It is worth keeping this illusion in mind, I think, when considering the activities of Russia and, for that matter, China.
On the surface, these nations seem engaged in conventional subterfuge and foreign influence. The Russian activity investigated by the intelligence select committee, for instance, was partly about electoral manipulation, influencing democratic votes to tilt policy in its favour. Or take China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), an attempt to build large projects in foreign nations, thus deepening the soft power of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC).
Look at the picture a little longer, however, and it starts to morph. It is not that the analysis of the select committee is flawed, or its facts wrong. And it is not that reports by the US Congress and intelligence services analysing the policies of President Xi Jinping are wide of the mark or have failed to recognise his ambitions in Africa, Asia and beyond. No, the point is that, like the visual illusion, there are two distinct patterns lurking in the data. You just have to look a bit closer to experience the perceptual reversal.
Take the BRI and, in particular, the role of Patrick Ho, a former executive at CEFC China Energy, a conglomerate inextricably linked to the CPC. Ho travelled the world preaching the gospel of Belt and Road, proclaiming its blessings. What became clear only later was that he was carrying another cargo alongside his speech cards.
In 2014 he offered a bribe to Idriss Déby, the president of Chad: $2m stuffed into gift boxes. A little later he oversaw a $500,000 bung to Sam Kutesa, foreign minister of Uganda. An American judge described Ho’s illicit activities (there are too many to list) as an “insidious plague”.
Now, if this were conventional corruption, China would wish to keep these operations secret indefinitely. They would want to have compromised officials on the hook, wielding covert influence. But this is not what China had in mind. It wanted the bungs to leak. It wished for the corruptibility of foreign officials to become a story. Why? Because by weakening the perception of integrity in developing nations, it undermined the rule of law along with other intangibles crucial for its integration into the western order.
As an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine last month put it: “[The BRI is] enabled by Chinese graft and bribery on an epic scale. Corruption is central to the BRI, which puts officials all over the world in hock to the CPC. It corrodes not only the development prospects of affected countries but also their participation in open trade relationships and their security co-operation.”
This is the prism through which to understand Russia’s activity too, not least in Britain. It seeks to corrupt public officials to gain the benefit of their decisions, but the more prized objective is to undermine the trust that operates as the fulcrum of the liberal system. As the Centre for Strategic and International Studies put it: “Russian influence centres on weakening the internal cohesion of societies and strengthening the perception of the dysfunction of the western democratic and economic system . . . This is achieved by influencing and eroding democratic governance from within its own institutions.”
From this vantage point, Russian interference is not (just) about the flow of dark money into London, or the deployment of fake news, or even the allegation that the government turned a blind eye to possible manipulation of the EU referendum. No, Putin’s most coveted achievement is that remainers are questioning the legitimacy of the Brexit vote, pundits are talking about a “new age of cronyism” and one commentator has described City financiers as “up for sale to the highest bidder”.
A quick digression. The journalist Peter Cunliffe-Jones tells the story of Robert, a German businessman who married a Nigerian woman and set up a soya factory plant in her home town. It took much effort to purchase equipment and secure a reliable electricity supply, but after a few months they started to sell their produce. Immediately, a local official turned up saying they had broken regulations and asked for 10% of their proceeds to be paid to a secure account. When Robert complained to the police, they became interested — not to enforce the law, but to take a cut. When he reluctantly played along, turning a profit after more months of hard work, the state governor had him arrested when he refused to pay yet another bribe. The company, which employed 200 people, folded.
I mention this story because the most vivid way to convey the value of trust in public life is what happens in its absence. Trust, one might say, is the invisible forcefield that binds together a prosperous system — trade, investment, innovation — and we fail to value it at our peril. That is why China and Russia are trying to undermine it at every opportunity. One senior official told me that the Chinese politburo, in particular, is operating on the model of a bank run: “If they can weaken trust to a critical point, they wonder if it might unravel completely.”
It is sometimes forgotten that Russia rates below Togo, Guinea and Liberia on the Transparency International index of corruption. Xi, for his part, has dragged China below Bahrain, Ghana and Benin. This, of course, is another reason they are so keen to pour the pollutant of distrust into western societies, hoping to contaminate them in the same way, thus ensuring that trade is conducted not according to rules and market norms, but through payoffs and kickbacks — at which they are practised, and at which they can throw vast quantities of illicit funds. Putin alone has, according to some estimates, extracted more than $200bn from the Russian economy.
Clandestine activity has long sought to undermine confidence in the institutions of foreign powers; what is different now is the sophistication of the tools. It perhaps also goes without saying that China and Russia have been assisted by a cast list of useful idiots in western governments, banks and other organisations, not least English football, which scrupulously avoided asking questions about the dirty cash of Roman Abramovich, or how the club figured in the strategic ambitions of Putin. This is why new rules on transparency, such as America’s Magnitsky Act, were long overdue.
But the key defence is to understand their strategy, to see the second image alongside the first. For it is only by experiencing perceptual reversal, I suspect, that we will overcome our dangerous, almost criminal, complacency.
Matthew Syed is a columnist for The Times. He writes a column on sport as well as reviews, opinion and interviews. He has won numerous prizes for his writing, including sports journalist of the year at the British Press Awards and sports feature writer of the year at the Sports Journalists' Association Awards.