This week it emerged that a British parliamentary researcher who worked closely with senior MPs, working on UK security issues, had been arrested for espionage on behalf of the Chinese state. While the allegations have been denied, the focus of the coverage this week has been largely on the implications for UK security and the acknowledgement of the threats of Chinese spying on UK institutions.
However, there are some other serious consequences. At Index, we have reported on the long-arm of Chinese repression and their targeting of dissidents abroad. Our Banned by Beijing reports have focused on the influence of the Chinese state in the academic sphere through Confucius Institutes and funding in UK universities. The threat to academic freedom is serious enough.
At Index, we rely on the testimonies of dissidents to expose what is happening in repressive regimes where dictators and tyrants oppress the media and their peoples in order to maintain tight control. We can only achieve this through close relationships based on trust. They have to be convinced that we will do everything we can to keep them safe and that by speaking to us their situation and that of their families will be protected. We take that responsibility very seriously.
Dissidents have to feel that they are safe to discuss their experiences with Parliamentarians and not worry about their reports getting back to any regime, including the Chinese state, they have to be assured that by speaking privately to decision makers they will not be endangering their families remaining in China.
Our Banned by Beijing reports have repeatedly exposed how the CCP has targeted the families of dissidents as a tool to try and coerce people into silence. Privacy and security is vital for many dissidents to feel comfortable explaining their experiences; but for that they need to trust us.
My fear is that this scandal will undermine information gathering as the trust between Parliament and Chinese dissidents will have been broken. And it isn’t just a matter for those of us who have an interest in the repression dished out by the CCP, it is also a matter of huge concern for those of us who want dissidents to feel safe, wherever they come from.
Dissidents who have fled their country to shine a light on repression have left their lives behind. They have made huge sacrifices in order to excise their freedom of speech. They have done it so that their voices can be heard and the tyrant that runs their country can be exposed. Historically the saftest place to do that has been the British Parliament – where MPs have privilege and use the stories of dissidents to challenge the status quo. By undermining this bond of trust those who spy for a despotic regime haven’t just undermine the cause of Chinese dissidents – they have undermined the cause of all dissidents.
That trust must be rebuilt as a matter of urgency.