Setting the record straight on my work on East-West relations
By Lord Wei of Shoreditch on 31 July 2022
The following statement is in response to allegations relating to my past work on UK-China relations. In short, it accuses me of having met with Chinese people and organisations, which being from a Chinese background, I am likely to do and have done, some of which may have had links with the United Front and the Chinese government - which is quite likely to happen if you meet people with an official status from mainland China. My interest has always been to foster peace and build bridges between East and West, and in no way to endorse the CCP through such meetings, though with increasing persecution and clampdowns in China and then the global pandemic my work in this domain effectively ceased about five years ago. After that my focus became that of supporting migrants and the East Asian community in the HK, including those arriving as BNO passport holders from Hong Kong where my own family is from - at great risk I might add to my own relatives still living there, given how such work would be viewed by authorities in the city and beyond it...
As we enter a new phase under a new Prime Minister and administration, it is clear that relations between the UK and China are going to continue to come under huge strain. There are many questions being asked about those of us who in the past have sought to create dialogue between the two nations, given natural concerns arising from Russia's antagonism towards the West and China's increasing clampdown on freedoms internally and wolf warrior diplomacy abroad. It is clear that our stance towards the CCP will have to become more firm and robust, whilst still showing solidarity with ordinary Chinese people.
Over the recent years I have not sought to wade in or give an account of my actions in this domain, despite rising sinophobia directed towards many of us here in the UK and globally who often get confused with those who might be acting on behalf of the CCP sometimes just because of the way we look (at times especially at the beginning of Covid you just had to be East Asian to be a target of animosity), and amidst rising suspicion in Westminster. It felt better to let sleeping dogs lie and in any case I had moved on from my work on East-West relations over the last 5 years.
But it seems a young disillusioned graduate has written a lengthy "dossier" on me based largely on my own register of interests insinuating links with the CCP, from an organisation I've never heard of on a website that gives no physical contact addresses and does not itself highlight who funds it or governs it - which itself is pretty suspicious in my view. Much of the content is based on clever juxtaposition, essentially saying because I had contact with people who were either Chinese, or representatives of the Chinese government, or involved in UK organisations who were keen on fostering relations with China, some of whom being members of United Front, that somehow I was seeking to promote Chinese political and commercial interests on behalf of the CCP via the United Front. Such a narrative borders on defamatory and in no way reflects the truth of what happened.
In light of this, and given rising tensions, I therefore think it right that I set the record straight and then let readers, and the public make up their own minds. The truth is much more prosaic than any concocted conspiracy theory shared on twitter by trolls would have you believe. I, having been born in Britain, son of a pastor who himself had to leave Hong Kong as a teenager to seek refuge from maoist activists who were destabilising the colony in the 1960s, did not really have much to do with China at all growing up. People at school would mention my Chineseness, not always in the most complimentary way, but to me and my family integrating into Britain took priority.
I then embarked as many British Chinese do on a career in business via management consultancy, and then entrepreneurship, and then pivoted into social impact especially in relation to education, helping to set up the charity Teach First, and then many others, before connecting with the former Prime Minister when he was in opposition, David Cameron. He then asked me to develop what has become our National Citizenship Service programme. All this was way before entering Parliament took place. And it took a year for me to enter the Lords between first being invited and then arriving, due to Gordon Brown sitting on the nominations list, during which time the intelligence services went through all my background as is standard practice for all appointees, and monitored all my communications to verify my suitability. I then entered as a life peer, and gave my solemn oath to our sovereign to loyally serve this great country of ours which I still do to this day and will seek to do until I die.
In government, the nature of being in coalition meant my role as an advisor had to be unpaid, and with a young family this ended up being untenable, since unlike many who enter politics, I did not have great wealth (and still do not), and have had to work alongside my duties in the Lords to earn a living, all of which I refer to in my Lords register of interests. After resigning and taking some time out, others around me suggested I do more on China, given my heritage and being the only one from that background at the time in Parliament. It felt inevitable that I would need to learn more about what China was doing, and the Chinese community in Britain needed representation, and so I embarked on what become a bit of a journey of discovery.
Xuelin Bates (then known to me as Xuelin Black) was recommended as someone to speak with, and I asked her to help me plan a first fact-finding trip, which she did, and subsequently she became an advisor on China. Looking back appointing her was a mistake, not because I think she is or was necessarily working for the Chinese government, but because she was so keen to build up relations and her enthusiasm at times meant she did not always consider the way in which her actions and motives might be interpreted or even misinterpreted. This came to a head when a documentary about ABP surfaced insinuating that I had in played a role in promoting it with UK decision-makers, which I did not, having simply visited to find out what it was about, with any assistance for travel transparently recorded. At the time we were working hard to build up economic ties between the UK and China, not for any ulterior reason but because we thought it could help create jobs, grow our economy, and open new ways to dialogue and bring about change as more Chinese people saw what a democracy like Britain was like.
Already a few years before the documentary I had decided enough was enough and stopped working with Xuelin who became Lady Bates who went on to marry another peer, whose husband I am sure the intelligence services would have spoken to quietly if they felt she was truly working against our nation's interests, before they got married. When she was invited to join the board of the Conservative Friends of the Chinese, an organisation established by its current Chair who is a member of the 1922 Committee, as part of efforts to support British Chinese who aspired to enter politics, and help aid our party in better understanding China, I decided to step down as Co-Chair knowing her involvement would attract undue attention and distract from the good and honest work the organisation was doing to get more Chinese who had settled in Britain to vote Tory!
In the speech I gave on the Chinese Dream, I actually spoke about the need for a peaceful China as it rose in prominence, one that could connect with the world as America has done through products and services that might speak to universal values. Just as we buy American products that speak of the value of freedom, from cars to smartphones, and dream of white picket fences, I suggested that people might understand Chinese culture more if there were products that could tell the story of our love for family, desire to have more harmony with nature (many Chinese do, even if this is not always realised on the ground by industry in China), and inventiveness (Chinese historically did invent a lot of things that have benefited the world). This is a far cry from the Chinese Dream that the current President went on afterwards to articulate, one focused more on his domestic audience, about a strong nation emerging on the world stage and no longer subject to foreign domination as China was in the 19th century.
In relation to the Diaspora initiative it was genuinely an attempt to encourage more young British Chinese to play a more active role in UK society, giving back, and serving, and learning how the system works, since there are so few of us whether in politics, or many other spheres commercially or in the media, which at times can lead to a lack of representation, and in how we get portrayed in the media, in decision-making fora, and online.
In relation to mandarin lessons, I did like many others seek to learn what is a tough language to master, just as many overseas counterparts do through organisations the UK runs abroad through the British Council, and these have all been transparently listed in my register of interests. In the end my other commitments meant I was not able to follow through with lessons and so these stopped after a number of months. At no point did I discern any attempt to use the lessons I had been given to gain any favours or communicate any messages about China or the CCP.
I have also historically carried out both private and commercial trips which I have paid for myself or conducted in relation to my own work going to Hong Kong and China, and where these coincided with opportunities to visit new cities and learn more about them through local organisations, I would set aside time on my private trips to do so. In most cases this involved helping bring British firms to China to help them expand. This would account for any instances where such trips were not listed on my register, and in any event when I did have such meetings I did so not on behalf of Parliament but in my own capacity as an individual.
In China it is hard not to visit any government or even business association without it in some way being linked to the CCP, whose presence is everywhere. My overriding aim however was that the links we might foster would enable dialogue to happen that would help China embrace our values, open up further through trade, and evolve towards a model that respects human rights and freedom of speech. If looking back some might say that CCP/United Front was using us to make friends in the West, many of us would say we have been trying to go the other way and bring benign positive Western influence to the East. In any case as things became stricter in China and as reports of human rights abuses surfaced I decided to stop going a number of years before the first covid lockdown in 2020 and have not been back since.
On the Hong Kong Welcoming Committee front, I originally did not even want to be involved since I still have relatives in Hong Kong (who we have not been able to even see for over 3 years now due to the extensive quarantine requirements to enter the city) and any perceived involvement I might have in the politics there these days given the National Security law there might either endanger family there or mean we might not be allowed in to visit them. However when the news came out of the BNO route opening and with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of people coming and possibly overwhelming our communities and public services, I accepted Dan Korski's invitation, who has become a dear friend, who chairs the Hong Kong Welcoming Committee, to chair a few initial meetings of an informal Forum within it established to help coordinate the extensive efforts to make sure the new arrivals are well looked after, welcomed locally, and able to start a new life safely and without fear. I fought to keep many of the fora anonymous and private so if people had concerns about keeping a low profile they could do so. It saddens me that some of those involved or observing from the sidelines are so paranoid that they would accuse members of the British Chinese community who actually genuinely want to help, of working for the other side. My argument throughout has been that Britain offers freedom, and those who come here should embrace that freedom by fighting for the tolerance of different viewpoints and perspectives that they might not have felt they experienced back at home. British Chinese on the whole want to get on with their lives, make a living, and play a positive role in society. The last thing most want to do is grass on a fellow migrant.
All this is now water under the bridge. The reality is that on both sides walls are being erected, and the prospect of peace grows dimmer by the day as anti-foreign rhetoric and fear rises, stoked up by those who never wanted relations in the first place (many curiously in the UK from Catholic backgrounds, no doubt understandably because of the persecution Catholics have faced in China in the past - although speaking as a Protestant myself we have experienced quite a bit of it as well ourselves, especially recently). As I mentioned in a speech I gave in the Lords a few years ago, I was wrong to hope that engagement could lead to peace, though looking back I think we had to try and there are many who still desire it, and attempts to mediate through greater links and trade have failed. We need to live in a new reality now in which care and attention must be focused on preserving security, but at the same time recognise that our supply chains and the wellbeing of our citizens economically is linked and it will take a long time to unravel and partly reshore manufacturing ties that have built up over decades.
So to conclude, to those who would seek to throw stones and concoct narratives designed to injure those of us who genuinely sought to bring about positive relations, there are a number of questions that I feel they and we all need to ask. First of all, who is behind this anti-Chinese sentiment, who is funding them, and what is their real agenda? I'm not saying that there is not good reason these days to be super cautious about dealing with China and by extension the CCP, but some transparency on behalf of those who want us to decouple and ultimately wage war with China is needed. What is in it for them, we should be asking? Secondly, if there was any subterfuge on my part or those who have helped me, why did we do it so transparently and so openly, declaring everything that happened? Wouldn't the simpler answer be that we genuinely wanted to build bridges, and the CCP is literally everywhere so any visit or meeting we had would have involved ultimately the Chinese government, but that we thought it was a price worth paying to try and bring the two sides together for the benefit of ordinary citizens? Thirdly, how in the midst of a global cost of living crisis are we looking after people whilst we engage in this era of increased antagonism and tension - whether those in China and Hong Kong trying to survive and get in with life, or those of us here in the UK originally from Chinese backgrounds seeking to play our part here, or those in the mainstream who feel left behind by globalisation who might benefit from the work of organisations like the Manchester China Forum seeking to create more opportunity in places like the Red Wall?
As we pivot in our relations with China we need to both maintain our values and champion those caught in the crossfire, and make sure we do not cause collateral damage by accusing our own and those who might follow a different approach, of somehow not being patriotic or working for the other side. That's not how a free society works. It's actually how a fascist society works. In seeking to call out injustice in the world we need to be careful not ourselves to become a source of injustice, policing thought and action to such a degree that we become the very thing we seek to critique over time as our vision narrows and we dehumanise those who are different from us or who take a different approach. Let's hope our new leaders and government, and our media, and those on all sides of this debate, remember that. For all our sakes.