The Strange Attempt to Stop a New Book on China’s Global Influence

(File photo: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
A British group that’s a darling of Communist China threatens a lawsuit.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he release of a forthcoming book on the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in Western democracies was put on hold in Canada last week following a British trade association’s threat to sue for what it says are defamatory allegations.

The book in question, Hidden Hand, is a comprehensive account of the CCP’s “global program of subversion, and the threat it poses to democracy,” according to the London-based Oneworld Publications, which owns the book’s English-language rights in the Northern Hemisphere.

Last week, Oneworld received a notice from lawyers representing the 48 Group Club, a British trade association, and its chairman, Stephen Perry. In the book, authors Clive Hamilton, an Australian academic, and Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program, characterize the 48 Group Club as a conduit of CCP influence in elite British circles. Perry and his organization take issue with several sentences, which they say are incorrect or defamatory. Druces Law, the firm representing Perry, did not return National Review’s request for comment.

Oneworld tells National Review that it disagrees with Perry’s defamation claims. It is currently taking legal advice, but the publisher’s plans to launch the book in the U.S. and U.K. on September 8 will “go ahead as planned,” said Novin Doostdar, publisher of Oneworld. The book was released in Australia last week and was previously released digitally in Germany.

Notwithstanding those plans, Oneworld has asked Canadian publisher Optimum Publishing International, which purchased the book’s rights in Canada, to pause its rollout of the book, which would have started with the release of the digital version Thursday. “They held up the book based on that letter for the Great Britain and U.S. digital version, and I pulled my distribution in Canada to comply,” Dean Baxendale, president of Optimum, tells National Review. The hardcover version was previously scheduled to appear in bookstores July 3.

Baxendale also noted that the request to cease and desist from publishing the book does not directly apply to his publishing house. He is having the book reexamined by legal counsel and will soon decide whether to move forward with publishing it in the face of the 48 Group Club’s threat to sue.

The upshot, however, is that Perry’s threat of a lawsuit has, at least temporarily, paused publication of Hidden Hand in North America.

Inflating Its Own Importance
According to the 48 Group Club’s website — which was taken down Friday after reports about the dispute appeared in Canadian media outlets — the organization began as a cohort of 48 British merchants, led by Stephen Perry’s father, Jack, who traveled to China with the aim of establishing trade ties in the 1950s. A cached version of the website says the 48 Group “grew to be the most respected name in China-Britain trade, a name well known throughout China.” It merged in the 1980s with another trade association to form the China-Britain Trade Group, known today as the China-Britain Business Council. After the merger, the 48 Group Club was formed to carry on the work of the original 48 Group by fostering social and cultural ties between China and Great Britain.

This history is recounted in an eight-page section of Hidden Hand that was obtained by National Review. This portion of the book also discusses the 48 Group Club’s efforts to foster close links between China and the United Kingdom as an example of how the CCP maintains influence with Britain’s elite.

“The club quickly developed an unrivalled level of trust and intimacy with the top leadership of the CCP, and has built itself into the most powerful instrument of Beijing’s influence and intelligence gathering in the United Kingdom,” write Hamilton and Ohlberg in the book. They also accuse Perry of publishing a “robotic repetition of CCP propaganda” on the group’s website.

As pointed out in the book, Perry is the frequent subject of feature articles and television segments in Chinese state-owned media outlets. His family history was recounted in a Xinhua News Agency article, and he has appeared in video interviews with CGTN, a Chinese state-owned television station, many times. He tends to share the CCP perspective on such topics as Hong Kong, the Belt and Road Initiative, and U.S.–China relations.

During a January 2019 ceremony at the Chinese embassy in London, he called an award ceremony presided over by Xi Jinping the most “breathtaking moment in life,” according to China Daily, a state-owned newspaper. In 2018, Perry traveled to Beijing to receive the China Reform and Friendship Medal, an award bestowed on nine other foreigners by the Chinese government that year, including Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore.

Despite this apparent connection with Chinese elites, Perry is not considered a serious figure in British government circles, said a former British official with extensive experience in China policy. Besides an annual dinner gala, the 48 Group Club does little else of impact on British society, he told National Review.

“It’s used by the CCP as a propaganda vehicle, but nobody pays any attention to it in the U.K.,” said the former British official. “There are people who I think are quite dangerous in the U.K., but the 48 Group and Stephen Perry aren’t one of them.”

The former official described Perry as part of a circle of pro-China intellectuals who have devoted their entire lives to burnishing Beijing’s reputation in the U.K. These figures lack prominence in British society but are often feted by Chinese outlets for propaganda purposes.

A second former British official with decades of experience in China and knowledge of the 48 Group Club’s activities said Perry is being used by the CCP’s United Front network to promote its worldview.

The official described the organization as a small operation managed exclusively by Perry, which serves as a front for his business ventures. Since Perry is connected with Chinese officials, other businesses often seek to benefit from his network for access to Chinese markets. This access, the second official said, is what attracts people to the club’s annual dinner, which is also attended by the Chinese ambassador, his team, and the employees of Chinese banks. “So as a way of networking, that is useful to businesspeople, and a lot of them will not realize quite what the background to this group is,” he told National Review.

Both former officials said they believe that Perry has added the names of prominent British politicians and diplomats to the membership list even if those individuals had no serious involvement in the club. Attendance at the gala or a lunch event would be enough for inclusion. The first official noted that many of the figures named on the club’s list probably do not know that they appear on it, while the second former official called Perry “a man who carries no weight in government policies on China.”

This raises questions as to why the 48 Group Club would bother to fight against the book’s release. With one English-language version already available in Australian bookstores, Perry would not be able to succeed in suppressing the allegations contained in the book, most of which are based on publicly available information. The legal challenge has already been damaging to Perry’s reputation, as it has boosted pre-order sales, according to Baxendale, and directed attention to the controversy — and to the 48 Group Club’s pro-CCP sympathies.

The Lawfare Strategy
When asked why the club’s lawyers might have sent the letter, Charles Burton, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and author of the foreword to the Canadian edition of Hidden Hand, said he has not yet seen it. However, he noted that in other situations, individuals and organizations favorable to the Chinese government have practiced “lawfare” when faced with public criticism. Such a strategy aims to burden the defendant with legal fees, even though a weak lawsuit might not reach a courtroom where the plaintiff could be cross-examined.

“That’s supposed to put a chilling effect on publication of such things if there’s a cost of production, which is legal fees,” Burton said. “And those billable hours tend to add up.”

Burton was the target of a lawsuit in 2015 when he wrote a column for the Globe and Mail, a major Canadian newspaper, about Chinese influence. However, he has published many additional op-eds with the paper since that lawsuit and suggested that “the strategy doesn’t seem to be working.” Five years later, that complaint has never come to court.

Baxendale, the publisher, said that mot of the time, when faced with such legal action, “people will ultimately back off or change” their writing. While many of the books and articles targeted by legal action end up being published, these adjustments are what the plaintiffs in these suits seek in the first place.

This is not the first time that Hamilton has faced obstacles to getting a book about Chinese influence published. His 2018 book Silent Invasion, which treats Chinese influence in Australia, was dropped by its first publisher, which feared lawsuits. The book was eventually published by a different house. No lawsuits materialized.

This time has been different. But Hamilton maintains that his book is accurate — and the publishers have stood by him.

“We will be responding in detail to the allegations made in the lawyer’s letter,” he said.

These events come at a time of great uncertainty in the relations between Beijing and Western capitals, including Ottawa. If the book’s release proceeds according to plan in Canada this Thursday, the launch will follow China’s indictment of two Canadian citizens — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — on espionage charges last week in retaliation for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a Huawei executive. A Macdonald-Laurier Institute poll released soon after found that over 80 percent of Canadians want their government to speak up about human-rights abuses in China more than it has already.

The dispute over Hidden Hand and other controversies just like it suggest how people with a vested interest in the CCP’s ascendancy have worked within liberal democratic frameworks to shape public attitudes toward Chinese authoritarianism. Episodes like these, and the accommodation of the CCP by leaders in these countries, are exactly what the book will lay bare.

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