As a prominent China critic and supporter of Hong Kong’s freedoms, human rights advocate Benedict Rogers is used to unwanted attention, but even he was surprised when he found out that the Chinese embassy in London had attempted to persuade British lawmakers to warn him off.
The episode occurred in 2017 when Rogers was deputy chair of the ruling UK Conservative Party’s human rights commission that he cofounded. According to three people familiar with the events, the embassy lobbied British Conservative legislators to try and convince Rogers, who is not a lawmaker, to “shut up” about China.
His experiences are among the incidents revealed in interviews with legislators, diplomats, party officials and security sources that help explain the UK’s souring relations with Beijing, and show how far China is prepared to go to try and influence the narrative. Many asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of their interactions with Chinese diplomats.
Falling out with China is a risky path for the UK as it exits the EU’s orbit, leaving it more exposed to retaliatory action by the world’s second-largest economy, as Australia is witnessing.
Last year, China was the UK’s third-biggest trading partner, after only the US and Germany, while the UK ranked a distant 14th for China.
Having barred Huawei Technologies Co from 5G networks from 2027 amid pressure from the administration of US President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is considering a ban on installing the Chinese company’s equipment as soon as next year to appease his own Conservative lawmakers.
It is part of the price for their backing on telecommunications security draft amendments due to be discussed in the legislature next week.
Separate national security legislation aimed at shielding British assets from foreign investment is another flash point that risks angering Beijing.
“This has severely undermined the legitimate interests of Chinese companies and impacted the basis of mutual trust between China and the UK,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) told a daily briefing in Beijing on Wednesday as he condemned the UK’s moves against Huawei as without evidence.
Johnson has called himself a Sinophile and expressed a desire to work with China, but that fine line between asserting Britain’s values without alienating Beijing is becoming harder to tread given his lawmakers’ increasing hawkishness.
Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, a frequent critic of the government in Beijing, last week called China “the single biggest threat and problem posed to the United Kingdom and the free world.”
While his is an outlier voice, it reflects the growing international headwinds Beijing is encountering as China flexes its muscles on issues as diverse as Hong Kong, human rights, and the acquisition of strategic infrastructure and companies around the world.
The UK is one of nine major economies from the US to South Korea where negative perceptions of China have reached a record level, a global survey by Pew Research Center found last month.
An illustration of how strained ties have become came this fall, when a group of lawmakers took part in a Zoom call with Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming (劉曉明) to congratulate him on the occasion of the 71st anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.
A Conservative lawmaker brought up China’s treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority, and the ambassador slapped him down, telling the legislator not to get involved then proceeding to rebut his points for five minutes.
“It was quite tense,” a participant in the call said.
The Chinese embassy had no comment as of Wednesday evening, more than 48 hours after being asked for its response to the points in this story.
Against a backdrop of mutual suspicion, many lawmakers are pressing Johnson’s government to curb what they see as China’s creeping state-backed influence in critical areas of British life from energy to finance and technology.
Huawei’s lobbying has been particularly extensive. Many members of the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament, were approached to make the case for the Chinese company, a person familiar with the activities said.
“Most are avoiding them like the plague,” the person said.
Huawei’s UK office declined to comment when contacted on Wednesday.
Huawei has publicly called on the UK government to revisit the ban in light of Trump’s election defeat.
When it comes to China’s influence in the UK, the issue is one of “buying legitimacy,” a person familiar with the intelligence community’s thinking said.
“They will acquire businesses and firms which are both perfectly lawful and ethical, and that way acquire legitimacy,” the person said. “The British elite is soft and malleable, and easily bought.”
To be sure, one Conservative legislator described interactions with the Chinese embassy as a two-way conversation: frank exchanges with efforts to persuade on both sides and no attempts to apply pressure.
Another said that the ambassador had never behaved in any way that could be considered improper and that cooperation rather than confrontation should be the nature of the relationship.
The reality is still one of worsening relations that constitutes a setback for China’s international standing five years after then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron declared a “golden era” in bilateral ties and even arranged for Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) to be taken to Buckingham Palace in a golden carriage for an audience with Queen Elizabeth II.
The government in Beijing has struggled to push back against the Trump administration’s efforts to paint China as a threat to the global world order, particularly in middle powers such as the UK.
“There has been a clear deterioration in China-UK relations in the last few years,” Renmin University of China’s Institute of International Affairs director Wang Yiwei (王義桅) said.
Wang attributed the change in part to the UK increasingly drawing on its relationship within the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, saying that it “needs to improve its relationship with the US to counter the damage from exiting the European Union market.”
British Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs Dominic Raab was a signatory to a “Five Eyes” statement last week calling on China to live up to its duty to the people of the former British territory of Hong Kong.
China this month issued threats to the UK on more than one occasion over its criticism of Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong, lumping it together with Australia, another “Five Eyes” member which is in the thick of a damaging trade conflict with China.
“Should they insist on going down the wrong path, China will make firm, legitimate and necessary reactions,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin (汪文斌) told a regular news briefing on Nov. 13, referring to both countries.
Rogers, chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, which monitors threats to the territory’s basic freedoms, said that he in 2017 found himself on the wrong side of such actions.
He said that he wrote an article to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong that the Chinese embassy in London made clear it did not want to be published.
A British lawmaker contacted him before the piece was published on the Web site ConservativeHome to alert him about the lobbying effort, raising questions of how Chinese authorities knew the article was coming.
Rogers, a former Conservative candidate for the House of Commons, the lower house of the Parliament, was in October that year denied entry to Hong Kong.
His case is not unique: Nigel Evans, a Conservative lawmaker for almost 30 years who is now a deputy speaker of the House of Commons, is understood to have been denied a visa to enter China after visiting Taiwan as chairman of the British-Taiwanese All-Party Parliamentary Group.
In the past few years, Rogers said that he received anonymous threatening letters sent to his home address and to neighbors who were asked to “keep an eye” on him, as well as even to his mother.
He received e-mails along similar lines and said that fake e-mails were sent in his name to lawmakers and journalists. The harassment got so bad that a UK Cabinet minister raised the issue with intelligence services, a person familiar with the events said.
The aggressive form of “wolf warrior” diplomacy displayed during the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a reconsideration of the relationship in the UK, said Charles Parton, a former diplomat with more than two decades experience of China.
That change of heart also goes for those who advocate on Beijing’s behalf, Parton said.
“Whereas before it was completely open season, if you wished to make money and drown your conscience in silver, that was very easy to do because no one would hold you to account,” said Parton, a senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. “That is not the case anymore.”
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