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The amateur sleuths taking on the CCP Pianogate sparked a rebellion among 'Overseas Chinese'

Dr K is accosted at St Pancras. (YouTube)

Dr K is accosted at St Pancras. (YouTube)


February 12, 2024   6 mins

“Stop touching her! Don’t touch her!” The screams rang out across the concourse of London’s St Pancras station. “Please. Do not touch her! Please. You are not the same age. Please do not touch her. Don’t touch her. Please don’t touch her.”

Shocked by such raw aggression, the man being accused, public pianist Dr K, withdraws. It’s hard to tell if he did touch anyone, since his hand is just out of shot in the film of the incident. He appears to be reaching for the miniature People’s Republic of China flag the young woman was holding.

The outburst was the climax of a row that started when a group of flag-wavers accosted the station’s public pianist and tried to prevent him from broadcasting any footage showing their faces or voices.

The whole group, who were waiting to play after Dr K, had voluntarily interacted with Dr K in a friendly way just 10 minutes earlier. But as he sat up from the piano, inviting them for a jam, one of the party, Ms Liu asked him not to show their faces in his livestream. “We are filming for Chinese TV […] You’re not allowed [to film us at the piano] because we are for Chinese TV. This is non-disclosable.” At one point, the pianist responded: “We’re in a free country, mate. We’re not in Communist China now, you know.” In response, Mr Leng, another of the group, cried racism, claims since echoed online by Ms Liu.

After the clip went viral, an interview with Piers Morgan followed, as did tabloid headlines, memes and remixes. But why such excitement? Weren’t these merely normal British-Chinese people driven by a concern for their personal privacy? Or was something more sinister going on?

To answer this question, we must to turn to Ms Adelina Zhang (张宁), Dr K’s third interlocutor and supposed hand-touching victim. A decade ago, Zhang surfaced at the coalface of the American branch of China Daily, a regime mouthpiece, writing a range of generally anodyne English-language articles, her only sensitive piece being an investigation of a religious cult banned in China. By 2016, Zhang was in the UK. That year, she triumphed at the “First British Chinese Supermodel Contest”, winning with it the opportunity to work with a company that produces shows for Chinese TV. (By the way, all Chinese TV is controlled by the CCP’s propaganda system, including whatever station the St Pancras crew were working for.)

Zhang has since built a career as a presenter of events associated one way or another with the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) and its friends. The UFWD has bestowed upon itself responsibility for what it terms “qiaowu 侨务, or “Overseas Chinese affairs”, meaning for Zhang’s purposes engagement with the Chinese immigrant community in Britain, which includes the likes of Leng and Liu.

UFWD guidance that I’ve been studying states that “Overseas Chinese” are the “sons and daughters of China connected by blood” and that their goal is “national reunification and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. This is of course nonsense. It is the CCP that wants to “reunify China”. (For “reunify China”, read annex Taiwan, gain control of some Malaysian, Philippines, Vietnamese and Japanese waters, plus hopefully various bits of India and Bhutan too.) The claim that the “Overseas Chinese” share this goal is an attempt to conjure a “broad United Front” in support of the CCP. The CCP thus claims to be speaking on behalf of all “Overseas Chinese”, asserting the right to monitor and guide these people, enticing collaboration and intimidating sources of opposition — all in the service of “national reunification and the great rejuvenation”.

Happy-clappy galas and functions of the kind overseen by reliable hosts such as Adelina Zhang serve various functions. They are a great setting for propaganda. Attracting hangers-on from British commerce, academia and politics also make them a staple source of information and connections for the UFWD and a cosy ecosystem for hard-core spies in the employ of China’s intelligence agencies.

Testimony to Zhang’s personal sociability is provided by a healthy crop of political selfies, including with former Prime Minister Theresa May, former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, former Asia minister Mark Field, and serving Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. Here is an account of Zhang’s work offered last year by a magazine run by the UFWD:

“She has hosted numerous international events and interviewed various business leaders. She has thrice hosted a ‘Spring Festival Gala’ organized by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council [the Office is an alter ego for the UFWD under the characteristically Communist ‘two names, one organisation’ system], served as a bilingual host at the Chinese New Year dinner in the UK House of Lords twice, hosted the London Trafalgar Square Spring Festival gala four times, representing Asian women on the international stage, and hosted what BBC called the world’s largest Spring Festival event outside China, attracting up to 700,000 live viewers annually.”

What of Mr Leng and Ms Liu? Neither has enjoyed a career comparably close to the CCP. Leng’s LinkedIn initially identified him as a consultant for the Financial Times, but the paper has since clarified that it contracted him for just two days once. He used to work at a Confucius Institute and now runs gym classes. Liu, who has tried to capitalise on CCP jingoism online since the incident, runs a company placing Chinese grads in internships and jobs.

The three advanced upon Dr K in reverse order of seniority, first Liu, then Leng, then Zhang. The most intriguing aspect of the incident, though, is the presence in the background of another woman, perhaps in charge. In X posts published afterwards, Liu herself claimed that this was Christine Lee, who MI5 alleged to be a UFWD agent in 2022. Liu appeared to write:  “We were filming for Chinese TV, nothing to do with CCP, just a Chinese New Year Video to celebrate a Chinese new year from important figures in the Chinese community in the UK. […] Christine Lee was in the back with my boyfriend, but she was just accompanying.”

Liu then deleted the tweets and then her account was suspended. It is not known why. On top of that, the woman identified as Lee does not actually look like Lee.

It is not easy to see the full picture, but viral events like this act almost as a primer for those unfamiliar with the CCP’s influence efforts abroad: every aspect of the incident reflects some classic phenomenon. Perhaps more importantly, they are also an introduction to the resistance against CCP influence efforts among an emerging coalition of emigres: Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hongkongers, Christians, democratic activists, persecuted artists and lawyers. It is sometimes called a “united front against the united front”. This resistance is carried on above all by those that the CCP desperately wishes were loyal “Overseas Chinese” who support “reunification and rejuvenation”.

The aftermath of “Pianogate” abounds with examples. Take that of British Hong Konger, Jazzua Leung, who went to play his home city’s anthem (banned by the CCP) on the by-then infamous piano. After uploading a video of his performance, Leung’s YouTube account was suspended because of spam complaints by CCP trolls.

Or take the example of any member of the crowd of ethnically Chinese Dr K supporters who flocked to see the pianist on his return to St Pancras. One was my friend Lyndon Lee, a Christian refugee, journalist and human rights lawyer. Or there is Namewee, the Taiwanese musician known for satirising Xi’s CCP, who is now plotting a musical collaboration with Dr K, as well as the army of “Overseas Chinese” amateur sleuths from around the world who endeavoured to dissect every aspect of “Pianogate”.

Look around the world and you will see countless examples of a twilight conflict pitting this resistance against the CCP’s United Front and its pets. Last year, Canada endured an astonishing CCP infiltration scandal that saw the resignation of a serving MP accused of covertly working with the CCP, an attack directed by Prime Minister Trudeau at Canadian intelligence agents leaking info to the media, and revelations of a $1 million plot to influence Trudeau himself. Then and since — a foreign interference inquiry has only just begun in the country — grassroots campaigners such as Natalie Hui and Mehmet Tohti, but also leading politicians such as Michael Chong, have been instrumental in de-stigmatising the conversation around CCP interference and demanding answers about the phenomenon from Trudeau’s government.

The UFWD is not particularly secretive about its intent to interfere in democratic processes: documents I have seen note the growing number of ethnic Chinese running for election in Canada and elsewhere and states a desire to mould them into “a new force in the reunification of the motherland and the rejuvenation of China”.

“The UFWD is not particularly secretive about its intent to interfere in democratic processes.”

Ethnonationalist rhetoric such as this has led to radicalisation. This was evident in California last November, when Xi Jinping’s visit prompted both the United Front and its pets and the anti-CCP resistance to take to the streets. This led to brawls between Tibetan-American teenagers, refugees from Hong Kong and dissidents living in the US on the one hand, and middle-aged, red-armbanded Chinese men on the other. The previous year, the state witnessed a mass shooting of Taiwanese-American Christians by a radical opponent of Taiwan independence.

The CCP has long spoken of “Five Poisons”: those in favour of Taiwanese independence, those in favour of Uyghur independence, those in favour of Tibetan independence, practitioners of Falun Gong, and Chinese democrats. Hong Kong independence advocates have been informally added to the list and cast as “parasites” and “roaches” to be “eradicated”. Xi himself, in 2019, warned that anyone who tries to undermine China’s unification will end up with “bodies pulverised and bones crushed.”

This may be Xi’s dream, but the ragtag anti-CCP resistance is his nightmare — and, as Pianogate revealed, it’s not going anywhere.  What’s needed, however, is more awareness of their struggle. It is too significant to be relegated to social-media discourse. Far from being solely a threat to Chinese emigres, the CCP’s “war by other means” is an attack on democracy itself.

***

The views expressed here are personal, not those of UKCT.


Sam Dunning is a writer and researcher who serves as director of UK-China Transparency, a charity that promotes education about ties between the UK and China.

 

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David McKee
David McKee
5 months ago

We’ve come a long way from April 2020, when we actually thought the Chinese company Huawei was a good bet for supplying equipment for our telecoms infrastructure.

We’ve got some way to go yet, to wake up fully to the threat from China. Great stuff, Mr. Dunning. Keep up the good work.

Jules Anjim
Jules Anjim
5 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

Some way to go indeed given we’ve knowingly gifted China almost sole capacity to supply equipment for the non-insignificant project of “decarbonising” developed economies within the next few decades.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
5 months ago
Reply to  Jules Anjim

Efforts are underway to correct the problems and undo the Chinese monopolies, but two decades of stupidity can’t be undone in four years, and the task isn’t made any easier by a population polarized by years of identity politics and radicalizing social media echo chambers. The ruling class must undo their previous two decades of failure and lack of foresight, all while under threat from international revisionist powers and angry domestic populist factions. Even a minor failure on any front could realistically move us into a truly post-liberal future. Even if the ruling class avoids revolution or world war, globalism will die a slow death by a thousand cuts as politicians are forced to give populists concessions out of fear of further uprisings and take measures against hostile foreign governments that incentivize loyalty and political alliance rather than strict economic efficiency. For the most part, the ruling class has nobody to blame but themselves.

Howard S.
Howard S.
5 months ago

Spies and undercover agents for the Beijing regime do not relish having their photographs ending up on a very popular, very public YouTube video. Someone is bound to recognize them.

D Glover
D Glover
4 months ago
Reply to  Howard S.

Is it possible that the Beijing apparatchiks deliberately staged the confrontation hoping that someone would say or do something racist to them, because that would make good footage to show at home?

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
5 months ago

You didn’t mention the woman who disturbingly says “don’t shoot him” to presumably Leng, when the whole altercation started.

Chris Van Schoor
Chris Van Schoor
5 months ago
Reply to  Rafi Stern

I listen over to the video a few times, and I really couldn’t make out those words. If Zang did indeed say that, it may also have meant to not “film” and not necessarily to not pulling out a gun and puncturing Mr. K with bullets?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago
Reply to  Rafi Stern

A few Youtube Influencers concluded that the woman meant to say “don’t shout at him” instead of “…shoot…”. Her English simply was not that great.

Matt Jarrett
Matt Jarrett
5 months ago

Since joining Free Tibet as a student in the 1990s, it’s amazed me how passive virtually every Western Govt have been in their dealings with covert/overt CCP interference & general external (let alone internal) vileness.
The CCP’s insistence that the rest of the world sees them as an upstanding organisation (because they make all the West’s toys now) & will broach no other narrative is cartoonishly inevitable, but the pervasiveness with which the CCP pursues it is jaw dropping.
It would be lovely if Xi met with an untimely end, but he’s so restructured ed the top end of the CCP, nothing would change.
The fact that the Western way of life is so dependent on CCP goods & hence Western Govts are in thrall to them is pretty shit (-better keep the electorate happy or the peasants will revolt).
We’ve been outplayed by the CCP’s terrible singlemindedness & it won’t go well now. The other world players have been bought off until it’s too late to resist their expansionist aims.

Caroline Ayers
Caroline Ayers
5 months ago
Reply to  Matt Jarrett

I dont agree. Listen to Peter Zeihan – expert on global economics – he says China is headed for a fall economically (see what’s happening to their stock markets after all their problems with their property market) and demographically. But we definitely need to wake up our politicians and stop all these CCP influencers/spies hobnobbing with them – we also need to stop them targeting the expat Chinese community. We should close all the Confuscian Centres and have a hard look at all the Chinese funding of our universities.

Chris Van Schoor
Chris Van Schoor
5 months ago
Reply to  Caroline Ayers

I agree on almost all you say, except the forecast on the Chinese economy. I’m not saying it WON’T perhaps collapse, its just that we have been seeing multiple negative “forecasts” for years and years now, and nothing seems to ever happen at the end of the day..

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago

Especially the collapse of the Chinese economy that Peter Zeihan has been forecasting for years?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
5 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

In fairness, it’s hard to know what’s actually happening in China because everything put out by their media and on the Internet is propaganda. Realistically, if China’s economy were collapsing, how would anyone know? The media is all propaganda and they can fudge the numbers however they want. Does anyone seriously believe their COVID fatality statistics from 2020? Their information control operations go well outside China. Disney and others have made changes to their fictional works in order to appease the Chinese government. I’m of the opinion that their economy might already be struggling but is being sustained by weapons manufacture, just as with Germany’s illusory recovery from the Great Depression in the 1930’s.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
5 months ago
Reply to  Matt Jarrett

They were profiting substantially from China’s cheating. Some doubtless knew exactly what was going on and didn’t care because they were making money. Others also knew what was going on but rationalized it as China being an ‘oppressed victim of colonial aggression’ who was just trying to ‘catch up’, and they were also making money. Then there’s the gullible fools who thought the Chinese were just smarter and more efficient than everybody else, bowed to them, emulated them, and actively sought CCP favor, and they too were making money. There were a few, the MIC for example, that always had reservations about CCP motives, but they weren’t enough to convince the politicians who were stupidly guessing that trading with China would magically make their government more tolerant and democratic, not just a bigger, wealthier, more dangerous version of what it already was and always had been.

R Wright
R Wright
5 months ago

It is one of the most fascinating videos I’ve seen in years. If anyone wishes to see the authoritarian mindset in action I couldn’t recommend the Pianogate video more. It is utterly surreal.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
5 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

One of the fascinating aspects is the ad hoc legalist rhetoric. “If you’re still recording we will put a legal action into it. I’m sorry this is the end of the conversation,” says a man off camera to Dr K (as if the speaker is delivering a police caution). You are violating our rights (which rights? “Image rights”), “you are approaching her with your hands” (Dr K was not at that moment, and had not previously, though he had touched her flag). A totalitarian police operative expecting to cow people in another jurisdiction (a democracy) with what sounds like the rhetoric of rights. Possibly even worse is the WPC at the end of the video: “But you can’t say things like that” (i.e., “we’re not in China”). Do police regulate actions that contravene law, or just breaches of supposed etiquette?

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
5 months ago

I still don’t have any idea what’s going on here. If keeping their faces off of YouTube was their aim they did exactly the wrong thing. And then doubled down.
And didn’t security and even the police side with the Chinese? That seems to be the most significant part of the story.

Chris Van Schoor
Chris Van Schoor
5 months ago

They did, but I doubt that was on purpose: just plain stupidity plus lack of training. Plus no doubt some diversity hiring policies..

Chris Van Schoor
Chris Van Schoor
5 months ago

Mr. K can certainly be grateful for all the publicity. Way more than money could buy.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
5 months ago

He had a pretty good following already. IRL, I’ve seen him playing in St Pancras a few times

Edgar Wallner
Edgar Wallner
5 months ago

Why has no-one mentioned the police woman. Is she still in her job? Has she been reprimanded?

Chris Van Schoor
Chris Van Schoor
5 months ago
Reply to  Edgar Wallner

Good point!! I suppose she’s not really relevant to the theme of this article, but BOY was she inept!

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
5 months ago

Terrible new comments set-up! If I have to scrollsearch to find my comments it makes anything like a conversation impossible. For this happy subscriber, that conversation was a valuable part of the experience.
Yeah, the new thumbs-up/thumbs-down counter is good. But it doesn’t much matter anymore, does it?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
5 months ago

Under the previous set-up, if you clicked on “my comments” in “my account” it took you to a list of your comments, and you chose which one you wanted and clicked “go to comment” and it took you right to the comment in its place in the thread.
Now it does all of that, except the last bit – it just takes you to the article and you have to scroll, as you say.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
5 months ago

With Christine Lee’s reputation for running immigration scams, which often ended up with those tempted into them bankrupt, sick or suicidal, she is widely hated by ‘overseas’ Chinese. I can’t think why they think partnering with her is going to appeal to that grouping.

Mark Wilks
Mark Wilks
5 months ago

This is a spat between a tedious YouTuber (a category like an Instagram ‘influencer’ best avoided) and a group of Chinese not familiar with UK privacy laws making an anodyne video that will probably fill 5 minutes on a tedious programme about UK tourism.
Generally, there is at least something of interest in any UnHerd article, but this is so thin, just the usual tedious anti CPC ramblings, world domination etc. Plus a headline which doesn’t make much sense.
UnHerd ‘s proclaimed mission is ‘to push back against the herd mentality with new and bold thinking, and to provide a platform for otherwise unheard ideas’ ,  
What category does this article come under? Is this ‘new and bold thinking’ or ‘a platform for otherwise unheard ideas’?
Or perhaps neither. 

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
4 months ago
Reply to  Mark Wilks

I don’t think it’s as thin as that, given the presence at least one Chinese agent (possibly two) tho it is difficult discern an obvious reason for either to have been there.

But I wish they’d picked a less annoying YouTuber.

George Locke
George Locke
4 months ago
Reply to  Mark Wilks

Did you read the part of the article where it mentioned that those ‘group of Chinese not familiar with UK privacy laws’ were CCP propagandists?

Bruce Thorne
Bruce Thorne
4 months ago

I’d like to see a decent exposé of covert CCP influence in UK society. I’m convinced CCP recruit as many Chinese nationals living here as possible to be CCP assets, passing info on the workings of UK society back to China. I wonder how much this is knowingly tolerated by our intel agencies for whatever political purpose or their own intel purposes