We will now hear oral evidence from the Royal United Services Institute. Before calling the first Member to ask a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we must stick to the timings in the programme motion. The Committee has agreed that for this sitting we have until 10.30 am. Will the witness introduce themselves for the record? [Interruption.] I am going to suspend the sitting for a few moments to see whether we can sort out the technical problems that we are having. This is not the first time; even the Prime Minister had problems yesterday.
Thank you for inviting me. I am Charles Parton. I was, for 38 years, a diplomat, mostly with the UK, but for five years with the European delegation until the end of 2017. My area of work has largely been on China and, in the last decade, on the politics of China and the Communist party. I was an adviser to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons on two of its recent China reports. I continue, since leaving diplomacy, to study what the Communist party is doing and the relevance of that to our UK policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship in this Committee, Mr Twigg. Thank you very much for joining us, with your extensive background, Mr Parton. As you know, we have an investment screening regime under the Enterprise Act 2002 that has led to 12 interventions on national security grounds since the Act came in. Which security threats do you feel are not covered by those existing public interest powers? While we have been waiting for the Government to act on this front, are there specific instances where you think the Government should have acted but did not exercise their powers, or did not have the relevant powers to exercise?Q
I would not profess to be an expert on individual cases, but I would like to make some general response to your excellent question. The first point to make is that the Government have not really been attending to the problem with the attention that they should, given the nature of the threat, particularly from the Chinese, although others may be relevant too. I do not think that there is the structure for actually assessing the degree of the threats; I think that 12 cases since 2002 is very few indeed, when you look worldwide at the Chinese programme for technology acquisition, both under and over the table. That in itself shows that there has been insufficient attention paid to the issue.
The delay in the Bill is also regrettable, because the threat has been fairly clear for some time. I would urge the Government, first, to research the question, which is the one you asked, of to what degree in the past have the Chinese in particular bought up technology companies, the acquisition of which was greatly against our interests? That work could and should be done.
I am an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, which has a team that has been looking through technology at a number of questions, but it could quite easily divert that team to look at this question, which needs China expertise and the ability to search through a lot of open data, which it has. I am not a member of the Government, but I am not aware that the Government have done that sort of research to establish the full degree of the problem.
From the point of view of the threat—if you will excuse me, as this is the first question, for putting a little bit of context to it in terms of the China thing—it is undoubted that there is nothing wrong with investment. In fact, that is extremely good. We want as much investment and good relations with China as with everyone else, but we need to recognise that there is a values war going on. I have written an article about that, which came out in the Conservatives’ China Research Group report a week or so ago.
This is not a cold war, because China is very important to us for trade, investment and many global goods, and it is a science and technology power, but we should not underestimate the degree to which Xi Jinping and the Communist party intend, as Xi said to the first politburo meeting, to get the upper hand against western democracies. He talks about us being hostile forces and about a big struggle all the time. When you add that to his policy of civil-military fusion—using civil in the military context—and the fact that he has set up a party organisation specifically to push that forward, and the change in investment policy away from things such as property, football clubs and other things, very much towards benefitting China and its technology, we have to be a lot more careful than we have been in the past.
The first step for that is to do the research. I am not aware of a really good assessment of just how much technology has been bought, the targets and so on. Maybe the Government have one—I don’t know—but I do not think that they do.
Q Thank you very much for that response. I certainly agree with you on the delay in addressing this critical issue. I appreciate your experience, particularly with China, which obviously, as you say, has made a number of technology acquisitions.
I was particularly interested in the civil-military fusion, if you like, of China’s technology ambitions. Could you say a little more about how the Chinese see nascent technologies that are indirectly critical to downstream industries that supply our national security? I am trying to understand how, if you like, we differentiate between industrial strategy and technology to ensure that we have leading defence and national security capabilities. Is there a distinction that we can make there? Do we need to do further research, as you suggest? Do the Chinese make that kind of distinction? Do we need to address some elements of our industrial capability when we consider national security?
We should widen this not only to companies, but to academia, if I could come back to your question from this angle. We have the phenomenon at the moment of Chinese companies, one might say, hiring our academics, in one way or other, to do scientific research on their behalf. Some of that is probably something that our defence establishment and security establishment would be pretty upset about if they were aware of it.
It is quite difficult to distinguish some of these and to know about them all, but a few weeks ago The Daily Telegraph did a story on, I think, Oxford University and Huawei’s commissioning of research. I think there were 17 projects. I looked at those, and I am not a technologist by any means, but some of them rang certain alarm bells. If you are researching, on behalf of the Chinese, drone technology, cryptography, gaits— Gait is very important for gait recognition. We have facial recognition and voice recognition, but in circumstances where people are wearing masks or there is bad weather, gait is an absolute identifier. Again, are these bad technologies? Well, there are perfectly good civilian uses for them, no doubt, but there also military and surveillance uses. I think we need to be very clear on what our academics, as well as our companies, are doing.
To give you another example, if you go on the website of one of the top Oxford mathematician professors, he has now retired and set up a company with a base in Shenzhen. He is an absolutely top mathematician and does the most abstruse things in cryptography. Should one of our top mathematicians be helping the Chinese in cryptography? Well, there are perfectly good and innocent uses of cryptography, I presume, for things such as banking and e-commerce, and there are perfectly not good uses of it, in military and surveillance and other things. I have no idea whether that is something we should be concerned about. On the face of it, it strikes me that we should be.
I think we need to broaden the scope—forgive me if this is outside the Committee’s scope; you are only looking at the Bill—because the whole question of defence of technology needs to be looked at, in terms of whether we are strengthening a hostile foreign power, but also let us not forget the reputation of British companies and universities. If you look at what is going on in Xinjiang, for instance, with the concentration camps there—activities that quite definitely meet the definition of crimes against humanity under article 7 of the International Criminal Court’s Rome statute, or article 2 of the UN genocide convention—should our companies and universities be helping with technologies that can be used to strengthen that surveillance and that repressive regime? What is the difference between that and South African apartheid or some of the other things that we have seen in the past? Increasingly, the excuse of, “Well, we didn’t really know what was going on,” has gone, and companies and academia will have to be much more careful of their reputation. I have slightly moved away from the nub of your question. Perhaps you could just push the tiller a bit and put but me back to the centre of it again.
Q I think you addressed the core of my question. I really like your phrase “defence of technology”, rather than the technology of defence, because the question was around how you distinguish in the industrial strategy between specific security concerns and the development of technologies that give us capability in those sectors. Can we identify at what point that becomes a national security concern?
That is sort of way outside my technical expertise, but I would certainly say that one major criticism I have of the Bill is that you have to set up the right structure to be able to do that. I am not sure that the Bill’s putting everything in the hands of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and its Secretary of State is the right answer.
Let us take Huawei and the debate we had over the last couple of years, as well as the various flip-flops that have gone on. One might add flaps, as well as flip-flops, actually. There has been a big a division between the so-called economic and security Ministries. It is right that both have a say in the decision. Economic interests are very much at stake, but so are security interests. If you put everything into the hands of BEIS, which probably does not have the expertise on China—certainly not in the defence, security and surveillance realms, although not unnaturally, since its job is to encourage investment—you will perhaps find that the security and repression elements are not given sufficient weight, and more to the point, the perception will be that they are not given sufficient weight. We might therefore go back to this sort of business with Huawei, where there is a fight back and another fight back and so on.
What we actually need is an organisation that is made up of people on all sides of the debate and that has some real experts who actually understand what the technology means. One specific example I came across a year or so ago was a very interesting computer game. Fine. What is wrong with that? Well, I understand that it was then bought up by the Chinese and used to train fighter pilots. You cannot defend against everything, but you at least need some unbiased experts—a sort of, if I can use the words, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies—who would be there to advise, and then decisions would actually be accepted by all sides, not questioned.
On occasion, I am sure that questions would be put up to the National Security Council and the Prime Minister for decision if they were really important. However, the issue is often about very small companies with some very interesting technologies that have not been established. The Chinese are extremely efficient at hoovering around, finding them and buying them up early. I am not convinced that the structure and decision making of the whole process are right.
Q Good morning, Mr Parton, it is great to see you. Without going further on your last point, I want to reassure you that the Bill is designed to deliver a quasi-judicial role for the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The team’s infrastructure will be pulling in all parts of Government expertise. My question is this: how do you think the current challenge of covid has exposed national security threats through investment? What are you seeing? How do you see the behaviour of malign actors anywhere in the world at a time of covid?
I think what covid has done is expose the nature of the Chinese Communist party, in answer to your question. I hope that it has brought home to people the nature of the beast. Looking at what happened, China did not do so well to start with, and its people were pretty upset with it. China then used its external propaganda machine to right its domestic problem, pushing forward the line, “Look how badly the foreigners have done, and look how well we are helping the foreigners out of the mess,” while hiding the fact that it had allowed the virus to propagate so fast in the first place. To many people in democracies, that brought home the fact that the Communist party of China is prepared to use that against us.
Where the Chinese Communist party was unhappy with how countries were acting, it started to put them under pressure and made threats about the delivery of personal protective equipment or whatever. Australia is really taking it in the neck at the moment because it had the temerity to ask—perfectly reasonably—for an investigation of the origins of the virus, which is essential for scientific and preventive purposes. Look at the political pressure on Australia. There is absolutely no doubt that where the Communist party sees an opportunity to use whatever is going on at the moment, it will do so.
The question that I have continuously asked is this: to what degree is investment threatened by a country such as the UK, Australia or Canada standing up for its own interest? We are not actually attacking China, but we are saying, “Sorry, but we have our own interests and our own security. You wouldn’t allow the equivalent in your country, possibly rightly, and we are not allowing it here because we are defending our security, in this case.” To what degree is the tool of depriving someone of investment a real threat? I have urged in a number of papers that the Government look at that in dispassionate terms. The China-Britain Business Council recently put out a paper, but I would not describe it as dispassionate. That is for the Government to do. My own feeling is that the likely conclusion is that, on the whole, the threats are pretty hollow. Chinese investment is not done for charitable reasons.
Since 2017—the high point was 2016—China has cut back on investment. Beijing was getting pretty annoyed at the way money was seeping out not in line with its policies, but investment is now more tightly controlled and aimed at the acquisition of science and technology. To what degree are we vulnerable? This is not charity. Money is very cheap at the moment; it can be got at negative interest rates. It is not as though China is the sole source of money. It invests because it wants technology. Surely we have to look at that carefully and ask where is the mutual benefit. If it is mutually beneficial, fantastic, let us go ahead. Let us not be too brow-beaten by this thing—that if you do not do x or y, or if you do not take Huawei, we will hit your investment. I think, in practice, if you look at that and then look at some of the other threats that China has made over the years, including to your exports, all those have grown for all countries, although they had been in the diplomatic doghouse historically—certainly in the past; we will see about the future—but I think it is greatly exaggerated.
I am grateful to you, Mr Parton. I do not want to hog the floor, as I am sure many colleagues want to ask questions. Thank you very much.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I do not know whether you can see me, Charlie, but I am here. I am sitting at the back due to social distancing, but it is good to see you.Q
Going back to your point about resourcing the investment security unit, can you give a bit more detail about what would be an ideal outcome from your point of view? Would it be that we need specificity in the Bill that key representatives and experts of the intelligence services, of the Ministry of Defence, of the diplomatic corps and of other agencies be formally named in the legislation, so we would have that reassurance that the body doing the screening had all the necessary breadth across the spectrum of both the economy and national security?
That is a good question; it is not necessarily for me and I do not necessarily have the experience to lay down precisely how it works. For me, I think, first, that all those organisations you have mentioned—although others also on the economic side, such as the Treasury and BEIS—perhaps should be there to set the parameters of what needs to be referred. I think that, as a sort of preliminary filter, one would hope that there was an ability for most companies, and most universities as well, very quickly to put forward the deals or the pieces of work that they felt might be coming up against the parameters set by such a Government body.
For a quick decision, is the topic one that is suitable, or does it need a little more investigation? Should we be working with this organisation, or in some cases this particular Chinese academic or company, which may have links to the military or to the repressive regime? The experts, as it were, which means the SAGE-type committee, surely should be very quickly—companies and academics need to move quite quickly—making a preliminary estimation of whether this needs to be referred upwards to a Government Committee that wants to look at it in more detail.
I do agree with you that the range of interests needs to be representative if the decision is to be perceived by all sides as acceptable when it is eventually made.
Q Thanks very much; that is very helpful. On this point about making sure that we have the most effective and streamlined system in place, one of the areas where the Bill diverges from legislation in similar jurisdictions, such as Germany and Japan, is that it does not contain a definition of national security as such.
In the Japanese and German cases, they refer to national security including concepts of public order. I refer in particular to your comments about organisations out there in the marketplace, whether they are universities or businesses, needing to have clarity to know what needs to be referred and what does not. They need to know where the amber or red light is flashing, and where it is clearly a green light and not an issue. Would that be aided and facilitated if the Bill contained a definition of national security?
It is a bit like defining terrorism. It is really quite difficult to be all encompassing. Sometimes, I am in sympathy with the Chinese legislation that adds at the bottom “and other offences” or “and other things”. I think it is quite difficult, even if people are convinced that they can effectively define that. It is not only national security; there is a question whether you are aiding crimes against humanity or the genocide that is going on in Xinjiang. I am using loaded terms there, but I think they are justified. There must be some mechanism for ensuring that those, too, are brought to bear, but I am not expert enough in legislation to be able to say, “Yes, we need a watertight definition of ‘national security’.”
Certainly, the Bill must convey to companies and academics the need to clear a range of topics. That will not be specific, but, at best, they must be encouraged to consult almost as a default, so that they are not caught out. The other question is, what happens if they don’t? What sort of sanctions are they under if they do not consult, when it is clearly something they should consult on, for reasons either of security or of repression and crimes against humanity?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. Mr Parton, thank you for your past service. Q You have clearly studied China and Asia at a fascinating time in their own economic development. I will ask you to play devil’s advocate.
As a Committee considering this Bill, we will hear from a constituency that could sometimes trip over into Sinophobia, being against any form of engagement or trade with China. Looking at the economic development of that market and the opportunities that it presents, could you talk a bit about the non-risk-based categories, such as inert goods and household manufactured goods, which the Committee should draw a clear line around, and those categories that you have talked about, which are covered in the Bill and speak to a real national threat?
Let me make the general point that I am sometimes accused of being anti-Chinese. I greatly resent that. I am anti-party, as anybody should be if they saw what it does in places like Xinjiang or Hong Kong. I am not anti-Chinese. I think the Chinese Communist party itself deliberately muddies the waters on that one and says, “You are anti-China,” when, actually, you are opposing the policies of the Chinese Communist party. That said, I began the session saying that we want investment from China, trade with China and good relations with China. China is a major player. This must not be a cold war. If America or China decides to pursue that, we must try to avoid it.
I always talk about the holy trinity of national security, UK interests and UK values. We should establish those with the Chinese and say, “Sorry, those are non-negotiable. Just as you sometimes come and say, ‘These are our core interests and we are not negotiating them,’ we have the right to do that too.” But beyond that, we want open trading relations and open investment relations. What is wrong with China buying London Taxis International? Nothing. If it wants to invest and that is mutually beneficial, great.
We want an open China as much as possible. We certainly want a much more level playing field than there is at the moment. China runs a series of negative lists and there is much on them, particularly in the area of services, which we would want opened up. We must press for that in conjunction with the Americans, the EU, Australia and all the other democracies that wish to trade with China. In many ways, that is in China’s interest. It is certainly in the interests of its people. A closed market, with China just relying on its own consumption—it is a big market—is not going to be good for China any more than it is good for us. I fully go along with that. I do not think we should be anti-China in any circumstances. That is, in a sense, racist. We should be anti-Communist party, or certain against its policies, but with the Chinese people, and in trading, we should maintain a perfectly normal relationship.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. Mr Parton, I want to pick up your point about access to academics, universities and so on. There is clearly a big push from universities to invest heavily in China and build relationships. Do you think there should be more safeguards in the Bill for those relationships? Secondly, do you think the Bill provides sufficient protections for intellectual propertyQ ?
Where academia sets up a company, and that involves itself with China, yes, that should be under the purview of the Bill. There is a separate question about when Chinese companies hire or fund—whichever you like to say—UK academics to carry out a specific piece of research for them. Universities are working on that, and that is a very urgent question. Again, I think that a much stricter regime should be put in place to stop the seeping out of technologies that could be used in the military field or the repressive one. I am not convinced that that is there at the moment; I am sure it is not. That might be a separate question. It may or may not be one that requires parliamentary legislation—people who are experts on that can make up their mind—but some form of consultation with the Government, or perhaps a sanctions regime, needs to be put in place so that that does not happen.
On the question of intellectual property rights, China has a very rigorous campaign to get hold of our IP. Some of it is stolen through cyber, and I am sure our intelligence services and others are doing their best to combat that. I am not sure about the degree to which this Bill can act as a defence against Chinese abuse. It can certainly try to encourage companies to raise their own defences, but the UK has an organisation—the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure—that aims to put out that advice and help. I do not know whether it is strong enough in its actions and shield; that is outside my area of expertise. It is certainly there, but perhaps it, too, needs strengthening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. Mr Parton, thank you for your time today. You said that small firms may come under pressure to be bought up, and are often targeted. What is your view on how this Bill can strengthen national security by ensuring that firms—particularly small firms—are not taken over by legitimate, friendly actors, which further down the road are bought up by China or whoever? Does the Bill protect us from that type of long-term acquisitionQ ?
I suspect that there is a limit as to how far down the line one can go, but where activity is still going on in the UK—that is to say, where UK individuals are still running that company in the UK on behalf of a friendly foreign country, and the company is later bought up—that should be covered by this Bill. Otherwise, you are absolutely right: you may find a company in Liechtenstein buying it; then the company gets bought by the Chinese, and the technology gets siphoned out. There has to be a defence against that.
If a company is bought by a friendly country and the technology is exported, and nothing is happening in the UK, then I cannot see how extraterritoriality would be applicable.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg.Q
I want to explore the extent to which the world—if I can describe it as one world—of academic consultants and private sector companies, to which you have referred, would agree with what you are saying. You refer to having a SAGE-like committee; is there a danger that, if you did have such a committee, it would actually have very divergent views?
I fully respect where you are coming from, but you made some quite hard-hitting comments earlier about crimes against humanity in the concentration camps, and questioning whether companies and academia should be involving themselves in aspects of China. You also referred to a top mathematician, who was formerly at Oxford University, helping China with cryptography.
I want to get a feel for the extent to which you think that your views are shared by academics, consultants and the private sector, and then feed that back into whether, if you did put together a SAGE-like committee—and I can see the sense in doing that—you might find it quite difficult to come to a consensus.
Finally, it must be quite difficult to judge exactly whether what is being developed—whether it be from an academic idea or from a corporate idea—will be helpful to the Chinese in a way that is detrimental to Britain, or is actually a perfectly sensible piece of research and development that could be of benefit to both countries.
Can I take those three questions almost backwards, or certainly not in the order in which you have presented them? In terms of expertise within a SAGE-type community, those experts would not be making the political decision. They would be making the technical decision: “To what degree can these technologies be used in a military, as well as a civilian, context?” That is the advice that would be going up. It would then be for the Ministers on a committee to say, “Well, we judge that risk to be acceptable,” or “We do not.”
Of course, nothing is black and white in technology because, as the distinction between civil and military is increasingly eroded, it is quite difficult to know; there are many shades of grey here. A judgement has to be made on any particular technology—either “Sorry, we will have to rule that one out,” or “On this one, yes, there are some risks, and maybe we will come to regret it, but on balance, we will let that one through.”
On whether consultants, academics and others agree with my views on China and the nature of the regime, I think that depends, if you will excuse my saying so, on the degree to which they have studied China and looked at the issues. It is noticeable that those who read what the Chinese communist party says about itself tend very much to agree with what I say, or with the sort of views that I put out. Those who have other interests do not. Of course, there are some who I would say are captured, quite frankly, by the degrees of interference and other aspects that the Chinese United Front Work Department pushes.
There is a variety of opinion there, but I think that those who understand China and read what the party says—the party says an awful lot, actually, if you bother to read what it says; it is not a black box—are inclined very much to my views. Those views are: be careful, because it is not coming from the same angle as us, and has some very distinct and not very nice aspects to it. At the same time, it is a major economic power, a major science and technology power, and a major influence on the goods in the world, whether for health, development, peacekeeping or whatever, and we must get on with the country to the best of our ability. I don’t know if that answers your question fully; do come back.
I am pleased to take part in this Committee under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg.Q
Mr Parton, the Bill looks primarily at direct investment by potentially hostile operators. Does it give sufficient protection against indirect control? For example, a company may be reliant on its bankers, who may or may not be based in a hostile territory, and who may rely on technology through a company such as Huawei; or a company’s ultimate owners and controlling party could be registered in an offshore tax haven, and it could be that nobody has any idea who actually owns that company. Does the Bill give sufficient protection against those kinds of threats through indirect influence and control?
I am not a legal expert, but the Committee stage of the Bill needs to look deeply at that question. If there is any doubt as to who the ultimate owners are, that should be taken into account by whatever organisation makes the recommendation on whether a particular investment is acceptable. If we cannot follow through relatively easily back to the ultimate beneficial owners and users, that is a factor that needs to be weighed very heavily in the decision on allowing a particular, possibly sensitive, investment to go ahead.
Q In your experience, is that a technique that either the Chinese Communist party or other potential hostile players either have used or are likely to use if it is in their interests? Do you have knowledge, for example, of China using non-disclosure territories to set up companies in order to try to invest in the UK or elsewhere? Are you aware of them using the influence of the technology, for example, to try to exert influence on companies that do not, at first glance, appear to be directly owned from China?
I have to say that that is outside my expertise, but I do think it is an extremely good and important question that could be researched relatively easily. Forgive me if I am pushing RUSI here, but I suspect that RUSI has the capability in one of its teams to do some data mining on that, and come up with an answer. It is a very important question, but I am not aware of any research, though there may be some, that goes deeply into that question. It is certainly one that should be followed up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. Good morning, Mr Parton. The Bill obviously aims to protect national security while promoting investment in the United Kingdom and not dissuading any inward investment into the country. With your experience, and given everything that you have said this morning, do you think the Bill will succeed in its aimsQ ?
Again, I am not a legal expert, but it seems to set out the legal framework. It all very much depends on the structures and mechanisms, and the resourcing of them, that are set up to ensure whether the judgments about a particular company or a piece of academic research and the technology from them should be blocked or allowed through. I put it back to the Committee: if its detailed research, and the measures that go into the Bill, show that whatever organisation is set up is sufficient unto the job, and that the channels are there to ensure that all these small and sometimes obscure technologies are at least passed by it, that is a really important piece of work.
Q Secondly, I wondered how the proposal might compare to regimes that are already in place in comparable countries—for example, our Five Eyes partners.
I have not done comparative research on that, or done a paper on it. That is something that needs to be done by the Government. Perhaps they have done that. The impression that I get from discussions of this sort of question in the various fora that I mix in suggests that the Americans and Australians have taken a much more hard-hitting approach than we have. Again, it depends on what structure is set up by the British Government, and how it functions in line with the Bill. Forgive me for not giving you a full answer, but that is the sort of research that needs to be commissioned by the Government in order to make decisions on how to deal with that question.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. Mr Parton, I want to ask about influence. We have seen companies linked to hostile states hiring former diplomats, civil servants, parliamentarians and Ministers to provide a veneer of respectability. How can we do more to guard against that? Secondly, on the Bill, provided advice is drawn widely from the agencies and other parts of Government through the investment security unit in the way that you have described, do you think that having a quasi-judicial decision made by the Secretary of State guards against that influence and potential cronyism in the decision makingQ ?
The question of elite capture is very important and very topical. First, I have called for this in various papers that I have written. The Cobra committee that makes decisions on employment after political or civil service careers definitely needs strengthening. I am not sure of the degree to which work on that is going on; in fact, I do not think much is. Certainly neither the provisions, nor the exercise of those provisions, have been sufficiently rigorous. It is very much a question of lengthening the amount of time between leaving a particular post and taking up a job where, in some cases, you are laundering the reputations of some of these companies. If that period is too small and the criteria are too weak, there is a great risk of people, while still in office or still in post, saying to themselves, “I’d better not be too harsh on this, because in a couple of years’ time, I might be approaching these people, or they might approach me for a job.” That is pretty crude, I know, but it is perhaps easier to see in the case of a defence company. If you were in the MOD, say, and you had to make a decision, one hopes you would make it entirely in the national interest, rather than with a view to possible employment by whichever company might be bidding for a contract, but that is one area that needs strengthening.
The other area in all influence problems, of course, is that sunlight and transparency is the one weapon we have, but if a Minister, an ex-Minister or a top civil servant is running a consultancy company, and let us say Huawei is employing that company—I choose this example by sheer chance—that should be known. That should be declared, because if such people—who are still influential with their old colleagues, whether parliamentary, ministerial or civil service—are urging a certain line, as I have heard some urge, it may not be disinterested; in fact, it certainly is not in some cases. That needs to be made clear. Sorry, could you just repeat the second part of your question?
Q It was picking up on your point, which I think we all share, about ensuring that the investment security unit draws advice from the agencies and across other parts of Government. Provided it does that, having a quasi-judicial decision that is challengeable under judicial review by a Secretary of State in some ways guards against that soft influence or cronyism getting involved in a SAGE-type committee. Can you see the benefits of that model?
Yes, but I think you have to be very happy and convinced that the Minister in charge is one whose future does not incline him or her to make a decision that is somewhat biased. It is not without precedent in the world, anyway, that some ex-Ministers have been under the influence of the Chinese Communist party for one reason or another, so you have to be quite careful about that, and it is a really important decision. That is why I would be more inclined to make sure it is very clear that it is not just within the purview of BEIS, because BEIS’s job is to push investment. That is perfectly fair, but there may be occasions—not now, but in the future—where people’s backgrounds, inclinations or futures incline them to be less than even in their judgment.
Q Thank you very much, Chair, for giving me another bite at the cherry. Mr Parton, as a final point, I thought it might be useful to remind the Committee of the symbiotic nature of the relationship between the Chinese Communist party and the Chinese business community. Based on your extensive experience in China, could you briefly outline how the Chinese Communist party in essence runs the business community; the role that it plays in ensuring executives are appointed who are sympathetic to the party; and the whole way in which the nomenklatura works? That will help us to understand the extent to which Chinese business interests in this country are, in essence, the same as the interests of the Chinese Communist party.
Could I just add to that? That is an excellent point, but could you also say a little bit on how China responds to proposed takeovers that might implicate its national security, if those takeovers are allowed? How does it respond to that investment into its companies?
Those are both good points. First of all, divide it into the state-owned sector and the private sector. In terms of the state-owned sector, the top executives of the big state-owned companies are appointed by the central organisation department of the party. That is the organisation that is, as Mr Kinnock has said, in charge of the nomenklatura: the top 3,000 to 4,000 party officials. Of course, a lot of state-owned companies are also owned at the provincial and lower levels, and there, too, the top executives are party members and beholden to the party. Let us not forget that most foreign investment by the Chinese is state owned, so it is not just a fair bet but a fair certainty that any state-owned enterprise investing is fully politically controlled.
When it comes to the private sector, Huawei has spent a large amount of its time insisting that it is a private company—I really do not care. And I do not really care that the national security law says that any individual or organisation must help the party or security organs when called upon. The brute fact is that, in the way the system is run in China, if the party tells you to do something, the only response from private business to an order is to say, “Certainly, Sir. How high do you want me to jump?” so this debate is entirely irrelevant. The party is now pushing committees into all private enterprises—foreign and local—and it would be a very unwise head of a private company who said, “No, Mr Xi Jinping. I don’t think so.” If nothing else has been shown by what has happened with Jack Ma, China’s second-richest person, and the Ant Group finance company in the last few weeks—there are, of course, financial risk reasons they might want to control Jack Ma’s Ant Group—it is, “Sorry, you are beholden to the Communist party.” That was a very fierce reminder of it.
In terms of this debate, I do not think we should be under any illusion that if a party says to a company about its technology or whatever, “Well okay, it’s all very well that you’ve got that, but we want it fed into our People’s Liberation Army organisations and science and technology system,” no company is going to say, “Oh no, that’s not right. We won’t do that.” For instance, when Huawei says, “If we were asked to do something against our commitments, in terms of what we do abroad, that would threaten security, we would not do that,” it is rubbish. They know that.
I am afraid that brings us to the end of this part of the session. Mr Parton, I thank you on behalf of the Committee for your evidence and the clear, concise answers you gave. We must now move on to the next session. If Members want to take a comfort break for a couple of minutes, I am happy to do that.