A significant number of allegations about China have surfaced recently, particularly since the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the Wuhan province of China (which was extremely close to the Wuhan Institute of Virology) leading to a variety of tenuous conspiracies. However, China’s slow response and apparent hesitation in releasing information about the outbreak was poorly received by the rest of the world to say the least, with President Trump calling what we now know as SARS COV 2, the ‘Chinese Virus’ and attacking WHO for being supposedly “China-centric”. These allegations, as well as those that have been made since, have led to a significant amount of suspicion towards China’s government objectives and scepticism as to how far they can be trusted.
Hopefully here, I am able to highlight some of the issues which seem to be passing under the radar. With China as the UK’s third largest trading partner, straining an already uneasy relationship may lead down a particularly bumpy road, as China/UK imports and exports alone account for around £80 billion per year. This places China in a very powerful bargaining position, seemingly unfazed by the possibility of sanctions for their alleged actions. The real question is, how powerful really is China? And how suspicious should we be?
One of the most well-known and ongoing issues is the dispute over Huawei and the company’s access to the UK’s upcoming 5G network. As a result of a historical joint investigation by a combined group of UK and US intelligence teams (under the NCSC), Huawei systems are no longer used in the more secure elements of British and American Intelligence agencies, following the discovery of significant security flaws built into Huawei’s systems.
This, combined with Huawei’s commitment to the objectives of the Chinese Government, forced the intelligence sector to question the security of the communication systems and eventually led to a movement away from Huawei’s technology. More recently, Boris Johnson announced that the UK 5G network would not be reliant upon Huawei systems (which historically have been used by a number of network providers). This echoes the US policy on Huawei, where they have targeted the company’s supply chain and encouraged other countries to end their use of Huawei’s communication systems. This all stems from the fear that Huawei may be party to state-sponsored Chinese intelligence gathering, despite Huawei’s inevitable denial of this claim.
Take from this what you will, but it appears that the Government, intelligence agencies and military alike do not want the possibility of Chinese access to their communications. Germany is the only country left to make a decision, and whilst Angela Merkel has already expressed a desire to maintain a strong relationship with China, the Chinese Ambassador to Germany has already threatened retaliation against German companies, should Huawei be excluded in the future. A difficult decision for the Chancellor, to say the least.
Now on to a far more distressing possibility; the disturbing truth about the treatment of China’s Uyghur population is steadily gaining airtime as more evidence comes to the fore. However, I believe that whilst this is an issue that doesn’t directly affect the UK, it’s the responsibility of the rest of the world to hold China accountable for their actions. In the North West of China lies the province of Xinjiang, home to the Uyghur people. The North-Western province shares a significant amount of its culture with bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Uyghur people are predominantly Muslim, and share far more of their cultural heritage with the nations surrounding them, than they do with the Chinese population to the South East.
As a result, there has always been tension in the area and a fear within the government of separatist groups, as part of Xinjiang have been identified as self-governing states twice in the last hundred years. For the Government, maintaining Chinese control of Xinjiang is vital, as it is an important trade route and resource rich area of China due to the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative. The Chinese government have been encouraging the Han Chinese to move north to Xinjiang. The percentage of the Han Chinese population has risen by over 30% since 1945, leading to riots in 2013 as a result of cultural and political differences. Following this violent period, the state cracked down entirely on the Uyghur population, essentially creating a police state where Uyghurs are forced to hand over their phones at checkpoints, while QR codes have been placed outside of Uyghur homes, which according to a state spokesperson, ‘help to control the population’.
By James Murtagh
Illustration: by Rachel Cottrell