‘Golden Era’ legacy lives on as PRC influence endures in UK Local arena, China Index 2022 reveals

by China in the World Network (Doublethink Lab) | 2022.12.08

  • The China Index 2022, the first initiative to measure and compare the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s global influence launches today with 82 countries today, including the UK.
  • Overall, the UK ranks 27th, roughly on a par with New Zealand and Mexico, but below Germany and the United States.
  • The Index shows how the UK’s ‘golden era’ of relations with Beijing set the stage for lasting PRC influence in academia, media and politics, and provides supporting evidence for journalists to follow up and investigate.
  • PRC influence in UK media is overlooked by lawmakers and Local press, and the Index provides a tool to monitor the direction of travel in years to come.

After Rishi Sunak, prime minister, declared the end of the “golden era” of relations between Britain and the PRC, new research shows that the ties forged since the days of David Cameron may not be straightforward to unpick.

The China Index 2022 indicates that the UK is exposed to a higher degree of PRC influence than comparable countries in the domestic arena, but falls into a middle layer of exposure overall.

The Index, the first research effort to measure and compare PRC influence overseas, is published by the China in the World (CITW) network, an initiative of Doublethink Lab, a Taiwan-based non-profit focused on countering digital disinformation and strengthening democratic resilience. CITW and the Index connect hundreds of China researchers and experts worldwide.

The UK ranks 27th in the China Index 2022 overall and is the second-highest ranking country in the European dataset, below Germany in 19th position. Rankings are determined by tallying responses to 99 Indicators, each of which observes a single discreet instance of PRC influence. These Indicators are devised by the Index Committee of experts in PRC influence tactics, and split equally across nine Domains (Media, Academia, Economy, Society, Military, Technology, Law Enforcement, Local Politics, and Foreign Policy).

The results suggest the UK has a higher degree of exposure to PRC influence in the domestic arena, including the Local Politics Domain, than in comparable countries. Local political exposure comes from a complex mixture of commercial channels into British politics, revolving door appointments, and local linkages, according to Martin Thorley, an academic exploring international engagement with China, and the China Index’s UK partner.

For example, one Local Politics Indicator reads: “In my country, politicians or government employees at the sub-national level are signing agreements with the PRC government or state-owned enterprises.” The UK receives a graded response indicating that there are few but significant instances of this phenomenon observable in the UK, with the supporting evidence being former Chancellor George Osborne’s drive to bring Chinese investment to the Northern Powerhouse via the Manchester China Forum. Evidence is provided by at least one local expert, in this case the editor of Beijing to Britain, Sam Hogg, and checked by the regional partner (Thorley).

The UK’s spider growth shows PRC influence is strong in Media and Academia, as well as Local Politics.

“The UK’s underlying exposure to PRC influence is spread widely rather than focused on one or two metrics where it is exceptionally high,” Thorley said. “The findings suggest that local level linkages play an important role in the wider relationship. We believe these links at local level became far more prevalent during the Cameron-Osborne years, as cities and regions followed Westminster's lead. Some aspects of current national government exposure are also likely to be a legacy from the same period.”

The UK’s Local Politics Domain ranking is closely comparable with that of Germany and Australia, but below that of the U.S. and the Philippines. The Media Domain ranking is also higher than many would anticipate, with the UK in 6th position out of 82. “This could be a hangover from the golden era and in this regard, the next round of China Index results will be useful for us to gauge the direction of travel,” Thorley said. “Some responsibility for the high score is down to non-traditional media (for example PRC links to online influencers) as well as the traditionally overlooked role of Chinese-language media in the UK.”

The UK ranks 8th in the Academia domain, supporting the widely held view that higher education institutions are a crucial part of the interface between the UK and Chinese party-state entities. This remains true despite efforts by government and universities to untangle partnerships and collaborations now believed to represent security threats.

Pakistan, Cambodia and Singapore assume the top three positions in the China Index 2022. Next year, the Index’s constituent Indicators will be updated, and the research refreshed. Data from additional countries will also be incorporated, enabling researchers to gauge whether PRC influence in waxing or waning across geographies and Domains.

CITW’s Wu Min-hsuan said: “The China Index provides a unique research tool for academics, civil society organizations, media and policymakers to identify and respond to PRC influence operations in their area of concern. As China policy discussions evolve, we hope that UK lawmakers will study the Domain-specific results carefully as they continue working on their respective China strategies.”

For further information about the China Index and CITW, including in-depth research takeaways, please register to attend the project launch on Dec. 8 via Livestream and in Berlin here.

About Doublethink Lab
Doublethink Lab (Doublethink) is a civil society organization devoted to studying the malign influence of digital authoritarianism. Doublethink’s strengths lie in the ability to combine a diverse set of research approaches in the social, behavioral, and computational sciences to study state-funded propaganda campaigns, psychological warfare, and related information operations. Doublethink seeks to foster global networks connecting academics, democracy movements, digital communities, like-minded CSOs, and experts on the People’s Republic of China, in order to strengthen global democratic resilience.

About China In The World (CITW)
In 2019, Doublethink Lab and its partners established the China In The World (CITW) network to bring together stakeholders researching the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s global influence and disinformation strategies. CITW oversees publication of the China Index, the first cross-regional initiative to measure and compare the PRC’s influence in various countries. CITW Summits are participatory grassroots events designed to improve network members’ ability to conduct investigations and research, strengthen democratic resilience, and counter malign authoritarian influences.