United Kingdom

Resilient
Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts
Very High
53 85
Local Resilience & Response
Very High
66 85
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least influence) to 85 (most influence)

header1 Key findings

Report by Angeli Datt and Sam Dunning

 

  • Strong pushback against ongoing influence efforts: The Chinese government’s influence efforts faced a strong response from across the United Kingdom during the coverage period of 2019–21. Several media outlets discontinued paid inserts, the UK media regulator canceled China Global Television Network’s license to broadcast, and public opinion toward the Chinese government deteriorated. China’s ambassador until 2021, Liu Xiaoming, frequently published op-eds, participated in interviews, and had a large following on social media. British journalists in China faced increased restrictions on their reporting.
  • Negative public opinion toward Chinese government: Despite expectations that the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union in 2020 would lead to closer relations with China, the bilateral relationship deteriorated during the coverage period due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Chinese government’s crackdown on civil and political liberties in Hong Kong. Several polls show worsening public opinion toward the Chinese government, though Chinese state propaganda has gained traction among certain business elites who conduct international trade. A 2020 survey from the Central European Institute of Asian Studies showed that nearly 70 percent of respondents said their view of China had worsened in the past three years (see Impact).
  • Influential state media and diplomatic presence: All major Chinese state media outlets—including China Daily, China Global Television Network, Xinhua, and People’s Daily—have offices in the country, some of which also coordinate their European operations. State-affiliated Sing Tao publishes in London to reach the Hong Kong diaspora. The British public engages little with Chinese state media, according to available data. Though the Office of Communications, the UK government regulator, revoked China Global Television Network’s license to broadcast in 2021, the company retained its large West London headquarters and operated its European social media presence from the country. Chinese diplomats in the United Kingdom increased their influence; former ambassador Liu Xiaoming was regularly featured on mainstream news and published over 10 op-eds during the coverage period. He has over 200,000 followers on Twitter, though that number may include automated accounts. His replacement in 2021 was notably less active (see Propaganda).
  • Paid inserts in influential newspapers: Several British news outlets, including the Telegraph and the Economist, published paid advertorial articles from Chinese state media until quietly discontinuing them in 2020 when Sino-British relations began to sour. Paid content from Huawei continues to appear in the Economist, and the Financial Times carries “China Watch.” The Daily Mail and General Trust, a company with multiple widely known print publications, is a member of the Belt and Road News Network led by People’s Daily, though it also regularly publishes stories that criticize the Chinese government. Sky TV airs “China Hour,” a program that is coproduced with the state-run China International TV Corporation (see Propaganda).
  • Multiple state-linked disinformation campaigns: Researchers have documented several disinformation campaigns, particularly on social media platforms that are blocked within China, that were linked to Beijing and boosted Chinese Communist Party narratives or tried to sow discord among the British public. Twitter took down a network of automated “bot” accounts that were impersonating British residents so as to promote Chinese diplomats on Twitter; nearly half of former ambassador Liu’s retweets over eight months in 2020–21 had come from the network. Other campaigns sought to claim that Queen Elizabeth II had died. British influencers living in China who received funds or support from Chinese state actors have been used to manufacture propaganda about China’s domestic policies for British and English-speaking audiences. Chinese diplomats and state media also spread misleading or false information (see Disinformation campaigns).
  • Limited access for news consumers due to Chinese government restrictions: Journalists working for British media in China have been forced to leave after being threatened, denied visas to China and Hong Kong, physically obstructed from reporting on the ground, and targeted with state-orchestrated smear campaigns. The China-based relatives of British journalists and of Chinese dissidents in the United Kingdom have faced threats. State actors have been linked to hacking attempts on British journalists and a major cyberattack on News Corporation, the publisher of the Times and the Sunday Times. The Chinese embassy in London has threatened editors of UK media for critical coverage, including by means of angry telephone calls, and the Sunday Times received legal threats from Hong Kong officials. British journalists also report difficulty in getting the UK government to provide information on business deals with China. (see Censorship).
  • A diverse diaspora: The United Kingdom has diverse and vibrant Chinese diaspora and exile communities, coming from a range of cultural, linguistic, and geographic backgrounds. Chinese state and state-linked media do not dominate news consumption among British Chinese, who have access to independent sources like the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Chinese service. Nonetheless, pro-Beijing media maintain a strong position and covert relations with Chinese Communist Party–linked actors. Continuing efforts by Chinese state media, large and small, and related covert activity by CCP-linked groups have led to tension in the United Kingdom between Hong Kongers and pro-Beijing elements (see Diaspora media).
  • Well-developed but vulnerable media landscape: British media outlets have the skills, resources, and correspondents in China and Hong Kong to conduct in-depth investigative reporting, including on Chinese domestic issues, Chinese foreign policy, and China’s role in the world, for English-speaking audiences. Media across the geographic and political spectrum report on China, including the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Times, and the Daily Telegraph. However, several mainstream newspapers have published the China Daily’s “China Watch” supplement in exchange for hundreds of thousands of pounds; many discontinued the supplement during the coverage period. Vulnerabilities across the industry remain, including growing political polarization in the UK media sector, loss of trust after the 2011 phone-hacking scandal at newspapers owned by News Corporation (see Resilience and response).
  • Stable legal and regulatory environment, with weaknesses: The United Kingdom has several laws to enhance transparency around media ownership, though the sector is dominated by three large publishing groups, both directly and indirectly. Parliament has begun debate around a foreign agents law similar to those in the United States and Australia. Disclosure of political and religious affiliations are required to hold a broadcasting license, though enhanced enforcement is necessary; the Office of Communications revoked China Global Television Network’s license only after a complaint from civil society groups. Rules ban cross-ownership of outlets, though there are no limitations on foreign ownership. Pro-Beijing actors have used defamation laws to issue legal threats that delay or increase the cost of reporting on Chinese government activities (see Resilience and response).
  • Robust civil society work: The United Kingdom benefits from many independent civil society experts from the academic, nonprofit, and media spaces who are regularly featured in the media and consulted by the government. However, concerns have emerged about the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in academia. There are several nongovernmental organizations—such as Index on Censorship, Reporters Without Borders UK, and Transparency International UK—promoting press freedom in the United Kingdom and China more broadly (see Resilience and response).
  • Political response and problematic pushback: In recent years, the British government has responded to the growth of Beijing’s influence in its politics and media spaces by holding hearings on the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in multilateral institutions, issuing statements, and summoning the Chinese ambassador over rights violations in Hong Kong. However, concerns have grown over the increasing frequency of physical attacks on people of Chinese and East Asian descent amid rising political tensions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some members of Parliament appear to have used criticism of Beijing’s influence to advance their own political careers or have used racist language toward people of Chinese heritage (see Resilience and response).

header2 Background

The United Kingdom (UK) is a stable democracy that regularly holds free elections and is home to a vibrant media sector. The UK is rated Free in Freedom in the World 2022, Freedom House’s annual study of political rights and civil liberties,1 and has a status of Free in Freedom on the Net 2021, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual report on internet freedom.2 Press freedom is legally protected. The media environment is lively and competitive, conveying viewpoints that span the political spectrum. There has been an increase in political polarization in the media on some issues, especially since the 2016 referendum vote to withdraw the country from the European Union (Brexit). Many newspapers are financially troubled, and the UK government has frozen the license fee that funds the public broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which will likely lead to cuts in programs and channels. Government leaders have signaled a desire to abolish the fee by 2027.3

The UK and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) established diplomatic ties on March 13, 1972.4 On July 1, 1997, London handed control over the colony of Hong Kong to China. Following the Chinese government’s crackdown on human rights and democracy in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020, British authorities created an immigration pathway that allows Hong Kongers fleeing the territory to settle in the UK. While the recent events surrounding Hong Kong have become a point of friction, London and Beijing enjoyed a “golden era” of relations between 2015 and 2020, which included a 2015 state visit from Chinese president Xi Jinping and a decision by the UK to join the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank the same year.5 Economic relations improved, and China was the UK’s sixth-largest export market and fourth-largest source of imports as of July 2020.6 Despite the deterioration in the political relationship since the Hong Kong crackdowns and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese state-owned funds or companies continue to have substantial investments in major UK infrastructure projects, including nuclear power plants, utilities, and airports, though some are under review.7

The UK hosts diverse and vibrant Chinese diaspora and exile communities, with members from a range of cultural, linguistic, and geographic backgrounds. As a legacy of British colonialism, there are British Chinese descendants from across Southeast Asia, as well as individuals with Hong Kong and mainland Chinese ancestry. Separately, there are more recent immigrants from mainland China and a large and growing community of Hong Kongers who have left the territory. According to the most recent UK census, in 2011, the British Chinese population numbered approximately 430,000.8 A year after the new visa option for Hong Kongers was introduced in January 2021, 103,900 people had applied for it, and 97,057 had received visas.9 An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 mainland Chinese students study in the UK every year.10 In addition, there are approximately 8,000 Taiwanese nationals in the UK, according to 2017 statistics from the Taiwanese government.11 An estimated 500 Uyghurs live in the country, mainly in London.12

header3 Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts

Propaganda and promotion of favored narratives

 

Key narratives

Chinese government narratives during the 2019–21 coverage period often pushed negative assessments of governance in the UK, its relationship with the world, and its colonial history while trying to project a positive image of China and the CCP governance model. Chinese media and officials routinely sought to depict the UK as a vassal of the United States,1 claiming that London had blindly followed Washington in its “containment strategy against China.”2

Similarly, Chinese state media correspondents and diplomatic officials often raise the UK’s colonial past as a form of whataboutism in response to criticism of the CCP’s crackdown on human rights in Hong Kong; Beijing claims that the territory’s residents have enjoyed “unprecedented democratic rights and extensive freedoms” since the 1997 handover.3 These narratives gain some traction in far-left circles in the UK. Another common narrative holds that China’s rise is unstoppable and contrasts it with the decline of the West, including the UK and the United States.4 The Chinese ambassador declared that the UK was “rejecting the future” by banning the China-based firm Huawei from building telecommunications infrastructure in the country.5

Many narratives promoted by CCP-linked actors seek to defend domestic Chinese government policies. Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK from 2010 to 2021, gave several interviews in 2020 in which he denied that Chinese authorities delayed informing the world about the spread of the coronavirus and instead attempted to portray the Chinese government as a responsible international power.6 Related narratives about the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to deliberately mislead or sow misinformation, for example by raising doubts that the virus originated in China: Liu repeatedly claimed in interviews that “we cannot say it’s originated from China.”7 At the same time, the CCP has accused British media of fueling xenophobia toward Asians through its coverage of COVID-19.8 State media have also defended the CCP’s policies toward Uyghurs, claiming falsely that the Chinese government treats ethnic minority groups well or that allegations of atrocities in Xinjiang are the “lies of the century.”9

A narrative that is often pushed by state media and diplomatic officials, and that gains traction locally through repetition by British commentators and politicians, centers on the need to cooperate on climate change. This message was particularly prominent in the lead-up to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which was held in Glasgow in 2021.10 The goal is to portray the CCP as a responsible global stakeholder regarding climate action, even as the regime uses climate change cooperation as a geopolitical bargaining chip in a bid to extract concessions on other issues.11

Key avenues of content dissemination

Chinese state media have an extensive physical presence in the UK. China Daily is available in print, and its main European headquarters are located on Cannon Street in London.12 Xinhua has bureaus in London and Edinburgh, and the CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily has a London office in Canary Wharf.13 The Hong Kong paper Sing Tao, which is state-affiliated, is available in print in the UK, and its EU edition is published in London.14

Other key avenues of content dissemination include the following:

China Global Television Network: CGTN’s European headquarters are located in Chiswick, West London.15 The office opened in 2018 with an initial plan to hire 300 journalists, though its operations were derailed after the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Safeguard Defenders filed complaints that led the UK’s media regulator, the Office of Communications (Ofcom), to revoke the Chinese state broadcaster’s license in February 2021 (see Resilience and response).16 CGTN content remains available through VisionTV, an internet television station broadcast on Freeview, the UK’s digital terrestrial television platform.17 Even before CGTN’s license was revoked, its viewership numbers were staggeringly low: from June 2020 to February 2021, it was not played for more than 1,000 minutes in a week, compared with an average of 25 million minutes a week for BBC News.18 The CGTN London office also manages the Facebook and YouTube accounts of CGTN Europe, which have two million and 52,000 followers, respectively.19

Since October 2019, CGTN Europe has paid for 42 advertisements on Facebook that targeted users in the UK. The subject matter covered by the ads includes British asylum procedures and crime levels, praise of the CCP’s governance model from UK commentors, European news, and promotion of Sino-British cooperation.20 Some of the ads received significant engagement because the content appealed to local audiences. For example, an ad with an embedded video about which countries in Europe have legalized same-sex marriage, with the tagline “Like us to support LGBT acceptance,” was viewed by over 1 million users. An ordinary social media user might not be aware that CGTN is controlled by the Chinese government, which has not legalized same-sex marriage and has banned LGBT+ content online and in films, deeming it “harmful information.”21

Chinese state media partnerships with British newspapers: Several influential British newspapers ran paid content from Chinese state media following a push to sign such agreements in 2016, during the “golden era” of bilateral relations, though a number of outlets quietly discontinued them in 2020 after political tensions rose amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Most prominent was the state media content published by the Daily Telegraph. The paper carried the China Daily–sponsored “China Watch” supplement for an estimated £750,000 to £800,000 ($1 million to $1.1 million) per year,22 sold space on its website to People’s Daily,23 and on at least one occasion published sponsored content from Xinhua’s “China Messenger” supplement.24 In April 2020, the Telegraph removed from its website all sponsored content from Chinese state media.25 The paper was accused of softening some of its criticism of the Chinese government or economic deals tied to Chinese companies during the period when it ran sponsored content, though it did publish articles that were critical of the CCP at the time.26 Following the termination of the deals, the Chinese embassy began to repeatedly criticize the Telegraph and smear its journalists in China.27

Other influential outlets that carry Chinese state media content include the Economist, which published a supplement called “China Focus” from the state-run Beijing Review before discontinuing it around August 2020; the magazine continues to publish paid content from Huawei.28 The Financial Times continues to carry the “China Watch” supplement, which features articles on China’s economy, natural environment, and culture. The agreement is a financial windfall for the paper, which received $888,165 in payments from May 2020 to November 2021.29

The Mail Online, the website of the Daily Mail and the most widely read news website in the world, had a content-sharing agreement with People’s Daily from 2015 to 2018.30 According to the editor, the agreement was a free exchange of up to 40 stories a week from each outlet, though it is unclear whether People’s Daily published any Daily Mail content.31 The material used by the British site generally consisted of clickbait stories from China. The partnership deal was signed during a visit to the People’s Daily offices in China by Martin Clarke, the chairman and controlling shareholder of Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), the newspaper’s parent company. In 2019, DMGT joined the CCP-backed Belt and Road News Network (BRNN), whose secretariat is hosted by People’s Daily.32

Local voices promoting CCP talking points: Pro-Beijing narratives often enter the British media landscape through friendly local commentators or politicians. Some of this messaging comes from individuals affiliated with the 48 Group Club, an association of British business leaders and politicians who support closer ties with the Chinese government.33 The club’s chairman, Stephen Perry, has long echoed CCP talking points and is often featured in Chinese state media; in 2018 he was the recipient of Beijing’s China Reform Friendship Medal.34 Peter Mandelson, a Labour Party politician who now sits in the House of Lords and is listed as a “current fellow” of the club, has downplayed the Chinese government’s human rights abuses and repeated CCP talking points in media interviews.35 Another politician listed as a “current fellow,” former Liberal Democrats leader Vince Cable, wrote an op-ed that advanced some CCP messaging on Xinjiang shortly after Parliament designated the Chinese authorities’ persecution of Uyghurs as a genocide in April 2021.36 Other politicians who were prominent during the “golden era” of Sino-British relations, such as former chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, are also linked to the 48 Group Club.37 Osborne has spoken at Huawei public-relations events and published paid Huawei advertorials while he was editor of the Evening Standard from 2017 to 2020, after leaving politics.38

Other commentators with scholarly credentials produce pro-CCP content and repeat Chinese government talking points in the media—in some cases while accepting funding from Chinese state-linked entities. For example, Cambridge University professor Peter Nolan warned against a student debate on Uyghurs in 2021, while his position was funded by a foundation associated with the former Chinese premier.39 Cambridge’s Jesus College, where Nolan is based, has accepted hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations from the Chinese government and Huawei, and it has released a “white paper” defending the telecommunications company.40

Social media influencers targeting UK audiences: Some UK-based Chinese state media correspondents have significant online reach. Martina Fuchs, Xinhua’s Europe business correspondent and a CRI contributor, has 30,000 followers on Twitter, and her account is not labeled as state-controlled media.41 Other state media employees have used paid Facebook ads to target audiences in the UK, according to a Freedom House analysis of the platform’s ad library. One influencer, China-based Xinhua journalist Miao Xiaojuan, has 1.3 million followers on Facebook, and her page is labeled as state-controlled media.42 She has bought ads pushing false CCP narratives about Xinjiang, Tibet, and other sensitive topics to UK audiences.43

Several apparently unaffiliated British vloggers and social media influencers, especially those who are based in China and produce videos in English, have promoted CCP messaging on topics like human rights conditions in Xinjiang.44 Father and son vloggers Lee and Oli Barrett returned to the UK in July 2022 after spending years in China, during which they were regularly featured on Chinese state media and produced pro-CCP videos.45 One of their most popular videos, titled “Western Media Lies about China,” was released in February 2020 and earned 1.9 million views.46 Lee Barrett has been listed as a stringer for CGTN and admitted that state media “offer to pay for the transport, the flights [and] accommodation” associated with the Barretts’ appearances on their outlets.47 Furthermore, given the tight restrictions that are imposed on most foreigners seeking to visit Xinjiang, vloggers who are allowed to travel to the region to produce progovernment content are likely to have received at least implicit government support.

Chinese diplomatic messaging in local outlets and social media: China’s former ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, frequently published op-eds and gave media interviews to defend his government’s record. Liu published 38 articles in the Telegraph between April 2016 and January 2021, including 10 during this report’s coverage period.48 Also during the coverage period, he published one article in the Guardian, six in the Financial Times, and three in the Evening Standard.49 Liu was active on social media during his tenure and had 150,000 followers on Twitter as of January 2022.50 His replacement as ambassador, Zheng Zeguang, was a former vice-minister of foreign affairs and is notably less active online, with fewer than 6,000 Twitter followers.51 The embassy’s Twitter account, opened in November 2019, has nearly 40,000 followers.52 These accounts all appear to have some engagement with users, but their authenticity has been questioned. An Associated Press and Oxford Internet Institute joint investigation found thousands of fake accounts boosting Chinese diplomats’ Twitter posts, including in the UK. Nearly half of former ambassador Liu’s retweets over eight months in 2020–21 had come from the artificial network.53 The Chinese consul general in Belfast, Zhang Meifang, whose Twitter account has 87,000 followers, has adopted a “wolf warrior” approach, using undiplomatic language to attack perceived critics of China on social media.54

Coproduced content broadcast on television: State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) has several deals to coproduce content in the UK. In 2018, CCTV signed an agreement with the British media company Endemol Shine to export a CCTV program format around the world. Also that year, it announced a new documentary series to be produced with BBC World News, following up on a coproduced nature documentary series, Wild China, that was released in 2008 to coincide with the Beijing Olympics.55 The BBC also aired a two-part series on plastic pollution in 2019 that was coproduced with CGTN America.56

On Britain’s Sky TV, a feature called “China Hour”—coproduced by the state-run China International Television Corporation and the private company Dove Media—airs for at least two hours each evening.57 It presents content touching on Chinese culture, food, and other lifestyle topics and includes a segment presented by the wife of Jeremy Hunt, a member of Parliament with the ruling Conservative Party.58

Huawei’s public relations campaigns: Huawei has made a concerted effort to sway public and political opinion with regard to its potential role in the development of Britain’s fifth-generation (5G) telecommunications network, particularly in light of the UK government’s decision to exclude the firm from such projects in 2020 (see Control over content-distribution infrastructure). Huawei is a China-based company with close ties to the CCP and a record of building censorship and surveillance systems in China and abroad. Its public relations strategy includes paying UK media groups to produce or publish positive advertorial content, including the BBC, the Economist, the Evening Standard, and Reuters.59 The firm hired London-based public relations company Wavemaker in 2019 to implement a $350 million global advertising campaign.60 Within the UK, Huawei placed ads in the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Mirror, the Sun, and the Times.61

China Radio International: CRI has two correspondents based in the UK and aired English- and Chinese-language broadcasts on medium and shortwave frequencies in London, though since 2020 the service appears to be available only online and via DAB digital radio.62 According to the Chinese embassy, CRI has been reporting from the UK since 1995 about news in the UK, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland and about developments at Confucius Institutes in those locations.63 CRI correspondents have occasionally interviewed Liu Xiaoming, who stepped down as China’s ambassador in January 2021, or taken part in exchanges between the ambassador and Chinese state media representatives in the UK.64 A CRI subsidiary, GBTimes, owns the local station Panda Radio, which in 2018 replaced Spectrum SINO, a privately owned multilingual radio station.65 CRI is also closely affiliated with Propeller TV, a local English- and Chinese-language media outlet owned by a Chinese businessman (see Diaspora media).66

Disinformation campaigns

Multiple disinformation campaigns that specifically targeted or reached news consumers in the UK were documented during the coverage period. For the purposes of this report, disinformation is defined as the purposeful dissemination of false or misleading content, especially through inauthentic activity—via fake accounts, for example—on global social media platforms.

Most of the campaigns attempted to promote Chinese government narratives, though some also sought to sow discord in domestic affairs. Social media posts from Chinese diplomats in the UK were amplified by a network of inauthentic accounts pretending to be UK citizens, with profile descriptions such as “political affairs commentator from London,” according to the Associated Press/Oxford Internet Institute study covering 2020–21.67 The researchers found that the creation, use, and messaging of the accounts appeared coordinated, and that the network significantly boosted the retweets of then ambassador Liu’s Twitter account. In December 2021, Meta announced that it had removed nearly 600 Facebook pages and 86 Instagram accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior that targeted global English-speaking audiences—and specifically UK users—and had links to Chinese state entities.68

Other campaigns appear to be direct reprisals aimed at the British government. After Ofcom revoked CGTN’s broadcasting license in the UK in February 2021, the Chinese government retaliated by banning the BBC from broadcasting in China, and researchers later discovered a likely state-backed coordinated campaign on social media to discredit the BBC’s reporting.69 In one instance of distorting a message, after the UK embassy in Beijing posted an image of a candle on WeChat in commemoration of the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre its post was quickly censored and thousands of online trolls and automated accounts reinterpreted the candle image with the false claim that Queen Elizabeth II had died.70

Some of the narratives in these campaigns are shared by UK commentators, though they may not know that inauthentic accounts are involved. Former member of Parliament George Galloway, who had 358,000 Twitter followers at the time, was found to have amplified pro-CCP posts from a network of fake accounts.71 Leftist social media influencer Josh Jackson has also repeated false CCP narratives to his 21,000 Twitter followers.72

Censorship and intimidation

During the coverage period, there was a significant effort by the Chinese government to censor news coverage about China and intimidate British media. The following are the most serious examples:

  • Chinese government restrictions on UK media and correspondents in China: Chinese authorities censor British media outlets in China and obstruct the work of their correspondents. This both limits UK and English-speaking global audiences’ access to news about China and cuts Chinese news consumers off from independent coverage about Britain and the world. The websites of major British media outlets—including the BBC, the Guardian, the Economist, Reuters, and others—are blocked in China, as are the mobile applications for BBC News, the Times, and the Sunday Times.73  Individual journalists have also faced reprisals for their reporting. BBC correspondent John Sudworth had to leave China in March 2021 after being harassed online and threatened with legal action in connection with his work.74 A correspondent for the Economist was denied a visa to Hong Kong in November of that year.75 The BBC’s and the Daily Telegraph’s correspondents have been subjected to online trolling linked to the authorities and encountered harassment and obstruction while attempting to report on issues such as flooding in Zhengzhou, the origins of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.76 In one instance, the CCP Youth League called on its 1.6 million followers to track a BBC Shanghai correspondent in Zhengzhou, leading him to suffer harassment on the street.77
  • Chinese government efforts to restrict critical reporting in the UK: Journalists in the UK have faced pressure from Chinese authorities to restrict or cease their reporting or commentary. According to several interviews with journalists for this report, the Chinese embassy in London has repeatedly attempted to stop the publication of articles that were critical of the Chinese government.78 Interviewees said their editors had received long, angry “screaming down the line” phone calls from the embassy in response to such stories.79 In a change during the coverage period, the Hong Kong government has also attempted to stop the publication of stories it finds unfavorable. The director of Hong Kong’s trade office in London sent a letter to the editor of the Sunday Times in December 2021 that threatened prosecution under Hong Kong’s Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance, despite the fact that the supposed offense occurred outside Hong Kong.80  Journalists and commentators of Chinese descent or with family in China or Hong Kong have had their relatives threatened in response to their work in the UK. On at least one occasion, a Hong Konger stopped working with a British journalist out of fear for their family’s safety.81 Members of exile and ethnic diaspora groups who might serve as sources or subjects for British media coverage on China have also faced online trolling and Chinese state-led intimidation in the UK, including prominent Hong Kong activist Nathan Law.82 In March 2021, the UK’s Foreign Office said it was aware that Chinese state agents were harassing Uyghurs in the country in order to “intimidate them into silence.”83 Chinese officials have threatened the China-based family members of Uyghurs in the UK in order to distort news coverage of its human rights abuses, and one British Uyghur told journalists that the Chinese embassy had “pressured [her] into writing an opinion piece for a newspaper declaring there to be no reeducation camps in Xinjiang.”84  The threat of physical attacks in the UK by pro-CCP individuals is a growing problem, especially for prodemocracy Hong Kongers who recently settled in the country. In one instance in November 2021, participants in a pro-Beijing rally in London’s Chinatown attacked counterprotesters from Hong Kong; messages that were subsequently spread on WeChat offered £10,000 ($13,000) for the personal information of Hong Kong activists.85 In November 2019, CCTV journalist Kong Linlin was convicted of assaulting a Hong Kong activist at the 2018 Conservative Party conference, received a 12-month suspended jail sentence, and was ordered to pay £2,115 ($2,800) in compensation to the victim.86
  • Escalating use of cyberattacks: During the coverage period, a number of British journalists, media outlets, and politicians have faced the threat of cyberattacks, including hacking attempts, that appear to be linked to the Chinese state. In February 2021, hackers with ties to China accessed servers of the News Corporation media conglomerate, specifically targeting the emails and documents of journalists working with the Times and Sunday Times as well as with US-based publications owned by the company.87 Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat, who has spoken out about CCP human rights abuses and political influence, was the target of a 2020 spoofing campaign in which China-based perpetrators attempted to mimic his email account to impersonate him.88 A July 2022 incident demonstrated the serious ramifications of spoofing incidents. Australian activist Drew Pavlou was arrested after the Chinese embassy claimed to have been sent a bomb threat for an email address with Pavlou’s name; he denied the account belonged to him.89 London police arrested Pavlou and a British freelance journalist that filmed his arrest on suspicion of “communicating false information to make a bomb hoax” and both had their devices seized.90 In March 2021, the website of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), of which Tom Tugendhat is a member, suffered a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.91 According to an interview with a documentary producer who wished to remain anonymous, their company’s website was hacked and vandalized with pornography after the release of a film about human rights abuses in China.92 Individual journalists have also faced digital security threats in the form of suspicious attempted log-ins.
  • Threat of defamation lawsuits and stalled in freedom of information requests: The publication of the book Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg was delayed in Canada in 2020 after businessman Stephen Perry, the 48 Group Club chairman, threatened to sue the authors and publishers over passages that he claimed were defamatory.93 Perry did not go ahead with the lawsuit and the UK release was not delayed, but as with many such cases, the authors and publisher had to expend time and resources to respond to the legal threats. The prospect of lawsuits may intimidate some writers into acquiescence, particularly if they lack the means to defend themselves. A former UK diplomat who was interviewed for this report suggested that threats of litigation from pro-CCP actors are common, are sometimes quite aggressive, and have been successful in limiting the scope of reporting and academic research on China.94 Local journalists have also faced obstructions from some British officials to reporting on Chinese government activities in the country. Journalist Sam Dunning, the coauthor of this country study, reported that several government departments have hindered his freedom of information requests on meetings between Chinese and UK officials.

Control over content-distribution infrastructure

Chinese state-linked actors do not control a significant portion of the UK’s content-distribution infrastructure. A subsidiary of the Hong Kong company CK Hutchison Holdings owns the country’s fourth-largest mobile service provider, Three UK.95 However, CK Hutchison’s owner, Hong Kong business magnate Li Ka-shing, has had a complicated relationship with the CCP and cannot be considered a simple proxy for Beijing.96 Huawei was involved in upgrades to the telecommunications infrastructure until the UK government excluded it from the development of the country’s 5G system in 2020 and gave other companies until 2027 to remove existing Huawei technology from their respective networks.97 Despite the ban, closed private networks can still use Huawei equipment, such as the Huawei-run Innovation Centre at Cambridge Science Park.98

Chinese companies have been more successful in gaining UK market share for their mobile applications. The short-video app TikTok, a global subsidiary of the Beijing-based social media company ByteDance, was the fourth most downloaded app in the country in 2021, with 18 million downloads.99 There have been some documented cases around the world in recent years in which TikTok removed or downplayed politically sensitive content, including content that violates domestic Chinese censorship guidelines, though the company subsequently reported that it was correcting such errors.100 A media report from June 2022, citing leaked recordings of meetings at TikTok, raised concern that statements made by ByteDance regarding the data privacy of US users were false and cast doubt on the veracity of the company’s other statements about its policies.101 In April 2021, the former children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, filed a legal case against TikTok over its data-use practices related to children.102 Several British lawmakers have accounts on TikTok and use the platform to communicate with constituents.103

The most downloaded news aggregator app in the UK in 2021 was Opera News.104 Initially a Norwegian company, Opera News was acquired by the Chinese firm Beijing Kunlun in 2016. The US Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) forced Beijing Kunlun to divest its ownership in the LGBT+ social-networking app Grindr in 2020 and did not disclose the reasons behind the decision, but it is believed to have stemmed from national security concerns about data privacy, as companies headquartered in China can be forced to hand over data to the Chinese government.105 In January 2020, Nigerian journalists began reporting on social media that stories they had written were being censored on Opera News but no such evidence emerged of censorship in the UK.106

Dissemination of Chinese government norms, know-how, or media governance model:

There was no evidence during the coverage period that British media professionals or government officials received trainings aimed at disseminating Beijing’s information-control tactics and norms, or that they were otherwise persuaded to adopt CCP-style media governance models. Reuters did participate in a 2019 trip to Xinjiang that was sponsored by the Chinese government, but the news service reported critically about the experience,107 describing how its journalist was chaperoned at all times and was only able to speak to detainees in the presence of a government minder.

Chinese diaspora media

The UK is home to diverse and vibrant Chinese diaspora and exile communities, with members from a range of cultural, linguistic, and geographic backgrounds. Chinese speakers have access to independent media, including BBC Chinese and FT Chinese, prominent outlets that provide British, Chinese, and global news for audiences in the UK and around the world. However, numerous pro-Beijing media outlets with links to the CCP also operate in the UK.

Pro-Beijing outlets include the UK edition of the Paris-based Nouvelles d’Europe (欧洲时报英国版), UK-Chinese Times (英中时报), UK Chinese Journal (英国侨报), Chinese Weekly (华闻周刊), Propeller TV (英国普罗派乐卫视), Creative Time Media (英国酷锐传媒), Foremost 4 Media (英国富中传媒), and Europe Commercial News (UK) (英国欧洲商报).108 Senior leaders from seven of these eight outlets and other UK diaspora media representatives attended the 2019 World Chinese Media Forum, which was jointly organized by the State Council Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, the Hebei provincial government, and the state news agency China News Service (CNS). The forum’s goal was to convene Chinese-language press groups from around the world and encourage them to use their “advantage” of being integrated into foreign countries “to tell China’s story.”109 All of the eight outlets except Propeller TV are members of the Global Chinese Media Cooperation Union, run by CNS.110 Dove Media (英国德孚传媒), which coproduces the “China Hour” on Sky TV, is also a member.111

According to a Freedom House review of their websites or WeChat accounts, most of these outlets translated and reposted content from both Chinese state media and British outlets during the coverage period. The content generally focused on cultural events, human interest stories, and the pandemic situation in the UK. When reporting on local news, the coverage focused on racism against Asian communities or debates about Brexit. News coverage of Chinese political issues aligned with Beijing’s narratives, with the Chinese embassy or the Foreign Affairs Ministry serving as the main sources. Freedom House found no content that would be deemed off-limits by the CCP, such as impartial reports about the persecution of Uyghurs, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, or the crackdown in Hong Kong. Many of the WeChat accounts operated by these outlets were “official accounts” and registered in China, meaning they are subject to CCP censorship guidelines.

See below for more information about each outlet:

  • UK-edition of Nouvelles d’Europe: Launched in 2011,112 this paper claims to have a weekly circulation of 35,000, available in 21 cities across the UK.113 It also reports that its affiliated WeChat account, UK Zone, has 480,000 followers and that around 30 percent of those are UK-based Chinese users, but that figure cannot be independent verified. The outlet publishes in English under the name China Minutes, and the associated Facebook page has nearly a million followers.114 The paper often republishes content from Xinhua, China Daily, and other Chinese state media. Its content aligns with pro-Beijing narratives, including material on Taiwan, COVID-19, and editorials arguing that the repressive Hong Kong National Security Law was “necessary and urgent.” It has previously published two-page translations of English articles from the Telegraph and the Economist’s 1843 magazine through partnership agreements.115
  • UK-Chinese Times: Founded in 2003, this weekly newspaper reportedly has a circulation of 40,000 and more than 100,000 readers.116 It focuses on “issues of concern to Chinese in China and the UK.” The outlet has partnered with People’s Daily, helping to launch the British version of the official CCP newspaper,117 as well as with Xinhua, Wen Wei Po, CCTV, and BBC Chinese.118 It often republishes content from CNS or Xinhua on topics including Hong Kong, Beijing’s mask diplomacy, and the “progress” China has made on human rights.119 UK-Chinese Times has over 430,000 followers on the China-based social media platform Sina Weibo.120
  • UK Chinese Journal: Launched in 2002, this newspaper started as a bimonthly magazine before becoming a weekly in July 2009, and it adopted its current name in 2013.121 It now prints only once a month but publishes new content online each week. The content focuses on “opinions, business, and lifestyle” issues. A section on the outlet’s website publishes articles about COVID-19, pandemic measures in the UK, and updates about travel restrictions between the UK and China.122
  • Chinese Weekly: Launched in 2010, this digital publication, which now goes by Huawen (今日华闻), began as a weekly magazine covering British news and information that is relevant for “Chinese in the world.”123 In 2015, it expanded its target audience to include European elites, and it now claims that 51 percent of its readers are based in Europe and 35 percent are in China.124 The outlet describes itself as a 24/7 news provider covering Europe and international news, and its founder, Dai Kai (戴凯), has claimed it has 555,000 daily readers. It currently has 1.88 million followers on Weibo, though many of them are likely based in China.125 It has published pieces that align with CCP narratives, including laudatory descriptions of the facilities at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, a rebuttal of a British law firm’s opinion that a genocide was occurring in Xinjiang, and an article attacking Hong Kong prodemocracy protesters.126
  • Propeller TV: Bought by Chinese businessman Ye Maoxi in 2009, Propeller TV described itself as “bringing the world to China, and China to the world.”127 It is available online or on Freeview, and until 2019 it broadcast on Sky TV Channel 189, with a self-estimated reach of 10 million viewers.128 Propeller TV’s Twitter account often shares posts from CGTN, CCTV, and China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry; after Ofcom revoked CGTN’s broadcasting license, Propeller TV called the decision a “disgraceful move.”129 Its website claims that it targets “English-language speakers,” but a review of its social media accounts by Freedom House showed that it mainly posts Chinese-language videos with English subtitles, which receive very low engagement. In 2019 Propeller TV said it had more than a million Weibo followers, and Weibo named it as one of the “Top Ten Overseas Accounts” for two years in a row; by 2022 its account had grown to 3.4 million followers. This popularity on Chinese social media platforms suggests that the outlet is more popular with Chinese speakers—either in the diaspora, including Chinese students studying in the UK, or in China itself.130 In 2015, Propeller TV hosted the first “UK-China Media Roundtable,” with officials from China’s State Council Information Office and representatives from the UK government’s trade and investment department.131
  • Creative Time Media: Established in 2011, this media company publishes a lifestyle website, Panda in UK (英国熊猫网), that carries mainly apolitical information about life in the country.132 It also runs several popular WeChat groups, including “Let’s Talk UK” (英国大家谈), which has 360,000 followers; “British Uncle” (英伦大叔), which has 180,000 followers and 29,000 subscribers on YouTube;133 and “This Is the UK” (这里是英国), with 25,000 followers.
  • Foremost 4 Media: Founded in 2013, this media group publishes the monthly China Report.134 In 2020, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the World Tourism Organization and China News Weekly, a state media publication produced by CNS.135
  • Europe Commercial News (UK): Founded in 2010, this newspaper publishes two issues per month in Chinese and English.136 It is headquartered in Hong Kong, with offices in the UK, France, the Netherlands, and Beijing. It has partnerships with the state-owned Hong Kong newspapers Ta Kung Po and Wen Wei Po and frequently publishes pro-Beijing articles on various topics, including the National Security Law.137

Members of the Hong Kong diaspora community in the UK have had their access to independent Cantonese-language content reduced as a result of the national security crackdown in Hong Kong. One interviewee described how the formerly independent outlet Ming Pao “used to criticize the CCP, but not really anymore.”138 Another Hong Kong newspaper, Sing Tao, was bought by a CCP proxy and now publishes pro-Beijing propaganda, including in its London-based European edition. In March 2021, that edition published a front-page announcement supporting Xi Jinping and the Hong Kong National Security Law.139

Activity by pro-CCP diaspora groups in the UK has led to tension with local Hong Kongers, as exemplified by the physical clash in London’s Chinatown in November 2021.140 One of the organizers of the rally that descended into a brawl, the Federation of UK Fujian Chinese, is close to the CCP; its vice-chairman told state media in 2018 that overseas Chinese associations should “not only serve their compatriots but also safeguard the interests of the motherland.”141 Some elements in the pro-Beijing bloc appear to be engaging in intimidation against Hong Kongers, with individuals offering bounties for the addresses of prominent prodemocracy activists.142 Hong Kong activists also face transnational repression by the Chinese government, and it is unknown whether those offering bounties intend to share any information they obtain with the Chinese state.

header4 Resilience + response

Underlying media resilience

  • Strong tradition of press freedom: While the UK does not have a written constitution, freedom of expression and press freedom have been addressed in various statutes, common law provisions, and conventions. Since 1998, the European Convention on Human Rights has been codified in law through the Human Rights Act, though in 2022 the government announced plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights.1 The publicly owned BBC, which relies on a dedicated license fee for most of its funding, is editorially independent. BBC News is the most trusted news source in the UK, just ahead of the privately owned ITV News.2
  • Skilled investigative journalists and vibrant civil society work on press freedom: The UK has a large media environment, with national, regional, local, and digital outlets carrying views that span the political spectrum. Many media outlets have the resources to conduct investigative journalism on national, international, and China-related topics. British universities run well-developed journalism programs, and think tanks like the Centre for Investigative Journalism—affiliated with the University of London—offer numerous trainings for investigative journalists.3 The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University hosts journalists from around the world and conducts research on pressing issues for the media sector.4  The UK also has a vibrant civil society sector, with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and charities working to support freedom of expression and press freedom both globally and in the UK. These groups include the Index on Censorship, Big Brother Watch UK, Article 19, and Transparency International UK.5 The human rights NGO Liberty pushes for UK government accountability and has campaigned against proposed legislation that would damage press freedom and public-interest protections for whistleblowers and journalists.6 The National Union of Journalists has nearly 40,000 members across the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and it works to protect the rights of journalists in both countries.7 There are several media literacy programs aimed at the general public and young people in particular, and UK-based fact-checking groups work to combat misinformation and disinformation in news content and on social media.8
  • Transparency on media ownership and robust regulatory system: The UK has several laws that enhance transparency regarding media ownership, the most important of which is the Communications Act 2003. Under this legislation, Ofcom is designated as the main media regulator responsible for monitoring and enforcing media ownership requirements.9 Section 391 of the law created limited rules on cross-ownership and requires a public-interest test for media mergers.10 The UK requires disclosure of political and religious affiliations in order to establish eligibility to hold a broadcasting license under the “disqualified persons restriction” clause, though stronger enforcement is necessary.11 Under the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, news in any form is required to be “reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality,” and Ofcom fines media outlets for violations of the code.12 It is relatively simple to identify media owners, with organizations like Media Reform Coalition, the Newspaper Marketing Agency, and MediaUK tracking and publishing ownership lists for media outlets.13

China-specific resilience

  • Reporting on CCP influence and discontinuation of paid inserts: British media outlets have the necessary skills, resources, and correspondents in China and Hong Kong to conduct in-depth investigative reporting on Chinese domestic issues, Chinese foreign policy, and China’s role in the world for English-speaking audiences. Broadcasters and newspapers representing a variety of editorial viewpoints report actively on China, including the BBC, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Times, and the Daily Telegraph. While many mainstream papers have published China Daily’s “China Watch” advertorial supplements in exchange for hundreds of thousands of pounds, several discontinued the practice during this report’s coverage period.
  • Regulatory response to complaints about CGTN: In February 2021, Ofcom revoked the broadcasting license used by CGTN to disseminate its content in the UK after finding it in violation of rules on ownership by a political party.14 Later that year it fined the outlet a total of £525,000 ($699,000) for violating the Broadcasting Code’s rules on due impartiality, fairness, and privacy by airing forced confessions and biased reporting on Hong Kong protests.15 However, more robust enforcement is needed. The regulator’s investigation into CGTN only occurred after a complaint from civil society, and the Broadcasting Code only applies to television and radio broadcasts, not print media.
  • Robust civil society advocacy and academic research on China: The UK benefits from a large corps of academic, journalistic, and civil society experts on China who are regularly featured in the media and consulted by the government. The different schools of the University of London offer specialist degrees in Chinese, and the University of St Andrews offers Cantonese courses.16 The Oxford Internet Institute’s Programme on Democracy and Technology publishes a China Information Operations Newsletter which has uncovered China-linked disinformation campaigns and artificial amplification.17 However, concerns have emerged about the CCP’s influence in academia, particularly at Cambridge University (see Propaganda), as well as through the Beijing-based Confucius Institute system’s affiliation with at least 30 British universities.18 Several British NGOs have China-specific initiatives to track CCP influence and human rights abuses. Index on Censorship launched the Banned by Beijing project in June 2021 to “raise awareness of the CCP’s subversion of freedom of expression in Europe.”19 Big Brother Watch UK filed thousands of freedom of information requests to track the use of Hikvision and Dahua surveillance cameras in the UK and is calling for a ban on the companies.20
  • Growing political response to CCP influence efforts: The political response to CCP influence in the media and other sectors grew considerably during the coverage period. Lawmakers have held hearings on the Chinese regime’s ties to British universities and its role in multilateral institutions,21 while the government has issued statements and summoned the Chinese ambassador on several occasions.22 In March 2021, the UK issued sanctions against Chinese officials for the first time in a coordinated action with the European Union, Canada, and the United States.23 In September 2021, in response to Chinese government sanctions on British members of Parliament, the speakers of House of Commons and the House of Lords banned the Chinese ambassador from visiting the Parliament grounds.24 Other actions taken by UK government bodies include a rare public warning in January 2022 from MI5, the domestic security and intelligence service, about an alleged Chinese agent who was accused of interfering in British politics on behalf of the CCP.25 MI5 also reportedly identified three suspected agents of China’s Ministry of State Security who were working in the UK as journalists for three different Chinese media outlets in 2020, and the government expelled them on an undisclosed date.26 British politicians have increasingly focused research and advocacy on CCP influence and attempted to pass related legislation. In April 2020, a group of lawmakers from the ruling Conservative Party founded the China Research Group (CRG) to research and discuss “how Britain should respond to the rise of China.” The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) was founded in the UK two months later, describing itself as a group of parliamentarians from around the world who are “working towards reform on how democratic countries approach China.”27 In June 2022, following the 2019 parliamentary investigation into authoritarian influence in British academia, members of the CRG and IPAC added an amendment to the controversial Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill that would require universities to declare any funding over £75,000 ($100,000) from certain foreign countries.28 Similarly, Parliament has begun debate on a foreign agents law similar to those in the United States and Australia, which would require further transparency regarding foreign entities’ activities in the UK.29

header5 Vulnerabilities

  • Media concentration: Despite rules limiting cross-ownership, the UK media sector is heavily consolidated, with three companies—News UK, Daily Mail Group, and Reach PLC—controlling 90 percent of the national newspaper market as of March 2021, a rise of seven percentage points since 2019.1 Despite legislation requiring a public-interest test for the approval of media mergers, media ownership has become increasingly concentrated. There is no prohibition or limitation on foreign ownership of media outlets, and one of the largest media companies—News UK—is owned by the US-based News Corporation. Overall public trust in the media has declined since a 2011 phone-hacking scandal at News UK papers.2  
  • Political polarization over BBC funding: In 2022, the ruling Conservative Party froze the license fees that fund the BBC for two years, which the broadcaster said would lead to cuts in programing due to the effects of inflation.3 Some politicians have called for the fee to be abolished when the BBC’s royal charter expires in 2027, and despite being the UK’s most trusted news source, the BBC has been attacked for its alleged political bias, its editorial decisions, and its coverage of politically polarizing topics like Brexit.4 Positive government support for the BBC, including an £8 million ($10.7 million) funding boost in May 2021 that was meant to help the BBC World Service combat disinformation, is ultimately undermined by overall cuts in public funding that amount to a 25 percent decline over the course of the past decade.5
  • Post-Brexit erosion of respect for international law: Since the UK’s departure from the European Union in January 2020, the British government knowingly proposed legislation that would violate international law. In a 2020 statement in Parliament about legislation related to post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland, a cabinet minister acknowledged that the measure would “break international law in a very specific and limited way.”6 The European Union later announced legal action against the UK government in March 2021 for violating the Northern Ireland Protocol.7 Other proposed laws have been criticized for stripping away human rights protections, such as the proposed abolition of the Human Rights Act, amendments to the Official Secrets Act, and the Online Safety Bill, which would weaken encryption technologies.8 At the time of writing, they have not passed.9 A breakdown of human rights protections within the UK could leave the media and diaspora groups more vulnerable to CCP pressure, and a failure by the UK to uphold international law would empower authoritarian regimes like China’s.
  • Problematic pushback: Physical attacks on people of Chinese and East Asian descent have increased in the UK amid rising political tensions during the COVID-19 pandemic.10 Some members of Parliament appear to have distorted or misdirected legitimate concerns about China’s regime in order to advance their own careers. Some have used inflammatory or racist language about Chinese people in general.11

header6 Impact and Public Opinion

The UK’s bilateral relationship with China deteriorated during the coverage period due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Chinese government’s crackdown on civil and political liberties in Hong Kong, despite expectations of a closer partnership following Brexit in January 2020. Several polls showed worsening public opinion toward China. A 2020 survey from the Central European Institute of Asian Studies found that nearly 70 percent of respondents said they distrusted the Chinese government. The British public has also expressed a lack of trust in the leadership of the CCP, with a 2020 Pew Research Center poll indicating that 76 percent of UK respondents had no confidence that Xi Jinping would do the right thing in world affairs, up from 60 percent in 2019.1 At the same time, according to a 2022 poll, 66 percent of UK respondents recognized that Chinese government influence was getting stronger.2

While overall public opinion toward the Chinese government is negative, Chinese state propaganda and related efforts by China-based entities like Huawei have gained traction among certain business, political, and academic elites, who are also targets of specific influence efforts. For example, as of late 2021, Huawei had donated a total of at least £28.7 million ($38.2 million) to nine of the UK’s leading academic institutions, though the bulk of that went to Cambridge University, which has accepted £25.7 million ($34.2 million) since 2016.3 On specific Chinese government policies, the situation is also more complex. The same 2020 Central European Institute of Asian Studies poll found that the British public generally had a neutral attitude toward the Belt and Road Initiative, the CCP’s signature foreign policy priority.4 However, only 27 percent of respondents to a poll from th e Henry Jackson Society supported Huawei playing a role in building the UK’s 5G network, despite Huawei’s dedication of considerable effort and resources to swaying public opinion.5

Chinese state media and pro-CCP diaspora media outlets have had a large degree of influence in the British Chinese-language media landscape, and to some extent their content may have had real-world repercussions, especially for Hong Kong democracy activists in the country. The November 2021 clash in London’s Chinatown and threats against Hong Kong prodemocracy activists by pro-CCP Chinese nationalists in the UK are consistent with narratives from Chinese state media that smear such Hong Kongers as “traitors” who are trying to “split” the motherland.

header7 Future trajectory

The following are potential developments related to Beijing’s media influence in the United Kingdom that should be closely monitored in the coming years.

  • A further shift toward coercive and covert tactics: As the response to CCP influence efforts across the UK continues to strengthen, there will likely be a further shift toward covert and coercive tactics, as seen in other countries like Taiwan and Australia. This could take the form of a downgraded bilateral relationship, an increase in censorship attempts and disinformation aimed at British media operations in both the UK and China, paid social media influencers disseminating propaganda, and further efforts to influence diaspora communities through Chinese-language media and groups or activities backed by the CCP or the Chinese embassy.
  • Smears and intimidation aimed at Hong Kongers: As more Hong Kongers flee to the UK to escape political persecution, contributing to the territory’s largest population drop in decades, they could face an increased risk of transnational repression. Chinese state media will likely escalate their smears of Hong Kong prodemocracy activists, encouraging pro-Beijing groups in the country—including those with links to the CCP’s United Front Work Department—to intimidate such individuals into silence. However, the growing numbers of Hong Kongers may also form exile and diaspora community groups and continue their advocacy for democratic reforms in Hong Kong from the UK.
  • Pro-Beijing messaging from UK businesses, Chinese companies, and Hong Kong authorities: The UK’s economic hardships in the wake of Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Russian regime’s invasion of Ukraine may lead British companies to curry favor with Beijing by echoing its narratives and lobbying against sanctions or bans such as that imposed on Huawei. Despite its setbacks to date, Huawei will likely expand its public relations efforts and may be joined by other Chinese companies with investments in major UK infrastructure. Hong Kong authorities may continue their attempts to censor British media coverage about the national security crackdown in the territory.

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