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How a Chinese handbag seller now finds herself at the heart of the Establishment

'Love of my life': Lord Bates and Li Xuelin on their wedding day in 2012

‘Love of my life’: Lord Bates and Li Xuelin on their wedding day in 2012

Li Xuelin has always been a woman in a hurry. But perhaps on her wedding day, she allowed herself a moment to reflect on her dizzying, though carefully calibrated, journey from communist China to the heart of the British Establishment.

After exchanging vows on July 20, 2012, she emerged from the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in the Palace of Westminster on the arm of Conservative peer Michael Bates.

There was at least one Cabinet Minister present, and though they couldn’t make it, then Prime Minister David Cameron and wife Samantha sent a ‘warm’ congratulatory letter.

Few of China’s citizens were now better placed than smart and glamorous Xuelin to influence UK politics – though she denies working to further the regime’s interests in Britain.

Since arriving in London in 1989 fresh out of a Chinese university and with just £50 to her name, Xuelin had networked her way to a key role as an adviser to Cameron’s Government.

And now she could call herself Lady Bates, with all the trappings the title bestows.

Love can blossom in the most unlikely places. Li Xuelin met her husband – ‘the love of my life’ – at a dinner she was hosting for, of all people, the Speaker of the North Korean parliament. Lord Bates, a former MP and Minister, had long been interested in the secretive state. He was also a friend of its closest ally, China.

A new book, Hidden Hand, names Xuelin, 56, as ‘a prominent influencer on China matters’ and claims she has succeeded in positioning herself close to Britain’s top elites, where she could spread a ‘Chinese perspective’.

The book argues that the Chinese Communist Party has infiltrated the UK Establishment and says Lord Bates was at Chinese president Xi Jingping’s meeting with the elite of the CCP’s British friends, along with prominent faces from the pro-Beijing 48 Group Club, of which Bates is a fellow.

Royal connections: Li Xuelin with Prince Charles in 2017

Royal connections: Li Xuelin with Prince Charles in 2017

Since her wedding, Lady Bates has continued cultivating top political contacts, while simultaneously highlighting CCP policies, including the flagship Belt and Road initiative, the infrastructure project cited by critics as a worrying example of China’s global expansion.

In what Hidden Hand describes as ‘one of the clearest signs of the CCP’s faith in her’, Xuelin was executive vice-president of the UK Chinese Association for the Promotion of National Reunification, the British chapter of the Beijing body which promotes the CCP’s position on Taiwan. China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that will eventually become part of the mainland again.

And Xuelin was vice-president of the council of the Zhejiang Overseas Exchange Association, which the book says was an affiliate of the United Front Work Department, the CCP agency tasked with liaising with Chinese expats. 

Pro-China club chief gave thousands to Labour

By Abul Taher, Security Correspondent for the Mail on Sunday

The chairman of a lobby group accused of ‘grooming’ British politicians on behalf of the Chinese Communist regime was once a Labour Party donor, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.

Stephen Perry’s 48 Group Club is a pro-Beijing body whose patrons and fellows include Labour and Tory grandees such as Peter Mandelson, Jack Straw and Michael Heseltine. Its gala events have attracted Tony Blair and former Chancellor George Osborne.

The 48 Group Club says it tries to improve trade relations between Britain and China, but a new book claims it was founded by secret members of the British Communist Party and spreads Beijing’s propaganda in the UK. 

Greetings: Stephen Perry meets President Xi Jinping in China in 2018

Greetings: Stephen Perry meets President Xi Jinping in China in 2018

The MoS has now established that Mr Perry, 71, donated £5,000 to Labour in 1997. The following year he gave a further £5,000 and £25,000 in 1999.

Two years later, Mr Perry was at the centre of a row when it emerged he had become a key adviser on China to the Blair government. But his funding of Labour continued. In August 2016, he donated £22,500 towards the campaign by Owen Smith to become leader of the party. He eventually lost to Jeremy Corbyn.

The accusations about the 48 Group Club’s activities are made in a book, Hidden Hand, by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg. The book, which has been published in Australia and Canada and will soon be available in the UK – claims the club was founded in 1953 by three members of the British Communist Party. It is named after a delegation of 48 British businessmen who visited China on a trade mission. 

Hidden Hand claims the three founders of the Group – Jack Perry, the father of Stephen Perry, and his two close associates, Roland Berger and Bernard Buckman – were secret British Communist Party members. 

The authors allege: ‘At the instigation of a member of the standing committee of the Politburo, Zhou Enlai [first Chinese Premier], the 48 Group was the work of three secret members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.’

Hidden Hand accuses Stephen Perry, who runs London Export Corporation, a business set up by his father, of parroting the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda in the UK and praising its authoritarian president, Xi Jinping, as the leader who ‘frees minds’.

In a blog in April last year, Mr Perry wrote: ‘A new world is coming and its conceptual source has a name on it – Xi Jinping. We would be smart to recognise a partner and not turn our backs.’

Last night, Mr Perry did not respond to questions sent by this newspaper. He has previously said: ‘Being an independent body, the 48 Group Club does not have a formal relationship with any other organisation, whether inside or outside China.’

Mr Perry has also said he has written to the publishers of the Hidden Hand to correct factual errors. He also rejects claims that the group targets elites. The 48 Group Club also failed to comment on whether Jack Perry was a member of the British Communist Party.

 

According to Hidden Hand, the agency recruits from 120,000 Chinese students in British universities and asks them to campaign on behalf of China. 

If, for example, an anti-Chinese protest is held in the UK, the UFWD could potentially mobilise its young recruits to stage a counter-demonstration.

But sources close to Xuelin say her work with the Zhejiang association ended before it merged with the UFWD. Last night, Lady Bates declined to comment on whether she was the executive vice-president on the UK Chinese Association for the Promotion of National Reunification. But sources said she had an identical role in a similarly named organisation between 2015 and 2018.

Originally from Hangzhou, Xuelin studied architecture at Zhejiang University and was regarded as bright with a phenomenal work ethic. After graduating with a masters degree, she moved to London to ‘pursue a broader horizon of knowledge’. 

She studied English before getting a job with a firm of architects, where she remained for five years. During this period, she married a British doctor and had a son but the marriage foundered.

Switching careers, she launched an import-export business, bringing clothes, shoes and handbags from China. Xuelin targeted UK importers, recalling: ‘At that time, I called customers one by one and visited them door to door.’ In time, her business was successful, as was a property company she launched. 

A glowing portrait of Xuelin published in China noted that she ‘acquired dilapidated houses’ in the ‘noble areas of Central London’ and after renovation ‘obtained huge commercial returns’.

But politics was beginning to absorb Xuelin. By 2010, she was sitting on quite a fortune. One way of obtaining Westminster acceptance, she knew, was through largesse.

Some years earlier, Xuelin learned the value of a thoughtful donation when she was made a papal dame by Pope Benedict XVI.

Papal knighthoods are normally awarded to lay men and women for conspicuous service to the Church and society and are among the highest honours the Pope can bestow.

In 2011, The Mail on Sunday revealed that Father Michael Seed, who regularly celebrated Mass for Tony Blair and his family in Downing Street, had arranged papal knighthoods for wealthy businessmen in return for donations to an archbishop friend’s charity in Serbia. 

Friends in high places: With former Prime Minister David Cameron

Friends in high places: With former Prime Minister David Cameron

Xuelin was friendly with Father Michael and was introduced to Archbishop Eugenio Sbarbaro at a party.

‘He [the Archbishop] told me about his good work and asked if I could help,’ she said. ‘I didn’t expect to become a papal dame.’

A friend from this time said Father Michael, then one of Britain’s most high-profile Catholic priests, was ‘pivotal’ to helping Li Xuelin make political contacts.

He added: ‘She really latched on to Michael as he knew everyone, particularly people in politics. It struck me that she was an arch networker and would always zoom in on those who might benefit her but not have any time for anyone else.’

By now, the Tories were in power and between 2010 and 2012, Xuelin donated £162,000 to party coffers, of which £50,000 allowed her to join the Leader’s Group, set up by Cameron for top donors. Members have special access to senior politicians.

Doors were now opening wide for Xuelin. Wearing an eye-catching turquoise dress, she made a glamorous addition to the Tory party’s 2010 summer ball. ‘She was charming, and had that thing of looking you dead in the eye as though you were the most important person there and what you were saying was the last word in profundity,’ a guest recalled. ‘She was attractive, too, and caused a bit of a stir.’

Around this time, Xuelin was appointed a senior adviser to Lord Wei, the man in charge of implementing Cameron’s Big Society plan – a then flagship Tory policy based around a desire to shrink the role of government and devolve power to local communities to run their own services.

Running mate: Li Xuelin with World Athletics president Lord Coe

Running mate: Li Xuelin with World Athletics president Lord Coe

She twice accompanied Lord Wei to China to share the Big Society project and, according to the Chinese website profile, also invited Energy Minister Lord Marland ‘and a cultural and creative delegation to meet and exchange ideas with Chinese business elites in Beijing’.

In 2014, Lady Bates – as she was now called – was caught up in a property scandal involving Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, with whom she had developed a friendship. 

She suggested the Royal Albert Dock as a development site to a Chinese company, Advanced Business Park, described as China’s largest property investment in the UK.

It was claimed Johnson gave preferment to ABP because of Lady Bates’s donations to the Conservative Party. Lady Bates said the money had not come from ABP – a company she had no involvement with – but from her own pocket.

In 2017, she campaigned with her husband for Theresa May in the General Election, sitting next to the then Prime Minister as May phoned voters.

But by now she was nurturing political ambitions of her own. That year she stood unsuccessfully as an independent candidate in the Corporation of London local elections.

A spokesman for Lady Bates said last night: ‘As a proud British citizen of almost 30 years, Xuelin Bates rejects in the strongest possible terms any suggestion she has been an “influencer on behalf of China” and the other inaccurate claims made in the book Hidden Hand, which have sought to wilfully distort the nature of her work as part of the British-Chinese community and her charitable activities to suit their own agenda.

‘She will be pursuing this matter formally through her lawyers.’

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