The arrested researcher belonged to one group of British Beijing hawks, and his harshest accusers come from another
At the beginning of the week, the news broke that in March, a British parliamentary researcher had been arrested on suspicion of spying for China. He has maintained his innocence and as of the time of writing, has not been charged.
The researcher was working as part of an anti-Beijing parliamentary body called the 'China Research Group' (CRG), a hawkish group founded in 2020 and designed to influence British government policy. As part of his role, the accused did not have any known access to publicly classified or top-secret information, or contact with ministers. As charges had not been decided, the decision was made not to make news of the arrest public in respect to a fair trial. However, the information made its way to The Times, which first broke the story.
Almost immediately, the China hawks among UK politicians - primarily members of rival anti-China group the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) - whipped this up into an attack on the British government's position on Beijing, pushing for a tougher stance. They took issue with the accused researcher's complaints about a "lack of nuance among China-sceptic MPs," as if that opinion alone was worthy of suspicion. We can't comment on the specifics of a case yet to be concluded, but the rhetoric surrounding it gives off a clear vibe of a concerted campaign of fearmongering in respect to Beijing. This raises the question: when is a spy really a spy? And how can the political goalposts of what constitutes 'spying' shift in accordance with the context?
Thinking of a stereotypical spy, most of us would probably imagine a suave James Bond, or Tom Cruise's character from 'Mission: Impossible', with unmatched deception skills and phenomenal technology allowing them to infiltrate, hack, monitor, and retrieve anything. However, that's Hollywood flair which is far removed from what the job entails in reality in most cases. The definition of a 'spy' is politically and sensationally charged, and its ambiguousness is open to exaggeration and abuse. In concise terms, a spy is someone who gathers information on behalf of another party (not necessarily an 'official' adversary) which can be used to gain advantage over the spied-upon party. This can be for military, technology, and even commercial purposes.
The information gathered by a spy is not open to the public domain - hence why they are needed in the first place. However, this raises a fundamental question: what is the boundary between spying and what might be described as legitimate research? There are virtually no details available on what the accused researcher actually did, apart from an IPAC member's claim that "there were consistent efforts from a hostile researcher to smear IPAC MPs and label them as extreme on China policy," and a Whitehall source cited by The Times as saying "I'm pretty sure he turned some backbenchers from China hawks into being apathetic about Beijing." It's not exactly a secret that IPAC, led by hardline hawk Iain Duncan Smith, is as blatantly hostile towards China as can be, and attempting to introduce nuance to its stance sounds more like an attempt at legitimate debate - until and unless, of course, more specific damning evidence emerges. The accused himself, through his lawyers, has denied any wrongdoing, saying "I have spent my career to date trying to educate others about the challenge and threats presented by the Chinese Communist Party."
This only goes to show how the notion of spying is politicised. The US has created a global culture of paranoia whereby anything and everything can be deemed 'spying' no matter how ludicrous or improbable it may be. In Washington's McCarthyist definition, accusations of spying are wildly exaggerated into claiming that anything even suspected of being remotely associated with 'information gathering', such as TikTok data, is really potential espionage, and it tends not to care who is smeared or damaged in the process. If we look at it that way, does China have the right to conduct any legitimate research about the US, and by extension, its allies? Or even to enhance its understanding of them?
The political opportunism vested in this case far outweighs the gravity of the accusations. It's a cold reminder that the political goalposts of what may constitute a spy can shift. This is very similar to the anti-Russian witch hunt which has engulfed the UK and US as progressive-leaning politicians seek to blame unfavourable political outcomes on Moscow. What do we learn from these events? We discover that direct evidence of alleged wrongdoing is often scant, the associations are often vague, yet the narratives, name-calling, and smears take precedent. Was Donald Trump bought by Moscow? Of course not, yet many people still believe that anyway.
And therefore, the UK parliamentary 'spy' case cannot be understood without taking into account the obvious political forces that deliberately leaked this story to the press before the accused was even charged, and used it to try to undermine Britain's China policy. It is a cynical witch hunt which has involved throwing someone to the lions to score points amidst two competing anti-China factions in Parliament. IPAC is known for its well-coordinated stunts, and it's happy to shut down anyone whose opinion falls short of outright vilifying China by accusing them of sleeping with the enemy. That's what McCarthyism does, period.