Hidden Hand by Clive Hamilton & Mareike Ohlberg

3 minutes estimated reading time

Hidden Hand is written by two academics. Clive Hamilton is an Australian academic, who is currently professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra. Mareike Ohlberg is a senior fellow in the Asia Programme of the German Marshall Fund. Prior to that she worked for the German think tank; the Mercator Institute of China Studies.

Hidden Hand by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg
Hidden Hand by Hamilton & Ohlberg (US hardback edition)

Hidden Hand interest piqued

Both of them are seasoned China watchers. China is a popular subject and Hidden Hand would have just gone into my Amazon wishlist but for the 48 Group Club. The 48 Group Club is a British China-orientated association that fosters cultural and social ties. It had threatened legal action over content that they alleged was incorrect or defamatory. My interest in Hidden Hand was piqued.

So What’s it like?

Hamilton and Ohlberg have pulled together an account of China’s relationships with various elites in countries around the world and intergovernmental bodies such as WHO. Having kept an eye on China for over a decade, little of the content was new for me.

What I found was new, was the the way it is woven together in a cohesive pattern of activity in the Hidden Hand. A sustained, pervasive bid for global influence on a scale that most people couldn’t imagine. And those that could imagine would likely be thought of as excessively paranoid.

One thing that immediately comes across is the depth of research that the Hidden Hand contains. The index and bibliography are a big chunk of the book. The facts come thick and fast, but delivered in a dispassionate manner.

The reframe

This book wouldn’t be as well received if it had been published 12 months ago. A split between Wall Street and manufacturing company CEOs, COVID and the steady drip of diplomatic clashes that China has had with western countries have reframed the view for Hidden Hand. Now you have an audience that is more receptive. They are more willing to take an objective, critical analysis of China rather than give them the benefit of the doubt like an errant teenager.

Missing answers

Hidden Hand tries to come up with starting points for answers. Holding elites accountable. Engaging members of the Chinese diaspora. Taking a multilateral stand. All of which are hard to do. There are changes happening to espionage related laws in the UK. The EU is taking a more policy-based approach and Trump administration officials have talked about US CEOs as being unregistered foreign agents. This is a long term battle, something that will go for decades.

The Wall Street CEOs will be hunkering down; hoping to out wait Trump. In Europe and the UK, the root and branch work required to inoculate their countries are not yet underway.

The final missing piece is understanding the first generation Chinese diaspora. In particular the way the communist party has successfully grafted itself into the very centre of what it means to be Chinese. And then thinking carefully about how to decouple that idea. It’s happened already in places like Taiwan (and young Hong Kongers), yet many first generation diaspora and older Chinese Malaysians are wedded to the idea.

I think that would take a lot more research. China must be doing some things right in order to get that level of belief. But there was obviously a problem with the opportunities that China offered. Otherwise why would they come to the West? It must have offered more advantages; how are they opportunities highlighted and put in conflict with the belief in party/ Understanding this will then help the work on protecting the liberal democratic system from infiltration, subversion and exploitation.

An example of that might come from Singapore, which managed to forge a distinct Singaporean identity, whilst still holding the best bits of cultural background. Though there are risks in trying to replicate the Singapore process. More China related content here and more book reviews here.