My days as a Chinese spy
A mysterious 72 hours in Hong Kong for a lucrative lobbying job ended up being something much more sinister…
This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
It was early 2018 and despite the referendum victory, those of us who had been involved on the winning side were, in the main, finding it hard to secure gainful employment. So a promising message sent to my LinkedIn profile was manna from heaven. Or from Hong Kong, to be precise.
“Hi, my name is Kevin, and looking at your profile it is possible that some companies I work with might want to talk to you about using your services in London.”
Kevin was his English name. He did, once, tell me his Chinese name, but I will admit I have forgotten it. He said that he was representing some Chinese and Hong Kong firms and they were interested in employing me as a lobbyist in London.
Though wary of the power of China, I am in favour of trade, and of earning a decent crust. So I responded, and we struck up a conversation. He didn’t specify the industry, but the skills required are not sector-specific, so no bells rang.
He asked me for an idea of my contact network, which after nine years working around Whitehall and the lobby — and drinking in its varied hostelries — was, at least at that time, second to few.
The conversation continued and, by 11 April, I was flying to Hong Kong to meet the prospective clients — flight and bed and board all covered. Seeing as it was clearly too good to be true, I had mentioned it to a couple of friends before I left: “I do hope it’s a honeytrap.”
“No chance, it’ll be a powerlifter.”
At 11.20pm I arrived, somewhat shattered, at the Harbour Grand on North Point on Hong Kong island. It was one of those 5-star shining towers of steel and glass that look across to Kowloon. Waiting for me at reception was Kevin, a young chap, 20s, very good English, smartly but casually dressed in the international style of the young exec. Tieless, manicured and hyperclean. With him was a colleague, I forget her name, but I think it was Sandra. They seemed so, well, ordinary.
At this point I still believed that I was there for commercial purposes
I dropped off my bag in my room, harbour view, then went up for a quick G&T in the 188 rooftop bar. I was a shadowy background extra from Lost in Translation. In subtle booths, behind shimmering vertical decor, middle-aged Caucasians and local girls were deep in conversation. But what I thought was to be a quick “hail-fellow-well-met” stretched through until past two in the morning — by which time my brain was slowly confusing itself with the olives in the very dry martinis.
We were talking again, about contacts and political developments in London. Well, they were asking questions and I was fending them off with mouthfuls of choice wasabi popped corn and regular liquid replenishment. Upon, at last, parting, we had agreed to meet, downstairs bushy-eyed and tailed at 7.30am, for a day of meetings.
I popped outside for a cig, which was the moment that Carole Cadwalladr decided to call and quiz me about something or other relating to the referendum, Aaron Banks and Cambridge Analytica. My words appeared in the following weekend’s Observer, twisted and ill-quoted. Oddly enough she refused to take my calls when I tried to complain, but by then she already had Banks’s briefs breathing down her neck and I just couldn’t be bothered to take it further. I wandered into a dive bar, shared a beer and whisky with an American trade lawyer and a couple of local girls, and sidled back to the luxury lap of blankness.
I was ready — really fully ready — to go at 7.30am. There was Kevin, spruce, and Sandra, as healthy as a preppy college kid. We walked a couple of hundred yards to the not-quite-as-exclusive City Gardens hotel on the Electric Road. The lobby was a bustle of bright uniforms and flowers moving like Dunsinane Hill. Up to the eighth floor and into a small two-bed suite. I recalled a spooky friend telling me before I went, “don’t have meetings in hotel rooms. Never have meetings in hotel rooms”.
It was too late. Anyhow at this point I still believed that I was there for commercial purposes. This was to be the base for the next three days of what came to be constant, 8 ’til 8 interrogation, interspersed by the most phenomenal food. Sandra seemed to be there solely as a secretary, and a booker of restaurants. At one point she showed me a series of photos taken on an extended study trip to the UK, Oxford, London sights and bright smiles. “Look, there’s me, on Westminster Bridge, in front of the Tower, the Sheldonian, Stonehenge.”
She was there to be nice. It was also clear that she loved the job. She was getting to eat at places that she had only read about.
I was being recruited with spreadsheets, smiles and sushi
Lunch on day one was at Tim Wo Han, a Michelin-starred dim sum place with tiny plates packed with joyous packages of umami slippery wonder. Then after six more hours talking about the Belt and Road Initiative and British attitudes and the approach of individual ministers and civil servants’ views on it, we were off to Pho Nhat, an excellent noodly Vietnamese place, all lotus flowers and steaming piles of pho beef.
I walked home along the shoreline and contemplated Kowloon with the growing feeling that, despite my entreaties, I was not actually going to meet any company. “Yes, yes tomorrow,” swore Kevin over dinner and a few beers. “Yes, you will meet them tomorrow.”
Of course, come tomorrow it was the same, early morning, long, long hours of detail followed by superb food. Followed by more of the same. But no commercial contacts at all. It was clear what was going on.
I was being recruited, with spreadsheets, smiles and sushi. Kevin and Sandra remained charming and civil, but there was insistence behind the masks (though Sandra did excel herself: can I suggest you try the baby oyster porridge at Chiu Chow Delicacies? It’s to die for).
On the final day they were nervous, properly nervous. Back to the City Gardens early and we were meeting a man who was not introduced, but I was told he was the European advisor to President Xi Jinping, and had flown in from Beijing to meet me. But first I was told that my phone had to be put in the other room.
He sat there, speaking in short, staccato bursts and everything was done through translation — though it was clear he could understand every word.
Now we were getting to what they were after. Who did I know in Number 10? In the Department of Trade? In the Department of Business? Could I get documents before they were published officially?
Vainly, I tried to point out that I was happy to facilitate trade and Chinese companies working in, and with, the UK, and that I was sure I could relate gossip. But I was most certainly not in the business of procuring official documents about the relationship before publication. I wouldn’t know how even if I had wanted to. And I certainly didn’t want to.
I suppose I came across as someone protesting too much. After all, to them I must have looked like I was in the position of someone who had agreed to stray for a million, so why was I quibbling at the price?
But the atmosphere had become rather threatening, and yes, I was still in that ill-advised hotel room. Unlike a tabloid journalist, at this point I could not make my excuses and leave. I was on their territory. And it was clear this chap, from what I later divined was the United Front Work Department, could make things happen. Exactly what things I didn’t know, but Kevin’s jumpiness was infectious.
After four hours of this, with increasingly blunt requirements that I perform clear espionage, the senior gentleman left. The mood lightened.
Oh yes, I would be paid, yes, no problem. Given my parlous finances, it would make a healthy addition to mitigate my own poor life choices. Yes, Kevin understood that I wouldn’t break the law. “I’m a patriot, dammit. You wouldn’t do things like that for the UK, so don’t expect me to for China.” “Oh don’t worry,” he responded. “Write some reports on people and things. We will pay you. Just one or two a month. I will send the requests, but I understand your personal limits.”
Then it got even odder. “Q”-style odd. First, he gave me, as thanks, a couple of Beats headphones for my children, and a top of the range Huawei phone. He started referring to my Insta page and my love of photography; he liked photos too. Then he showed me, using some software uploaded to the phone, how to insert a document into the data of the photograph, which I could upload to Insta, and which, of course, he could then download.
I was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. I still have it, rather nervously scrawled and illegibly signed.
I shall have to find baby oyster porridge elsewhere
That evening, I went back to the hotel in a bit of a funk. The next morning Kevin arrived at reception as I was booking out and, again encouraging me to write some innocuous reports, handed me a file. In it was an envelope stuffed with 6,000 euros in used notes, and plans for me to return, but this time to Macau and mainland China in six months. Maybe then there would be the honeytrap?
I turned the phone off as I got onto the plane. When I got home, I paid off some debts, and left the phone, which was never turned on again, in a drawer. I told a friend at the Foreign Office about the whole affair. Nothing came of it.
Kevin stopped begging for reports after a couple of months. Sadly, however, I fear that I shall not be travelling back to Hong Kong ever again. I shall have to find baby oyster porridge elsewhere.
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