In a rare move, the United Kingdom’s domestic spy agency, MI5, has warned that an alleged Chinese agent has infiltrated the British parliament and has been working on behalf of China’s governing Communist Party to interfere in UK politics.
Issuing a note to Parliament on Thursday, House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle said Christine Ching Kui Lee, a Chinese national, has been trying to improperly influence British MPs on behalf of the CCP. Lee, whose current whereabouts are unknown, had allegedly transferred donations to politicians, with funding provided by foreign nationals in China and Hong Kong.
China has denied the allegations, accusing the UK of “smearing and intimidation”. This comes amid a growing number of espionage allegations against China, which is being accused of stealing information and manipulating politics around the world.
The UK’s security services issued a rare warning, known as a Security Service Interference Alert (SSIA), accusing Lee of acting covertly in coordination with the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is responsible for gathering information and influencing top officials both within and outside China.
A note circulated by Lindsay Hoyle claimed that Lee had transferred funds to serving and aspiring parliamentarians on behalf of China, and had masked the origins of the payments. “This is clearly unacceptable behaviour and steps are being taken to ensure it ceases,” the note read.
“We judge that the UFWD is seeking to covertly interfere in UK politics through establishing links with established and aspiring parliamentarians across the political spectrum,” it said.
The MI5 very rarely issues such interference alerts, and usually only after talks between the spy agencies and parliamentary authorities. According to the BBC, this is the first time such an alert has been issued against China. Only one such alert has been issued in the past in connection with Russia.
But who is Lee and how is she involved with UK’s top lawmakers?
Lee is a UK-based solicitor, whose law firm Christine Lee & Co solicitors, has worked closely with the Chinese Embassy in London, according to a Department for Trade directory website. She was able to build herself a solid reputation in Westminster for helping Chinese-British cooperation, and has been praised by the likes of former UK PM Theresa May for her efforts. As per official records, Lee is a British national.
The 58-year-old has also been lauded for setting up the British Chinese project, a non-profit which aims to promote engagement and understanding with the Chinese community in the UK. She later set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) at Westminster, which received thousands of pounds worth of funding, according to The Guardian.
Over the years, she has made generous donations to top parliamentarians, including Labour MP Barry Gardiner and his constituency party. Her son was also hired by Gardiner’s office as a policy researcher.
Her efforts were also recognised in China, where she is hailed for bringing “dignity and self-confidence to overseas Chinese”, a Chinese state media report stated. She was invited to participate in the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Who did she make donations to?
According to the Labour Party, her law firm has made political donations of over £600,000 to Gardiner’s office, the first of which was made in 2015. Gardiner, however, said that all the funds received from Lee had been “properly reported”.
“From my point of view, that money was there to improve the work I was able to do in Parliament, and to improve the work I was able to do for my constituents – it paid for those researchers and it paid for them directly, none of it was for my personal benefit,” he said in an interview with Sky News. Lee’s son had resigned following the MI5 warning.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey also received a £5,000 donation when he was serving as energy secretary. But he claimed that the money was accepted by his local association.
How did China respond to the allegations?
China has denied the allegations, accusing MI5 of launching a campaign of “smearing and intimidation” against the Chinese people in the UK. “China always adheres to the principle of non-interference in other country’s internal affairs,” a statement on the embassy’s website read. “We have no need and never seek to ‘buy influence’ in any foreign parliament. We firmly oppose the trick of smearing and intimidation against the Chinese community in the UK.”
Newsletter | Click to get the day’s best explainers in your inbox
Why is China facing an increasing number of espionage allegations?
There have been growing concerns about Chinese interference within the British intelligence community. Last year, the head of MI6, Richard Moore said that China had become the intelligence agency’s “single greatest priority” for the first time.
In 2020, the UK expelled three Chinese spies, who were allegedly posing as journalists in the country. According to a UK government report, all three were officers for China’s powerful Ministry of State Security. “Their true identities were uncovered by MI5 and they have since been forced to return to China,” the report stated.
But concerns about Chinese espionage are not limited to the UK alone. Notably, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the role of the UFWD has greatly expanded since 2012.
In November last year, the Pentagon’s China Military Power Report had a whole section focussed on Chinese espionage, highlighting recent attempts made to steal sensitive data. In 2020, the FBI launched China-related counterintelligence cases every ten hours on average, the report stated.
A recent Bloomberg News investigation revealed that Australian intelligence officials had detected a sophisticated intrusion into the country’s telecommunication by China in 2012, which began with a software update from Huawei that was loaded with malicious code. The incident substantiated the US’ claims that China has been using products by Huawei Technologies Co., the world’s biggest maker of telecommunications equipment, to steal sensitive information from around the world.