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Artillery Row

Espionage and the presumption of innocence

Even alleged Chinese spies are innocent till proven guilty

I dislike “just asking questions” journalism. It can often act as a cover for the hot-take kind of commentary by which a writer leads their audience to conclusions that they refuse to themselves endorse. All commentators are hypocrites, however, so I’m going to succumb to that urge here because I think that there are some glaring questions not yet being asked around this case, and because as usual, real analysis is giving way to the breathlessness of outraged MPs and Westminster drama. Readers unfamiliar with the case can read about it here

The Times have broken ranks and been, so far, the only outlet to name the accused spy. I’ve chosen not to — and I’ll substitute X instead. It was fairly simple to figure out in the first place if you know a little about the China watching community in Westminster. I am not part of it although I know some of the people involved. I have also not met the accused spy but I know a few who know him well. 

As Cindy Yu of the Spectator noted, it is a small community. Many of the figures within it are young researchers, like the man accused, who coalesce at monthly drinks in Whitehall. X was very much a part of this community.

 Luke De Pulford, director of the InterParliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) has been one of the loudest — but not isolated — voices in his criticism of X. He and others argue that X muddied the water on the China question, keeping it bogged down with questions on “nuance”. Yet, his conclusions on X are out of step with the evidence. His Twitter thread stated that X “made my job harder. He *hated* @IPACGlobal and worked to cleave people away from the IPAC Network and that He briefed very strongly against the some [sic] politicians in our network, and against me personally.” Another anonymous source who shares De Pulford’s view told the Sunday Times that X “turned some backbenchers from China hawks into being apathetic about Beijing.”

It will come as little surprise to many readers that Parliament, especially the think-tank world, is like that. It doesn’t take the malign influence of hostile states to encourage young researchers out to make a name for themselves to criticise rival organisations, or capitalise on MPs known for slipping up. Patrick Wintour at the Guardian has written on the internal debate with the Conservatives, and rivalry between IPAC and the China Research Group (CRG), which X was part of.

De Pulford’s criticism of X includes words there is no record of him having said, suggesting he equivocated on Xinjiang. Yet X is on record in a writing and speaking on those abuses. In the podcast episode I write about shortly he makes comparisons between Xinjiang and the Holocaust, a comparison that many would shy away from, not least one trying to equivocate on China’s abuses.

In other places he describes how those abuses by China in Xinjiang resulted in a cooling of the UK-China relationship, and that we are seeing “an increasingly assertive, risk-tolerant Chinese Communist Party”.

In the absence of his ability to defend them — and the deletion of his Twitter account — there is some extent to which De Pulford and others appear to be re-writing his views, and casting the CRG more broadly as soft on China. Take the aforementioned PoliticsHome podcast episode, released in March, where X is introduced as part of the CRG with the presenter describing them as “seen as being more hawkish than other groups”. X elaborates on other key issues, going further than the UK Government in suggesting that the UK is out of step with its allies, the EU, the US, and Australia, by not banning TikTok use among Government staff, that TikTok’s executives gave misleading evidence to Select Committees, and that there is a real risk of misleading information being given out by a TikTok algorithm controlled by China. 

A report authored by X and their colleague at the CRG describes the “brutal stifling of ‘one country two systems’ in Hong Kong”, an “increasingly aggressive approach” from China, a “provocative speech” by Xi, “more and more credible evidence” of “mass internment, forced labour and forced sterilisation…rape and extensive surveillance of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities….a human rights crackdown that is unlikely to subside”.

the idea that he was taking a pro-China position is impossible to sustain

I could go on about X’s own public statements but I think I have already laboured the point. My research implies that some of X’s less critical statements have been deleted. Yet, the idea that he was taking a pro-China position is impossible to sustain. 

One point put to me is that X made one point publicly, and a very different one privately. It is possible — I’ve never met him. But sources who know him well dispute this suggestion, as does Cindy Yu who has done so on Newsnight when asked whether he was using his position to influence those around him to take a softer line on China.

But if we assume for a moment, that was his intention, we should ask, where is the evidence of it?

Suspicion inevitably falls on Alicia Kearns, the MP who sponsored his Parliamentary pass, which did not afford him access to secret documents. Nadine Dorries has used the time freed up in her diary to accuse Kearns of lacking awareness of the danger of China, and highlighted X’s role on her team campaigning to be chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

That campaign was fought against IPAC-backed Iain Duncan Smith, and Kearns was a surprise victor for many. Yet it seems impossible to come to the conclusion that China saw a sympathetic figure in her or that she has moderated her position on China because of X’s role on her staff, either influencing her views or because he ghost-wrote speeches or articles, as mooted in Conservative Home. 

In that campaign Kearns’ committed to putting “countering hostile state threats at the centre of our policy”, highlighting her successful campaign (that X was involved in at the CRG) to weaken Chinese soft power by requiring Confucius Institutes in the UK to declare their funding. 

Here’s Alicia Kearns talking at a Policy Exchange event in March before X was arrested:

We have wasted too much time debating the language of whether or not China is a threat, instead of taking the actions we need to keep ourselves safe. 

Kearns noted a little later that month that what we needed was “deeds not words” and that the integrated review did not go far enough. In December last year, with X very much in the job, she was adamant that Chinese diplomats involved in violence against protesters in the UK were “cowards” who were “making clear their guilt and denying justice to those protesters grievously assaulted”.

I wrote at the start of this about my disdain for writers asking questions but refusing to endorse their conclusions. In an attempt to avoid that I’ll suggest some here.

The first is that readers retain healthy scepticism towards the premise that X was involved in influence operations in the UK. There has been a lot of focus on his Parliamentary role. Yet, the implication that he was tasked was to interfere in and subvert democracy is inconsistent with the available evidence which shows relatively hawkish views on China, consistent with many independent voices in Parliament.

Indeed, the story of an outwardly hawkish advisor secretly working for the very foreign government he is criticising would be a far more interesting story than the one Westminster media is currently presenting. If X has been involved in espionage, it does not appear to be in promoting pro-China views, or for swaying Alicia Kearns or Tom Tugendhat.

The second is that readers avoid falling into the Westminster trap, substituting personal enmity for that evidence, and avoid giving any attention to school leavers’ diary or dating story nonsense. 

And thirdly, readers should ask themselves, as some online are beginning to, why did this information, and X’s name leak this week, some six months after his arrest? Who stood to gain from that happening? 

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