Our greatest challenge is not Covid-19, but the new Cold War with China
8 July 2020
As Brexit Britain slowly rebuilds in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, the escalating crisis in Hong Kong is a warning that we must be alive to a much greater threat that has been looming for years and which until now Western governments have been unwilling to face up to – the new Cold War with China.
This insidious conflict is often proceeding below the radar and in unconventional ways, unbound by geography and with no target off-limits. It is already destroying both careers and lives. Britain needs to get ready to proactively face the threat.
Bogac Ozdemir, a top trader and star performer with Australia’s ANZ bank, has reportedly become the latest international victim in this struggle. UK strategists should pay attention to cases like his, as they reveal both elements of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) approach to achieving global hegemony far beyond their own borders and the major weaknesses in the West which need to be addressed.
Ozdemir, widely respected in financial circles, was the Global Head of Rates and Credit at the Singapore office of ANZ – one of the largest Australian banks and one of the country’s biggest companies. Their most profitable individual trader, Ozdemir was promoted rapidly. He made hundreds of millions of dollars for the bank and its shareholders, and turned around unprofitable departments.
However, his star performance was not enough to save him from the rage of the CCP when in a post on LinkedIn discussing the approach of different governments to coronavirus in March 2020 he said, ““I don’t want to say anything about China because we are all in this mess because of China and I don’t believe anything from there.”
Very quickly, an intimidation playbook was brought to bear on ANZ and Ozdemir. Suddenly, an online army of trolls began hurling abuse at him online, denouncing him as a “racist”. Chinese-language articles appeared in Australia denouncing his remarks as “arrogant, prejudiced,” before adding that “brutal racists are very unprofessional”. Chinese outlets also bolstered their attacks by managing to get a ‘supervisor’ at the Australian Financial Markets Association (AFMA) to issue a statement condemning Ozdemir’s “outrageous ignorant racism”.
The orchestrated pressure was soon ramped up further when the Chinese financial regulator and several CEOs of ANZ’s Chinese clients reputedly started to complain to the bank about Ozdemir’s remarks and demanding an investigation. ANZ, apparently unfamiliar with Chinese government information warfare tactics or simply lacking the strength to stand by its employee, meekly threw their top performer under the bus. They issued a statement declaring that Ozdemir’s comments “showed a distinct lack of judgement”, pledging “a full inquiry” and effectively publicly buying into Chinese disinformation by branding him a racist too in asserting that “ANZ promotes a culture of respect and multiculturalism and the comment was clearly not in keeping with our standards.” Ozdemir was asked to remove the LinkedIn post and placed on “special leave”, with rumours circling in the financial world that he has been fired.
It should be alarming for UK policymakers (not to mention the wider Five Eyes intelligence community) that even as Australia’s government begins to strike an ever-more hawkish tone on China, investing over $930 million to bolster its cyber defences in the wake of a recent cyber-attack attributed to the Chinese government, China is able to bypass this completely by targeting Australia’s soft underbelly.
By going after key businesspeople like Bogac Ozdemir, and bullying controversy-adverse corporations such as ANZ who lack experience and are unwilling or simply unable to stand their ground in case they lose preferential access to Chinese markets, the CCP are able to exert power globally and force the West into line.
Unfortunately for the UK, Bogac Ozdemir and ANZ are just the latest in a string of both individuals and corporations apparently targeted. The examples are disparate, including the Swiss bank UBS, the Arsenal footballer Mesut Ozil, the Houston Rockets Basketball team, and the footballer Hao Runze. They are all united by a common pattern – criticising, opposing or otherwise angering the Chinese government, then coming under focused and concerted coercion, and suffering either a loss of business, the destruction of a career or simply a sustained period of extreme pressure to bend to their critics.
It is just a matter of time before UK businesses feel the heat in a more targeted way than they have so far, particularly given the reliance on unrestricted trade with China that characterises key sectors of the UK economy. Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, was right to describe London-based HSBC’s expression of support for China’s new authoritarian national security legislation in Hong Kong as a “cautionary tale” and to warn against China’s “coercive bully tactics”. The “show of fealty” by HSBC’s Asia-Pacific CEO, Peter Wong, is just a taste of things to come as the bank’s business in China is increasingly used as leverage against the UK government. China does not need to indulge in a costly and unwinnable ‘kinetic’ war with the West using bombs and bullets when it can use information warfare and its economic muscle to push around key businesses so integral to Western interests.
The UK must quickly put its economy on a Cold War footing, preparing it for the acts of information warfare, disinformation, and intimidation that may be unleashed upon it by the CCP in the near future. What happened to Bogac Ozdemir, and others, can happen to anyone working for a British corporation and no British enterprise is immune. Key industries need to be preparing counter-disinformation strategies, scenario planning for how they will protect their employees should they be targeted for coercion, and explaining to their shareholders the contingencies they will take to mitigate economic loss or diversify should they end up in a battle with the CCP.
The government must educate and support, fostering expertise in countering information and economic warfare, briefing British CEOs on what they can expect should their business come under CCP pressure, and providing all necessary public backing so that British enterprise doesn’t simply become a plaything of President Xi’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy. Likewise, it should be willing to call out those companies which have limply acquiesced to CCP demands and essentially become pawns in China’s geostrategic game.
If Britain and its key allies do not grasp this challenge now, we may soon find ourselves compromising our values and principles in order to appease a foreign government which does not share our commitment to free speech, free enterprise and the rule of law. Bit by bit, company by company, through ruined careers and kowtowing to economic pressure, we may just sustain our prosperity but at what cost to our liberty, values, and way of life? This is Brexit Britain’s greatest threat and we must steel ourselves for what is to come.