The Spectator's Notes

Now Gladstone must fall?

11 July 2020

9:00 AM

11 July 2020

9:00 AM

There are far more Chinese students in British universities than there are from the entire Commonwealth. Many universities have been accused of indulging the Chinese regime in return for the students and the money. Now that Beijing has imposed its draconian security law upon Hong Kong, will Hong Kong students in British universities be safe to return in October? Beijing now seeks to control them. What assurances can British universities give Hong Kong students that it will protect them from intimidation from fellow students acting on the orders of the Chinese embassy in London? The new law claims the right to punish Hong Kong people for offences committed anywhere in the world. Will our universities protect such students? Will they restrain bodies like the China Centre at Jesus College, Cambridge, when it repeats lines from the Chinese Communist party which runs all Chinese universities? Cambridge (and others) fell for Chinese ‘soft power’. How will it behave as that power turns rock hard?

Last month, Dr Priyamvada Gopal, of Churchill College in the same university, tweeted ‘White Lives Don’t Matter’. She was abused online and received threats of violence. Cambridge issued a statement: ‘The university defends the right of its academics to express their own lawful opinions, which others might find controversial… [It] deplores in the strongest terms abuse and personal attacks.’ Dr Gopal was promptly promoted to a professorship. Perhaps professorial chairs should not be handed out as prizes because the person promoted has expressed apparently racist sentiments, but the university was surely correct to defend Dr Gopal’s free-speech rights. So it should protest when the universities with which it associates infringe those rights themselves. This week, Xu Zhangrun was detained (after a year’s house arrest) for criticising the ‘personality cult’ of Xi Jinping. He is the author of the most famous dissenting essay in China during the Covid crisis, ‘When Fury Overcomes Fear’. Last year, the Communist party authorities at Tsinghua University stripped Mr Zhangrun of his professorship there. At Jesus College, the UK/China Global Issues Dialogue Centre works in partnership with Tsinghua University. Jesus and, so far as I know, Cambridge have never stood up for the free-speech rights of Mr Zhangrun.

There should be more publicity for Monday’s Ofcom finding against CGTN, the Chinese Communist equivalent of Russia Today. The channel broadcast, as Ofcom put it, ‘a news programme which reported on the arrest of [Peter] Humphrey [an investigator and former Reuters journalist], and included footage of him appearing to confess to a criminal offence. It then broadcast a follow-up report … which reported on Mr Humphrey’s subsequent conviction and included footage of him apologising for having committed the offence’. A voiceover translation of Mr Humphrey’s own words said he had ‘obtained personal information by illegal means. I regret what I did and apologise to the Chinese government’. CGTN did not explain that his confessions had been obtained and filmed under what is politely called duress, or that the questions filmed were asked by police officers, not journalists. Ofcom found Mr Humphrey’s privacy had been infringed and he had been subjected to ‘unjust or unfair treatment’: ‘serious’ breaches of its code. CGTN may be banned from British airwaves. Expect retaliation against British media in China. Is it fear of this which has made the BBC so feeble in its pursuit of the origin of the coronavirus?

Earlier this year, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The China Journals were published, skilfully edited by Richard Davenport-Hines (see Notes, 23 May). Disillusioned by the dismal propaganda tour laid on for him by the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) in 1965, Trevor-Roper investigated and exposed it as a Chinese Communist party front organisation. He traced its funds to a secretly Communist business group called the British Committee for the Promotion of International Trade. A leading light was Jack Perry, one of the ‘48 Group’ of businessmen who flouted the trade embargo against China in 1954. Fascinatingly, despite post-Mao ‘national rejuvenation’, the 48 Group has never gone away. A new book (Hidden Hand) reveals the same dear old methods. The group toes the Chinese Communist party line, but loves to claim as its own famous people who have addressed one of its meetings or dinners, such as Tony Blair, George Osborne, Peter Mandelson and Alex Salmond. Despite the Marxism, the group has a hereditary element. Jack Perry’s son Stephen runs it nowadays. His son, also Jack, heads its youth movement, Young Icebreakers, which was addressed on its fifth anniversary by (Lord) Jim O’Neill, chairman of Chatham House. Fascinating, the continuity of China’s manipulation and our gullibility.

How telly works. I received an email from a television company making a series about ‘protests that changed the world’. Would I take part, as Mrs Thatcher’s biographer, to talk about the 1984-85 miners’ strike? Thanking them, I replied two days later: ‘My interest would depend on the line of the programme. In my view, the protests did not change the world. They failed. What changed the world was that Mrs Thatcher won the contest… I would be interested in saying this, but not as the “token” opponent of everyone else on a programme designed to show the opposite.’ Four days after that came the reply. ‘As it stands we will have to put this on hold, we have booked up all our interview slots for this episode currently… I will keep you in mind for our future projects.’

William Ewart Gladstone is a victim of Rhodes Must Fall-type aggression. My thanks to Edward Chancellor, who informs me that Lewis Carroll, who hated the Grand Old Man, enjoyed anagrammatising his name. ‘Will tear down all images?’ was one.

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