Parliament’s China spying scandal breaks the bond of trust

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.

“Wherever I take this exhibition, they follow me“

A packed-out audience gathered at St John’s Church in Waterloo, London on Tuesday to see and hear an extraordinary night of talk, music and art aimed at showing how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) reaches beyond its borders to repress freedom of expression around the world.

Badiucao, the political cartoonist, artist and human rights activist who is a target of the CCP, was the main speaker and detailed how the CCP attempts to suppress his work abroad and the lengths they will go to.

Known as the Chinese Banksy, Badiucao was born into an artistic family in 1986. He explained he was told by his father at a young age that to be an artist in China is dangerous, and he would have to leave the country to pursue his career. He left in 2009.

‘Tell China’s Story Well’, by Badiucao

“I didn’t want to be silenced and devalued by this terrible regime, and the way to go forward was to make art they don’t believe in,” he said.

However, in 2018 an exhibition of his work in Hong Kong was cancelled by organisers after threats made by the Chinese authorities. After this, he also felt there was a lack of interest to show his work in Australia but blamed a strategy of the CCP for this.

“The Chinese government are very good at playing mind games”, he said. “They will use a tactic of accusing people and countries of being racist, of simply being anti-Chinese.”

Fresh from his exhibition in Warsaw in June, Badiucao said the pressure from China not to exhibit his work in Europe has so far been successfully fought against, but the pressure has been ramped up. He explained that in Warsaw, when the exhibition was announced, the Chinese Embassy visited the museum and demanded its cancellation.

Banned By Beijing exhibition

“Wherever I take this exhibition, they follow me,” he said. “It’s a warning to anybody wanting to host my show, that you must handle the pressure you’ll get. However, what the CCP is doing is raising the bar for my future work.”

Baudicau feels that as a dissident abroad his work means the CCP will eventually catch up with him. He said: “To me it’s no longer a yes or no. It’s just a case of when. But the more people join [protest the CCP], we can all share this big burden together.”

Music was provided by the London Silk Road Collective, who performed the diverse music traditions found along the ancient Silk Road route, connecting Europe, Central Asia and South East Asia, with a particular focus on songs (both melancholy and hopeful) from the Uyghur region. Its singer, Uyghur campaigner Rahima Mahmut, spoke about the personal effects of being a dissident abroad when she explained the anguish of her sister recently dying in China but being unable to contact her family due to the CCP.

The event also marked the opening of the Banned by Beijing art exhibition, aimed at highlighting transnational repression from China. Badiucao’s artwork featured, as well as works from husband-and-wife painting duo Lumli Lumlong and cartoonist and former secondary school visual arts teacher Vawongsir. The exhibition will run in the crypt of St John’s Church, Waterloo until 10 July 2023.

Junket journalism is taking off in China

Twenty-three years after writing his best known work, Red Star Over China, Edgar Snow returned to China in 1960 to investigate claims that a radical agrarian reform programme had resulted in devastating famine. “I diligently searched, without success, for starving people or beggars to photograph … I do not believe there is famine in China,” Snow wrote

Snow was wrong. The famine in China was both real and devastating. It is estimated as many as 30 million died in it. Snow’s bias lens had ghostly echoes with Walter Duranty’s reporting from Ukraine, during the Holodomor, the mass famines engineered by Stalin. Only when faced with overwhelming evidence did he eventually concede that the genocide occurred, “to put it brutally – you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs” he said.  

In information vacuums, common during times of conflict such as the civil conflict in Syria, as well as in areas controlled by authoritarian regimes, reporting from independent journalists can quickly define or redefine the public’s perception of a regime or situation. While journalists can play a powerful role in challenging censorship and propaganda from the state, they can also act as the state’s servants. Such was the case for both Snow and Duranty, whose rose-tinted views of the countries impacted global perceptions. Herein lies the point – those who claim to be independent reporters can be incredibly useful to the state, sometimes more so than those working within state media, because the notion that they are independent carries with it a level of authority and weight. 

The use of “junket journalism” to obscure reporting on crimes against humanity has only grown in prominence and sophistication. Nowhere has this been more evident than in China where the government has co-opted a range of journalists and social media influencers to help strengthen the CCP’s control over its narrative and obscure legitimate scrutiny of a number of important issues, most notably the genocide of the Uyghur population. Recent party documents and officials have emphasised the need to bolster the CCP political line, and inject positivity into the CCP and China’s image. Current President Xi Jinping said, “Wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their new tentacles”. 

A recent International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) survey confirmed that “China is conducting a media outreach campaign in almost every continent” with the 31 developed and 27 developing countries that participated in the survey similarly targeted. The researchers told the Guardian, “China is also wooing journalists from around the world with all-expenses-paid tours and, perhaps most ambitiously of all, free graduate degrees in communication, training scores of foreign reporters each year to ‘tell China’s story well’”. 

While many other countries, including established democracies, have sought to influence and shape independent reporting through tours, capacity building opportunities and other tactics, the CCP’s overt prioritisation of journalism that “depends upon a narrative discipline that precludes all but the party-approved version of events” raises significant concerns as to its intentions.

In this effort to shape global news, the CCP is advantaged by its huge pockets. It has spent around $6.6 billion since 2009 on strengthening its global media presence, supposedly investing over $2.8 billion alone in media and adverts. Sarah Cook, NED reporter and researcher, emphasised that “no country is immune”. 

This ambition is best summarised by the Belt and Road News Network (BRNN), which includes 182 media organisations from 86 countries as members, and a Council, which includes 26 countries, including Spain, France, Russia, Netherlands and the UK. The launch of the BRNN was announced in a paid advertorial in The Telegraph produced by People’s Daily. In September 2019, BRNN hosted a workshop for international journalists in Beijing as part of the 70th anniversary celebrations of the People’s Republic of China, which was organised in partnership with the State Council Information Office of China. It included a visit to the offices of People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency and other “central media units”, as well as trips to “Shaanxi, Zhejiang, Guizhou and Guangdong provinces for interviews and researches in order to personally experience China’s unremitting efforts and fruitful results in poverty alleviation, ecological civilization, big data industry, urban planning, and independent intellectual property rights.” 

While the workshop was attended by representatives from 46 mainstream media outlets from 26 Latin American and African countries, it would be overly simplistic to suggest that China is only focusing on countries from the global south. Since 2009, the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) has taken 127 US journalists from 40 US outlets to China. This foundation has been identified as working with China’s United Front as highlighted by US Senator Ted Cruz, in a letter to the President of the University of Texas at Austin, who stated that “[t]oday, CUSEF and the united front are the external face of the CCP’s internal authoritarianism”.

The IFJ report notes that “the Chinese Embassy has sought out journalists working for Islamic media, organising special media trips to showcase Xinjiang as a travel destination and an economic success story.” Xinjiang and the treatment of Uyghur communities is a prominent area in which the CCP has focused its efforts. After a visit to Xinjiang, Harald Brüning, author and director of the Macau Post Daily, stated that “the anti-China forces’ allegations of genocide are preposterous judging by what the Macao journalists, most of whom had not visited the region before, saw and heard in Xinjiang.” In his piece, Brüning did not disguise the genesis of his trip, exclaiming in the third paragraph “[t]he extraordinarily well-organised tour took place at the invitation of the Office of the Commissioner of the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China in the Macao Special Administrative Region.” The piece is heavily framed around rebutting existing reporting – labelled in the piece as lies – including the use of forced labour in the cotton fields of Xinjiang, as well as decrying the “brutality the religious extremists and separatists [have] resorted to”. 

However an all-expenses paid junket does not guarantee full control of a journalist’s coverage. Olsi Jazexhi (below), a Muslim Canadian-Albanian journalist and historian sought a way to travel to Xinjiang because he was sceptical of the dominant narrative in the West that Muslims were being oppressed in China. He approached the Chinese embassy in Albania who invited him on a trip to Xinjiang with other “China-friendly journalists”. Once in Xinjiang, Jazexhi was shocked by the detainees’ testimonies of having been jailed for simple expressions of their religious identity, such as reading the Quran or encouraging others to pray. In Urumqi, he was lectured by state officials who equated Islam with terrorism and was shocked by the number of empty mosques or those repurposed into stores. 

Olsi Jazexhi (right) listens to a handler during a tour of a mosque in Aksu city, Xinjiang in August 2019. Photo: Provided by Olsi Jazexhi

Other journalists who have tried to move away from the organised tours have faced a number of difficulties. When journalists have attempted to film camps that the government has not previously cleared for access, they have been turned away by local authorities. Road works or car crashes suddenly block their way and when the journalists attempt to return the next day, the roadworks suddenly reappear again. Members of a Reuters crew reported being tailed by a rotating cast of plain-clothed minders and “within an hour of the reporters leaving their hotel in the city of Kashgar through a back gate, barbed wire was erected across the exit and fire escapes on their floor were locked.”

While influencing journalists can sometimes be difficult, the expansion of blogging and social media influencing has opened up another avenue for state intervention. Travel vloggers who visit authoritarian countries say they just want to educate their viewers and avoid politics. Irish travel vlogger Janet Newenham told Al Jazeera after a controversial visit to Syria that “every country deserves to be shown in a different way and in a positive light even if most stuff about there has always been negative”. However, what can seem innocuous can take on more explicit political implications. “A lot of these vloggers are saying they’re apolitical in this and I’m sure that they are but the issue is, when you’re entering a conflict zone, your direct presence there becomes political,” researcher and adjunct professor, Sophie Kathyrn Fullerton told Al Jazeera. 

A similar trend is increasingly evident in China. “I’m here because lots of people, right now, outside of China, want to know what Xinjiang is like,” says British vlogger, The China Traveller, at the start of a video, which focuses on him sampling a variety of local food while Uyghur women appeared to spontaneously dance behind him. Videos of this genre can be seen as part of what has been labelled the CCP’s project to “Disneyfy” Xinjiang. Uyghur culture has been co-opted by the state and amplified as a tourist attraction to change the narrative and drown out reports of genocide against the Uyghur community. In another video, The China Traveller praises the central government for rebuilding sections of the city, while failing to address the government’s other influence on the Xinjiang skyline: the mass demolition of religious institutions. 

While Chinese culture is celebrated by The China Traveller and other vloggers in Xinjiang, French photographer Andrew Wack had a different experience when he returned to the region in 2019. Speaking to Wired a year after his trip, Wack commented on the stark absence of “men aged 20 to 60, many of whom had likely been rounded up and herded into indoctrination camps”. Throughout his visit, he was followed by plain-clothes police officers “and at checkpoints he was sometimes asked to show his photographs. On one occasion, he was asked to delete images”.

Many vloggers and journalists obscure any coordination or funding from Chinese bodies, or underplay how it may affect their coverage. Lee Barrett, a British vlogger, states in a video, “we go on some sponsored trips to places … our accommodation is paid for, our travel is paid for … nobody tells us what to say, nobody tells us what to film”. Due to the opaque nature of these relationships, it is impossible to interrogate the influence this type of support has on the vloggers’ reporting. However at times this veil is lifted. In a number of popular videos, minders sent by the Chinese state to monitor another vloggers’ trip can be clearly seen monitoring their behaviour.

When the BBC’s lead China reporter, John Sudworth, was invited into Xinjiang’s ‘re-education’ camps, he was presented with a highly choreographed and Disneyfied presentation of Xinjiang culture, which apparently even moved the Chinese officials accompanying the BBC crew to tears. However, Sudworth’s commitment to “peer beneath the official messaging and hold it up to as much scrutiny as we could” led him to scrutinise everything, including scraps of graffiti written in Uyghur and Chinese. This approach has had lasting consequences; he now reports on China from abroad, having had his visa revoked. 

In modern day China, independent reporting from foreigners is one of the few avenues left in order to scrutinise power beyond the dominant state narrative. However, through the funding and coordination of junkets, training opportunities and other tactics, the Chinese state has followed in the footsteps of Assad’s Syria to try and control the message these foreigners send out into the world. This turns the principles of journalism against itself and manipulates the free expression environment in favour of the state. 

Edgar Snow remains venerated in China. In 2021, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying proclaimed on Twitter: “China hopes to see and welcome more Edgar Snows of this new era among foreign journalists”. John Sudworth provides a powerful counterweight, reminding us that we must “peer beneath the official messaging and hold it up to as much scrutiny as we could”.

  • The authors approached The China Traveller and Lee Barrett for comment for this article. No response had been received by the time of going to press.