China's spy balloon is far from the only concern about its surveillance activities. Its agents are active in Scotland too – Alex Cole-Hamilton
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The spectacular images of a fighter jet taking out the massive white globe and its array of cameras and solar panels was followed hours later by the chair of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns MP, telling UK citizens to immediately delete TikTok from their phones. She did so given the weight of evidence that now exists to say that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could use it to harvest data and private information about the activities and contacts of people around the world.
We should all be worried. These are just the latest developments in a story that’s been taking shape for at least a decade. We’ve come to rely on China as a trading partner and as a provider of a great deal of the tech on which we all depend. The ‘Belt and Road’ initiative has seen China invest in over 150 countries globally, where they fund massive infrastructure projects and organisations. It’s a means of projecting Chinese influence around the world in a way we’ve not seen before.
But there is growing uncertainty about what kind of influence China may seek to bring to bear over those countries because recent events would suggest that its intentions may not be entirely benign. The Chinese National Intelligence Law requires companies to cooperate with intelligence services, opening the door to intrusion and misuse.
Alongside TikTok, that has implications for others like Hikvision. Most people won’t have heard of them, but they make CCTV cameras which are spread across Scotland, including on sensitive sites. Likened to ‘digital asbestos’, Liberal Democrat councillors have secured their removal in Edinburgh and I’ve raised it in the Scottish Parliament too.
We had word about a secret ‘police station’ operating out of a restaurant in Glasgow and discussions I have had directly with Hongkongers reveal that their meetings and events are regularly disrupted by agents of the Chinese state right here in Edinburgh. It’s clear that China has moved backwards under the leadership of Xi Jinping, from the Uyghur Genocide to the clampdowns in Hong Kong, and from the “no limits” friendship with Vladimir Putin to the aggressive posture towards Taiwan. We must stand on the side of human rights and international law.
That we are living in a new Cold War is obvious when it comes to Putin and his murderous Russian expansionism, but that extends in less obvious ways to the Chinese state as well. As such, both the UK and Scottish governments need to conduct an immediate strategic audit of the reach of its interests and influence in Scotland. If we do not, then cameras dangling from hot air balloons could be the least of our worries.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western