According to the London Sunday Express, Prime Minister Theresa May’s delegation to the G20 summit in Hangzhou was offered some ripe sartorial advice. Said one British participant: “We have been told that if you feel uncomfortable about people seeing you naked, you should change under your bedclothes.”
Surveillance is everywhere in the sort of top hotels favored by foreign dignitaries in China. Indeed Chinese spooks now deploy some of the world’s most microscopically miniaturized cameras and bugs. They are also, as the British delegation has been warned, particularly aggressive and effective in the use of such traditional spy-craft techniques as honey traps. Significantly several British reports recently have described the unhappy experience of a British official who accompanied Prime Minister Gordon Brown to China in 2008. He was waylaid by a particularly beautiful young woman and slipped a Mickey Finn. Eventually waking with a world-class hangover, he discovered he was missing his Blackberry and much of the contents of his briefcase.
For those of us who know East Asia (I covered the region from a base in Tokyo for 27 years), the interesting thing is not so much that, in their blackmail efforts, Chinese spooks now deploy no-holds-barred stratagems. Rather it is that Western intelligence agencies haven’t long ago raise the alarm.
Other forms of blackmail are also possible. As I have recounted in several books, the standard form used by East Asian governments on their own people is a technique best described as selective enforcement. Regulations are written strictly but — in most cases — are enforced laxly. Officials, however, reserve the right to tighten up enforcement on anyone who displeases them. The classic manifestation of selective enforcement is in tax policy. For a rising businessman, it is understood that certain forms of tax evasion are fair game and are rarely if ever challenged. Indeed if a businessman wants to keep up with the competition, it is imperative to take full advantage of evasion opportunities. But if, having grown wealthy, he decided to use his money to promote a cause considered undesirable by top officials — say, the promotion of genuine Western-style democracy — retribution would be fast and effective. All the authorities need do is take a closer look at his tax books. A stiff jail term would soon follow.
There is no way of knowing the full extent to which Western influence in East Asia has been frustrated by blackmail and similar dirty tricks. What we do know is that both Western corporations and Western governmental institutions have a long and ostensibly mysterious history of spinelessness in the region.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this story is its London provenance. Why haven’t we had similarly frank warnings from Washington? At a guess, several factors are involved, but one surely is American-style political correctness. British officials have far fewer inhibitions about criticizing the less salubrious aspects of Chinese political culture.
From reading between the lines, it would appear that the decision to plant this story may have come from Theresa May herself. If so, it is another indication that she is demonstrating a new streak of pluck in facing down East Asian pressures. What we do know is that she has already slammed the brakes on a proposed nuclear power deal with China that seemed likely to compromise British national security.
All in all, May seems to be a considerable improvement on her too-clever-by-half predecessor David Cameron. In fact it may not be overstating it to suggest that she may be a new Iron Lady in the making – and, in contrast with the late-phase Margaret Thatcher, an Iron Lady whose feet seem likely to remain planted firmly on the ground.