Sturgeon & Chinese Deputy Square

Have Chinese Whispers played the First Minster?

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IT’S NOT OFTEN that MI5 announces that there’s a spy in our midst, but that’s exactly what they have done with the disclosure that an alleged Chinese agent, lawyer Christine Ching Kui Lee, has successfully infiltrated UK politics.  Ms Lee apparently works closely with the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC). In October 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the CPAFFC had “sought to directly and malignly influence” state and local leaders to promote China’s global agenda.

After the claims about Ms Lee emerged, Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “I know it will be deeply concerning to many that an individual who has knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party has targeted parliamentarians.” She emphasised, however, the UK has “strong structures” in place to identify foreign interference and “where necessary, proportionate action is always taken to mitigate these threats, thanks to our world-leading intelligence and security agencies”.

Now the Scottish Daily Express has revealed that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also has ties to the CPAFFC, having visited China at their invitation on several occasions and even welcoming its Chinese vice-president to the Scottish Parliament. Alarmingly, Mr Pompeo had also said the organisation was “a Beijing-based organization tasked with co-opting sub-national governments”, one of which is, following devolution, the Scottish Government.

Clearly there are some questions here for the Scottish Government. If US Secretary Pompeo and UK Home Minister Patel have commented as they have publicly then I think we can safely assume that the CPAFFC has a dual mandate, at best. Some might be tempted to say that the Chinese may have found a useful idiot in Nicola Sturgeon and her SNP administration. In turn, they would have been flattered by the attention and the opportunity to once again present herself as a leader on the world stage.

In 2015, just months after she became First Minister, Sturgeon visited China as a guest of the CPAFFC and met Yang Jiech, the director of Beijing’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission. The following year, she hosted the CPAFFC’s vice-president Song Jingwu in her private office at the Scottish Parliament, where she thanked the organisation for all of its “hospitality and great support”.

She returned to China again in 2018, where she gave a speech at an event in Beijing hosted jointly by the CPAFFC and Unicef in which she reportedly said: “I’m delighted to speak once again at the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC). I am very grateful for everything this organisation does to strengthen the ties between our Scottish Affairs Office in Beijing, and the Chinese Government’s State Council – and I’m aware that that’s just one example of the good work you do to forge friendships with countries around the world.”

Now, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that she or the Scottish Government would have been necessarily aware that they were being played here, but it would appear to have been slightly naive in not questioning the real reason for Chinese interest in a small country off the north-western coast of Europe. In such lopsided relationships you must always ask what is in it for the other party. I really can’t see that trade could possibly be the main driver behind China’s interest in Scotland. Much more likely to my mind is that Scotland provides a weaker point of entry into the UK’s political institutions, and that anything that might facilitate the influencing or weakening of the UK state would be very much in China’s interests.

If we take a moment to examine what might be the strategic importance of Scotland, a number of answers present themselves as to why it might be so. There is no doubt that our geographic position astride the entrances/exits to the North Sea, North Atlantic, and Irish Sea is strategically important. We have, apparently, enough whisky in bond to pay off the UK’s National Debt, and of course there are the as yet unexploited gas and oil resources in our waters, although the SNP has now got itself in a bugger’s muddle over what to do with them thanks to their coalition with the Greens.

But what is in it for China? Why are they trying to get close to Scotland? It certainly isn’t because of any of the above, or indeed our shipbuilding, our Irn-Bru or our tourist attractions. When you peel away all the layers of the onion all roads lead to Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Clyde, home to the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Arguably it’s the only really important strategic thing about, and in, Scotland. If the Scottish Government hasn’t been aware of what has been going on then it has been very naïve indeed. It is because Scotland is seen as one of the weaker points of entry for interference in the UK state. Chinese influence within Scottish politics is bad news for the UK and good news for China.

Again, according to the Express, a Scottish Government spokeswoman has said: “We work with countries and institutions around the world to strengthen international relationships and to represent Scotland’s interests. As with all such relationships, we engage with Chinese stakeholders in a mature and conscious way.”

Do they? I have a very strong suspicion the Scottish Government has proved to be out of its depth again and again when attempting to participate in defence and foreign affairs, and this is yet another, although the most egregious, example. And how could it be otherwise? SNP politicians have virtually no experience in those particular fields, nor do they have the benefit of experienced civil service advice.

The First Minister and her government may have been played like a fiddle by the Chinese. Another lesson, perhaps, that their time would be better spent attending to Scotland’s domestic agenda rather than trying to emulate the international big boys on the world stage.

© Stuart Crawford 2022

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Photo of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong in Edinburgh, December 2017.

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