British secret agency MI5’s recently warned about Chinese influence in the UK Parliament. Breathlessly reported across the media, it didn’t do what it was intended to – knocking the No10 partying off the top of the news agenda. And everyone in the media they all seemed to overlook the very obvious racist undertones of the warning.
All of the things listed in the report are regularly done by other governments. That’s not to say they’re right. But while the Tory-led government legislated in the 2010-15 term to curtail domestic charity intervention in politics they haven’t taken the chance to do the same for state actors or private companies.
So the Chinese influence on British politics described by MI5 – giving donations to MPs and having individuals of Chinese heritage working for an MP are entirely normal activities. As is funding All Party Parliamentary Groups, which exist for countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The donations could easily be outlawed, but no government has chosen to do that. The report is clear that the ‘wrongdoing’ is seeking influence, not acquiring secrets.
So why is it wrong for a person of Chinese heritage to do this?
It’s hard not to conclude that it is all based in a racist story from the late 19th century, often called the ‘Yellow Peril’ – where China was portrayed as a threat to European civilisation. You can see this in the creation of characters like Fu Manchu. Of course the reality was that China was, at the time, a country in decline. The suggestion that it was a threat to Europe was absurd. But as with many of these stories, it was the pretext for colonisation. The British inflicted a decisive defeat on the Chinese in the Opium Wars of the mid 19th Century, with Hong Kong and the right to sell hard drugs to China being just some of the outcomes.
The full colonisation of China didn’t happen because of the First World War. But the racist characterisation of Chinese people as ruthless and deviously seeking world domination survives.
On a day when Boris Johnson was in deep trouble, the decision to release a ‘warning’ based on racist tropes is as cynical as it is wrong. If you think funding MPs to the tune of £400k is wrong, I agree. But the way to stop that is not to demonise Chinese people, it’s to ban such donations.
We can expect plenty more of this racism though, as the UK struggles to find a place in the world. Without the ability to wage another Opium War, the British establishment is reduced to racist scaremongering about the ‘Yellow Peril’. It may seem silly, but will likely lead to more racism against people of Chinese heritage, at a time when that has been especially problematic.