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Chinese whispers

Oliver Dowden’s tough talk on Chinese hacking is less than wholly convincing

“Members of this House should take this matter very seriously,” Oliver Dowden told the Commons, in quite his gravest voice. It would have been more impressive were it not that Dowden’s gravest voice is roughly at the pitch of someone else stubbing their toe. He could announce nuclear war and it would sound petulant. 

He was briefing us on the Hugely Important Matter Of The Chinese Hacking Of Our Democracy. MPs needed no urging to be concerned about this. Tory grandees had turned out in force, led by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who sees himself as locked in a personal struggle with Beijing. He had earlier called a press conference to reveal that he had been the target of the Chinese state. This turned out to mean that he’d received emails from someone pretending to be the security minister, Tom Tugendhat. Duncan Smith had rumbled these as false, presumably because they didn’t mention the sender’s service in Afghanistan in the first sentence.

Duncan Smith sat a couple of rows behind Dowden, glowering and visibly grinding his teeth. Take it seriously? He’s ready to send a gunboat. Indeed his complaint was that the government wasn’t taking it seriously enough. 

Had they hacked the Bank of England? Stolen the formula for Walkers Salt and Vinegar crisps?

Dowden, who due to a series of resignations and a shortage of cast members is apparently the Deputy Prime Minister, was doing his best to sound tough. There had been “malicious cyber activity”, he said, “by actors that we assess are affiliated to the Chinese state”. Had they hacked the Bank of England? Stolen the formula for Walkers Salt and Vinegar crisps? Changed the winner of the Grand National? 

Not exactly. The hacking, Dowden sensationally revealed, had taken place in 2021 and 2022. First, they had broken into the Electoral Commission. That sounded serious until you learned that the main thing they got was access to the publicly available electoral register. And the second incident? A mysterious collective called “APT31” had… sent emails to MPs that had been caught by Parliament’s spam filter. 

Well. Cybersecurity is a serious business, as anyone familiar with the catastrophic hacking of the British Library knows. Nevertheless, it was hard to escape the thought that if all Chinese intelligence is doing is pretending to be Rishi Sunak and emailing MPs asking for help moving an inheritance into the country, this was a Parliamentary statement that could have been a memo.

Perhaps if you’re sitting on the other side of the Great Firewall, the Electoral Commission looked like a plausible target. One imagines the delight of the hackers at breaking in, and looking for the button that in China would allow the government to announce how many votes it has received. What a disappointment to find only emails discussing whether to fine the Labour Party £250 for late reporting of donations.

Still, this is not the sort of thing that states ought to be doing. It’s certainly the sort of thing that MPs don’t think should be happening to them. So Dowden had come to announce that sanctions were being applied to a grand total of two people. 

If he expected his audience to be impressed, he was in for a disappointment. As he spoke, Tim Loughton gestured in frustrated bafflement at the paucity of the measures. So vigorous were Loughton’s arm movements that they risked disturbing his neighbour James Gray, who was listening intently with his eyes closed, swaying backwards in his seat with concentration. Called to respond, Duncan Smith compared the statement to “an elephant giving birth to a mouse”.

And they were the Conservatives, the ones who were supposed to be on Dowden’s side. On the opposition benches, there was outright scorn. “Is that it?” asked Labour’s Kevan Jones. The SNP’s Stewart McDonald said Dowden had “turned up at a gunfight with a wooden spoon”.

It was a bad day for the deputy prime minister. His claim that he had no idea how newspapers had been so extensively briefed on his statement was greeted with outright laughter. His insistence that the government had explained everything it needed to about new Foreign Secretary David Cameron’s business dealings with China didn’t seem to have convinced anyone. Having arrived intending to sound tough, Dowden found the consensus was that he was a wuss. By the end of the session, he was positively snippy. 

It was a “complex situation,” he told Suella Braverman. But MPs, he said, should “be in no doubt” about “how gravely we take this”. That, unfortunately, was the problem. MPs thought they knew how seriously the government was taking it, and that China would, as well. 

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