps a great many more spies. Some will be comically inept.
China will also accelerate its espionage efforts because it’s facing an economic crisis if not peril. Xi is responsible for much of the mess his country faces, and he will inevitably, as dictators do everywhere, blame the West.
In recent years, China has targeted its spying efforts towards the theft of technology from private enterprise and that’ll continue, but it’s going to direct more spooks at the state where it’ll try to both steal secrets and create centres of influence within government. On the plus side, it’s not very good at this. Indeed, it’s often risibly ham-fisted.
Still, banking on Chinese ineptitude is a mistake because both Beijing and London face a very real difficulty: it’s very hard to spy on people who look different. Both countries will have ‘’declared agents’’ in each other’s nations, usually the head of station. China, though, will flood its embassies and consulates, and its Non-Governmental Organisations, including those run by dissidents, with undeclared spies and informants.
The reality is that there are almost 170 embassies in London and most of them, from Algeria’s to Zimbabwe’s, are home to spies, some of whom are competent, and some of whom will have been coerced or bought by China. In short, catching a single alleged Chinese spy only tells us that there’ll be many more still ferreting away, harvesting secrets for Xi Jinping