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Upsetting China is the Government's biggest taboo, as I found out the hard way


No Taiwan jokes, and Wuhan lab was just a coincidence: officials seemed terrified of annoying Beijing when they vetted Matt Hancock's book

Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley Johnson, will soon be on his way to Xingjiang province in China. Home to the persecuted Uyghur population, the remote region makes for an unlikely tourist destination, but the veteran environmentalist won’t be on holiday: he’ll be making a film. As an unashamed Sinophile, he is unlikely to say anything that upsets Beijing.

Of course Johnson Snr is not in government, but we now know that his reluctance to antagonise the Chinese regime is shared by those in the highest echelons of the British Government. While President Xi Jingping presides over appalling human rights abuses and charts a sinister path to global domination, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office does not want to tweak the dragon’s tail – even via the pages of a former Tory minister’s memoirs.

Publicly, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has begun acknowledging what defence experts have long been warning, which is that the Chinese state emphatically does not wish us well. This is a regime that systematically steals our trade and technology secrets; has infiltrated our critical national infrastructure; and has stretched its toxic tentacles all over our universities.

According to MI5, it poses a “game-changing threat” to the UK. Sunak recently used his first foreign policy speech to declare that the “golden era” of relations between our two countries is over. Unfortunately, the panjandrums in the Foreign Office have yet to catch up, as the Cabinet Office’s painstaking attempts to water down Matt Hancock’s book about the pandemic expose.

Did Covid-19 originate in a Wuhan lab, a global centre for the study and storage of exactly the type of coronaviruses that led to the outbreak? The FBI is certainly warming to the theory. Just last week, the US intelligence agency said that was the most likely cause of the outbreak.

Choosing his words carefully, FBI director Christopher Wray declared that a “potential lab incident” was “most likely” to blame. Other intelligence agencies also struggle to believe that the proximity of the first known case to the world’s leading coronavirus research laboratory – a place where samples are deliberately altered to make them more deadly to humans – is just happenstance.

As for Downing St? They won’t go there. During tortuous negotiations between Hancock and the Cabinet Office over what he could and could not say in his Pandemic Diaries, officials let slip something quite extraordinary: that they believe the proximity of the Wuhan lab to the first recorded Covid outbreak is “entirely coincidental.” They seem terrified of anyone saying otherwise.

Wuhan remarks 'would cause problems'

To date, M16 has studiously avoided commenting one way or another on this highly sensitive matter – so this is quite the revelation. In private feedback on Hancock’s draft manuscript, officials underlined the importance of their message in bold red font, ordering the former health secretary to make clear that any talk of lab leaks is pure "supposition,” and certainly does not reflect HMG’s “views or beliefs.” Any hint that anyone in government suspects the virus started life in a coronavirus research facility in Wuhan “would cause problems,” officials complained.

Nor did the civil service want Hancock to dwell on the questionable relationship between the World Health Organisation and Beijing, which pumps tens of millions of dollars into the UN agency, raising concerns about impartiality. An observation that WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was “terrified of upsetting the Chinese” would have to be removed, the Cabinet Office declared. Instead, Hancock was asked to point to difficulties with the China relationship in a “less pejorative tone” and remove “broader references” to the WHO’s relationship with Beijing.

Officials were particularly twitchy about a passing reference in the draft manuscript to relations between China and Taiwan. Hancock had wanted to include an amusing anecdote about how deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van Tamm had got on at a global health security conference hosted by Taiwan, where he says he came under pressure from Taiwanese representatives to criticise the WHO’s links to the Chinese regime. “Trrying not to start WWIII,” the deputy chief medical officer had quipped in a lighthearted WhatsApp to the health secretary. The UK Government did not see the funny side.

It was not just Beijing the Government was keen not to upset: Hancock was also asked to delete a reference to Johnson receiving a “passive aggressive email” from French president Emmanuel Macron. Such criticism was “problematic,” officials felt.

Neither did the Foreign Office want to embarrass a Middle Eastern country for asking for 400 Covid jabs for members of its royal household, while the vaccine roll out was at an early stage here. But these countries are our allies – and the People’s Republic of China very definitely is not.

There will be much disappointment in defence and intelligence circles that the Foreign Office remains so queasy about telling it as it is.

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