Has Beijing been 'grooming' Britain's elite through the 48 Group club?

Has Beijing been quietly ‘grooming’ Britain’s elite through an exclusive club known as the 48 Group? Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Jack Straw have been linked to club which is objecting to book that claims to reveal how China is infiltrating the West

  • New book claims China’s influence in UK is far-reaching and unstoppable
  • 48 Group Club is the alleged vehicle behind the spread of Chinese influence
  • New Labour figures including Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson are  linked to club 

Hands interlocked, his face in solemn repose, Peter Mandelson stands deferentially behind China’s Xi Jinping on a visit to Beijing. 

When taken in 2018, the picture drew little, if any, comment. Why would it? Lord Mandelson has, after all, made quite a habit of cosying up to authoritarian leaders. 

But now it has acquired new significance. For Lord Mandelson is the latest senior New Labour figure to be linked to a pro-Beijing lobby group – the 48 Group Club – whose chairman, British businessman Stephen Perry, is managing director of the London Export Corporation. 

According to a new book – Hidden Hand: Exposing How The Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping The World – it is claimed that China’s influence in Britain is far-reaching and unstoppable, with the 48 Group Club exploited by China as a networking hub ‘through which Beijing grooms Britain’s elites’. 

Little wonder, then, that the claims, which first surfaced in The Times last week, are causing disquiet in London, where the hitherto low-key club boasting 650 members is based. Lawyers for the 48 Group have written to the book’s publisher to ‘correct and respond to errors’, but deny claims from its authors that the club is determined to block its publication in the UK. 

The group boasts Lord Heseltine as a founder patron and John Prescott as a patron. Lord Heseltine confirmed his links to the club, which he said was a network for people involved in trade with China. 

Lord Mandelson is the latest senior New Labour figure to be linked to a pro-Beijing lobby group – the 48 Group Club – whose chairman, British businessman Stephen Perry, is managing director of the London Export Corporation

The 48 Group’s website also lists Tony Blair as an honorary fellow. Mr Blair insists he attended only one 48 Group Club shindig – an event for its youth wing in 2010 – where he was pictured with Stephen Perry

The 48 Group’s website also lists Tony Blair as an honorary fellow. Mr Blair insists he attended only one 48 Group Club shindig – an event for its youth wing in 2010 – where he was pictured with Mr Perry. 

His spokesman told The Mail on Sunday: ‘The event was a short speech and Q&A for young British and Chinese business people. It came as a request through a friend. There was no payment. 

‘This was the first and only time Mr Blair had anything to do with something connected to the organisation.’ 

Former Home Secretary Jack Straw, who is also named in Hidden Hand as a fellow of the 48 Group, said last week: ‘I’ve never heard of them.’ 

Days later, however, a photograph emerged of Mr Straw being awarded a fellowship of the club. ‘I’d completely forgotten about that – it was 13 years ago,’ he told The Times later. 

Last night, Mr Straw told the MoS he had a vague recollection of attending a dinner of the 48 Group in 2007 while he was a Minister and of being made a fellow. However, he denied lobbying for the group or for China. 

China’s President Xi Jinping (right) meets with the 48 Group Club chairman Stephen Perry at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 16, 2018

On the 48 Club’s website, which was briefly taken down amid the book storm, its mission statement is to foster commercial and cultural harmony between Britain and China

‘I certainly have not lobbied for the 48 Group Club. Our relationship with China was more benign then, their economy was far less strong, and Hong Kong seemed to be reasonably stable,’ he said. 

‘I certainly never lobbied for the Chinese government.’ 

The claims come amid a warning to British universities about the influence of China on campuses. Senior politicians, academics and former diplomats have put a spotlight on foreign interference, drawing particular attention to the financial dependency ofeducational institutions on Chinese research grants and students. 

‘In our judgment, so entrenched are the [Chinese] influence networks among British elites that Britain has passed the point of no return and any attempt to extricate itself from Beijing’s orbit would probably fail,’ wrote Hidden Hand’s Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Australia’s Charles Sturt University and his co-author, Mareike Ohlberg, a senior academic. 

Prof Hamilton is regarded as an expert on the Chinese Communist Party. Prof Hamilton said his book’s UK publisher, Oneworld, had received a letter from lawyers who claimed Mr Perry and the 48 Group Club had been defamed. 

‘We will be responding robustly,’ he told the MoS. ‘The book is meticulously documented. We stand by our research.’ 

Michael Heseltine presenting Jack Straw with the Fellowship Award from the ’48 Group Club’ that promotes China/UK relations Chinese New Year dinner at the Guildhall, London in 2007

Mr Perry, 72, studied law at University College, London. After graduating he followed in the footsteps of his father who led a trade mission of 48 businessmen to China in the early 1950s and from which the 48 Group Club takes its name. 

At the time, few UK companies traded behind the so-called Bamboo Curtain during the Cold War. Hidden Hands records that in 2018, Mr Perry had an audience with President Xi, a meeting the authors say shows that the Communist Party regards the 48 Group Club as useful to its efforts to influence policy decisions in Britain. 

At their meeting Mr Xi lauded the work of the club and Mr Perry in turn praised China’s ‘tremendous achievement’ and the Chinese leader’s vision ‘of a community with a shared future for humanity’.

Huawei – ‘a decisive victory for Beijing’ 

At the start of this year, Mr Perry gave a speech at a 48 Group bash in Central London supporting Chinese communications giant Huawei’s attempts to provide infrastructure for British 5G networks. 

Hidden Hand claims Huawei – which has very strong links to the Chinese state – donated £50,000 to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on East Asian Business in 2011. It has also donated £8,600 in 2012 and 2013 to the Tory Party, as well as £11,250 to the Conservative Friends of the Chinese. 

To the dismay of other Western powers, the book says, Huawei’s largesse appeared to have ‘paid off in January 2020 when the British Government gave the green light for Huawei’s participation in Britain’s 5G network’ adding: ‘It was a decisive victory for Beijing.’ 

The 48 Group Club denies any suggestion it tries to exercise influence on behalf of Beijing. Rather, it says, it aims to foster commercial and cultural harmony between Britain and China. 

Former Labour Cabinet Minister Peter Mandelson is named by the book’s authors as a ‘friend’ of China’s International Liaison Department, which befriends foreign groups and individuals for use as lobbyists for China. 

The ILD has put enormous effort into promoting China’s Belt and Road initiative, one of the world’s biggest infrastructure development projects, which has seen China build roads, sea ports and rail tracks in over 70 countries. 

Hidden Hand details how Lord Mandelson has encouraged Britain ‘to actively participate in the building of the Belt and Road Initiative’. 

In a statement, his office said: ‘Lord Mandelson is pleased to support the British Government in their constructive engagement with China through his role as honorary president of the Government-funded Great BritishChina Centre.’ 

They declined to comment on the peer’s links with the 48 Group Club. 

The New Cold War waged against Britain 

According to Hidden Hand, another group, the United Front Work Department, recruits from 120,000 Chinese students studying in British universities to campaign on behalf of China. 

What is the 48 club? A group of British elites to foster relations with China

The 48 Club is a 650-member strong organisation which helps British companies break into the Chinese market, according to its website. 

It dates back to the efforts of businessmen to forge greater Sino-Anglo alliances following the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

The first trip in 1953 took 16 representatives of British companies, including current chairman Stephen Perry’s father Jack, to China to discuss trade.

It paved the way for a second visit in 1954 where 48 representatives from British companies embarked on a trade mission to China.

Since its inception, the club claims to command gravitas among the Chinese businesses community to the extent that it is ‘the most respected name in China-Britain trade’.

According to its website, the 48 club’s mission statement is to ‘have a vital role in unfreezing the cultural deficit between China and the world’.

The group was particularly close with former Chinese premier Hu Jintao, who is pictured with several of the 48 club’s members, including Perry.  

The club hosts seminars and dinners for its members, while also offering ‘support and consultancy services to British companies entering China’s market’.

The 48 Club claims to be funded by its members. 

Mr Perry is managing director of the London Export Corporation, a consultancy firm about the Chinese market.

If, for example, an anti-Chinese protest is held anywhere in the UK, then the UFWD could potentially mobilise its young recruits to stage a counter-demonstration. 

Elsewhere in the book, the authors say China is waging a new Cold War against Britain and the West by infiltrating its top universities with military spies. 

Since 2007, more than 2,500 Chinese military scientists have come from abroad to research in Western universities, especially Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – which have a historic intelligence-sharing pact known as the Five Eyes Agreement. 

While some of the scientists have been open about their links to the Chinese military, others have tried to disguise their backgrounds by claiming to be based at Chinese universities that, it transpires, exist only on paper. 

Hundreds of scientists have claimed they belong to the Zhengzhou Information Science and Technology Institute, which is a fake university, according to Hidden Hand. 

‘The Zhengzhou Information Science and Technology Institute does not actually exist,’ say the authors. ‘It has no website, no phone number and no buildings. It does have a post office box in Henan province’s capital city, Zhengzhou, but that’s about it. 

‘The name is in fact a cover for the university that trains China’s military hackers and signals intelligence officers, the People’s Liberation Army Information Engineering University, which is based in Zhengzhou.’ 

The authors cite an earlier work, by Australian academic Alex Joske, which exposed how Chinese military spies infiltrated Western universities in a report two years ago. 

Mr Joske said that British universities were the second-most targeted by Chinese spies after America. He claimed that at least 500 Chinese military scientists were posted to British universities between 2007 and 2017. 

His investigation found that a student from the PLA National University of Defence Technology studied graphene, the ‘miracle material’ 200 times stronger than steel, at Manchester University before returning to China, where his expertise is ‘close to the needs of the military’. 

Last night, a spokesman for Manchester University said: ‘We value our connections with China… All of our interactions as such have to be based on government guidance and regulation. The university carries out due diligence on all research collaborations and we have a clear intellectual property policy which all our researchers, overseas and domestic, must adhere to as part of their professional contracts.’ 

Honeytrap sprung at the 2008 Olympics  

Hidden Hand claims that Chinese honey traps have allegedly targeted a British politician and a No10 aide on two separate occasions in China. 

During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Ian Clement, a deputy to then London Mayor Boris Johnson, became a victim. 

Mr Clement, then 44, was at a party in Beijing on the opening night of the Games, also attended by Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell and then US President George Bush.

He met an attractive Chinese woman who he agreed to see again for a drink. But when Mr Clement returned to his hotel, his admirer was already sitting at the reception. After a couple of drinks at the bar, they went to his room, where Mr Clement lost consciousness. 

He later discovered that the woman had ransacked his files and downloaded material from his Blackberry device. In the same year, an unidentified aide to then Prime Minister Gordon Brown was approached by a Chinese woman at a disco in a Shanghai hotel. 

He took her back to his hotel room and discovered his Blackberry stolen after she left the following morning. He duly alerted the Prime Minister’s Special Branch team and was reprimanded. 

The book also reveals German and French intelligence uncovered how Chinese spies lured European government workers to China with promises of money, using the professional social media site, LinkedIn. 

Tens of thousands of government workers, academics and researchers in France and Germany were approached through LinkedIn by Chinese individuals posing as consultants, think-tank staff and even entrepreneurs. 

The 48 Group Club, also known as ‘The Icebreakers’, are a 500-strong outfit with headquarters in Bayswater

All-expenses jollies – then comes the sting 

Hundreds were then lured to China with offers of money and jobs on all-expenses-paid flights and entertained for days by their hosts, who then pumped them for information. 

The authors write: ‘Those who accepted spent a few days being befriended through social activities and were then asked to provide information. It is believed that in some cases they were photographed in compromising situations, such as accepting payments, making them prone to blackmail.’ 

Hidden Hand has arrived at a difficult juncture in British-Chinese relations. Last week, Boris Johnson announced that up to three million Hong Kong residents are to be offered the chance to settle in the UK and ultimately apply for citizenship. 

He said Hong Kong’s freedoms were being violated by a new Beijing security law and those affected would be offered a ‘route’ out of the former UK colony. 

The 48 Group Club last night denied helping the Chinese International Liaison Department, saying: ‘The Club has no formal relationship with the ILD and we unequivocally deny any accusation that we help the ILD lobby the British government or lobby on behalf of the ILD.’ 

Mr Perry said: ‘It has been reported in the media that we have initiated legal proceedings against the authors of a book entitled Hidden Hand. This is not the case. 

‘It became clear that the book contained a number of inaccurate and potentially libellous statements relating to the role and function of the 48 Group Club and some of its members. 

‘On taking legal advice, the Club wrote to the publishers of the book to request sight of the text and opportunity to correct and respond to the errors in the book. Errors have been acknowledged by the publishers and we are working to correct the others.’ 

He added: ‘Being an independent body, the 48 Group Club does not have a formal relationship with any other organisation, whether inside or outside China.’ 

The Chinese Embassy in London did not respond last night.

Who are the powerful movers and shakers who lead the 48 Club? 

Board members

Stephen Perry (Chairman), Managing Director – London Export Corporation

Keith Bennett (Vice Chairman) Chairman– Bennett Associates

Matt Jackson (Secretary General), International Markets – KPMG LLP UK

Mei Sim Lai OBE DL (Treasurer), Principal – Lai Peters & Co

Aman Wang (Committee Member), Partner at KPMG LLP

Vice Presidents 

Ben Chapman , Life President All Party Parliamentary China Group;

Ben Pape, Chairman – PMP;

Peter Batey OBE (Vice President, Beijing), Chairman – Vermilion Partners Ltd;

Jeremy Butler, Managing Director – One Wigwam Ltd;

Lance Browne CBE (Chairman Awards Committee), ViceChairman – Standard Chartered plc;

Dr Johnny Hon (Vice President), Chairman – Global Group International Holdings Limited;

Jude Woodward, Executive Director – China Arts Space;

Club Patrons

Lord Heseltine, former Conservative deputy prime minister 

Lord Prescott, former Labour deputy prime minister 

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