The curious case of the Huawei dossier

A dossier claiming that China orchestrated a campaign to enlist the support of British politicians was leaked last week, but who is behind it?

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Last week an explosive dossier was leaked to the Times and the Daily Mail alleging a sprawling influence campaign engineered by China, using telecoms company Huawei as bait to influence hapless MPs and peers to lobby on the country’s behalf. The allegations from the dossier have been vehemently denied by Huawei, China's ambassador to the UK, and those named as alleged targets. How was it put together and for what purpose?

So far, only those two papers claim to have actually seen the 86-page dossier, entitled "China’s Elite Capture". Anti-China activist and film producer, Andrew Duncan, commissioned the report, and it was compiled by Orbis – the ex-spy Christopher Steele’s company – and contributed to by others, including Charles Parton, a former British diplomat.

Among the people named were Lord Clement-Jones, a Liberal Democrat peer, who expressed bafflement at the idea that he was the target of a covert influence campaign  not least because he has sat on the advisory board of Huawei. "I know the Huawei people very well. I know people who run their government affairs in the UK, and other senior management back in Shenzhen. They don't need to use subterfuge," he said.

Others named in the dossier issued similarly strenuous denials. Mike Rake, the former chairman of BT, and Kenneth Olisa, the Lord Lieutenant of London, both now sit on Huawei’s UK advisory board, but deny they were the targets of such a campaign. David Cameron and George Osborne were also named, both of whom worked to strengthen UK relations with China during the Cameron government. The only person named so far without any discernible links to either Huawei or China is former Conservative and Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Wollaston, who said she’d once been approached by Huawei through an intermediary with an offer to sponsor an event but had turned it down. (Given the dossier alleges a covert campaign orchestrated by the company, this can't be taken as evidence.)

Huawei said in a statement: "We categorically refute these unfounded allegations, which do not bear scrutiny and are regrettably the latest in the long-running US campaign against Huawei. They are designed to deliver maximum reputational damage to our business and have no basis in fact." The dossier alleges that those named had been lured into taking part in radio shows created to sway the opinions of the participants in a direction favourable to Huawei and China. The Daily Mail reports that the dossier said: "The targets did not know that the radio stations were fake and thought they were participating in interviews with online radio stations from Hong Kong, Belgium, India and Austria."

Those named have denied taking part in any ersatz radio shows. "Has anybody seen any evidence? [...] Where is the evidence?” asks Clement-Jones, who called the allegations “bizarre”, “total fantasy” and “a great smearing operation". "It makes me extremely angry when I see unsubstantiated allegations of this kind, where they just smear a whole group of people because of our connection with Huawei and or China."

Someone close to the dossier who wished to remain unnamed denied this was the intention of the report. "I think some of the people feel that they've been accused of having done something wrong, which is actually not what the report is saying. It’s saying that there’s an entirely separate group attempting to manipulate and influence those people,” they said. "There's no assumption that the influence or manipulation was successful. That's a different question."

They said that the report had been collated using open source data, dark web research and human source intelligence. "Particularly when you've got people who are former officials, government servants, they have networks of people that they can reach out to that might be able to provide useful data."

Private intelligence

The murky world of private intelligence is under-scrutinised and densely populated by ex-spies. There is a distinction between private investigations – which are based on independently verifiable facts – and intelligence, which is more heavily reliant on sources. This mirrors how government intelligence agents work in the field, by producing raw or (as it's called in the US) "stovepipe" data. "Analysts get this and pour it into some sort of a centre, and people will look at it and [ask] 'what do you think of this based on what we've seen from other reporting'? [...] 'What degree of validity do we assign to it?'" says Jim Casey, former FBI agent and director of private intelligence company First Coast Security.

It’s this "raw" reporting that comprised Steele’s dossier alleging president Trump’s Russia connections, according to Anthony Glees, emeritus professor at Buckingham University and former director of Centre for Intelligence and Security studies at Brunel University. "It looked very much like the sort of reports you would expect an MI6 agent to provide as raw agent-generated reporting [...]" he says. Glees said to him, the report appeared authentic and credible, as long as one believed Steele’s sources.

But that’s where issues arose in verifying the sometimes outlandish claims. "Once people began to drill down, they saw that it was literally hard talk over beers," says Casey. Last week, three Russian oligarchs won a case against Orbis over the dossier's claims about their relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The judge ruled Steele had broken data protection laws and that the dossier had included inaccurate personal data.

The timing of this new Huawei-related dossier – landing in the epicentre of ratcheting tensions between the US and China, and renewed questions over Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network – as well as the strength of denials it has provoked, have raised some eyebrows.

The China connection

Duncan is a long-time anti-China activist. A Reuters article from 2013 describes him as "a former private-equity executive now working as a rights advocate". Reuters reported that around this time, Duncan was a member of the "close circle" of Chinese dissident and civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who is currently a member of the faculty of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America and a senior fellow in human rights at the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank. According to the article, this circle also contained Bob Fu, a Chinese American pastor and founder of China Aid, which provides legal aid to Christians in China.

Duncan appears to have remained close to both and become more heavily involved in Hong Kong pro-democracy activism in recent years. On 18 October 2019, he bought 300 seats at a Brooklyn Nets basketball game for Chinese pro-democracy activists, who wore t-shirts saying "Stand with Hong Kong". A picture on China Aid’s site shows Duncan at the game with Nathan Law, one of the most high profile student leaders in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. Guangcheng was also in attendance.

In February 2016, it was announced that Duncan and his business partner Alex Saks were launching June Pictures, a film production company. The company produced the acclaimed film The Florida Project, as well as Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, a 2017 documentary about Joshua Wong, a teenager who was active in the 2014 Hong Kong Occupy Movement. Duncan stepped down from the company in 2017 after being accused of sexual misconduct by a number of people. Saks bought out his share in the company, but shortly afterwards it shut down.

The New Statesman was not able to make contact with Duncan.

A familiar face

Christopher Steele is a name that has cropped up with uncanny regularity within the past few years. He made his debut with the so-called "dodgy dossier", a compendium of allegations about Trump’s ties to Russia which mostly turned out to be unverifiable or false. The whole dossier was published verbatim by BuzzFeed, despite a lack of corroborating evidence.

Steele is also connected to the much hyped but as of yet unreleased "Russia report" – a report that is claimed to contain details about Russian infiltration into British politics. He is said to have contributed to the report alongside the UK's intelligence agencies.

After the perceived flop of the Trump dossier, Steele came under criticism but when Harry Brandon, a former FBI agent and founder of corporate investigations firm Smith Brandon, asked his old British networks about the ex-spy's reputation, he was told that Steele had been "a good officer" and "had a good reputation within the service".

It has been reported that Orbis was subcontracted by the private intelligence company, Fusion GPS, to investigate Trump, by both conservative political website The Washington Free Beacon and an attorney for Hillary Clinton's campaign and the DNC. DNC officials denied knowledge that their attorney was contracting with Fusion GPS. Steele said he was not aware that the Clinton campaign had commissioned the research until months after he was contracted by Fusion GPS. After Trump was elected president, Steele was apparently paid directly by Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn R. Simpson to continue the work. Steele reportedly passed intelligence back to both British and American agencies throughout this time.

Transatlantic tensions

The sensational allegations of the Huawei-linked dossier have exploded at a moment when US and China relations are the most strained in years. The US plans to introduce sanctions against Huawei from September that will prevent the company from using American-made chips, and force it to source these parts elsewhere.

The US has been applying continued pressure on UK lawmakers to disavow the company too. Although the British security services initially said that any risk posed by the vendor could be managed,  Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden today announced that Huawei would be cut out of the UK's 5G network because of the new sanctions. 

Beyond 5G, Huawei has become a totem in an ongoing realignment of Sino-British relations. The escalating China tensions means that the dossier might have an impact despite the lack of evidence produced for its claims. Tory MP Bob Seely, known for his unfavourable views on China, told the Daily Mail: "[The report] is significant because it shows there is a lot of in-the-shadows lobbying taking place." "The atmosphere is so overheated at the moment, it may well be taken seriously," says Clement-Jones.

Huawei is just one company, but the decision to remove it from the network could have seismic repercussions for the UK's relations with both the US and China. The former UK National Security Adviser, Peter Ricketts, told Sky News on 7 July that the turn of events was worrying to him because it was a case of "American policy dictating what Britain chooses for its own telecoms network".

Laurie Clarke is a reporter at New Statesman Tech.

Free trial CSS