The intelligence services of the British government harnessed the power of the media to try to protect the state from Chinese interference.
In an almost unprecedented move, MI5 – the agency focused on counterintelligence within the U.K. – chose to call out an alleged Chinese spy, whom it said has been making payments to politicians.
The warning about Christine Ching Kui Lee, a solicitor who runs a law firm in London, was accompanied by her photograph, which ensured that her face appeared prominently across websites and social media, even though she was not arrested nor charged with any crime. Excited journalists jumped in to add new twists to the story. The next day the papers were filled with a great deal of comment and analysis – alongside plenty of hearsay and speculation.
A key allegation is that Lee donated 420,000 British pounds ($572,000) to a senior Labor member of parliament, Barry Gardiner, who employed her son, Daniel Wilkes, as a member of his parliamentary staff.
MI5 warned that anyone contacted by Lee “should be mindful of her affiliation with the Chinese state and remit to advance the CCP’s agenda in UK politics.”
The warning was issued in the form of an alert which was sent by MI5 to the speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, who chose to forward it to all MPs – ensuring immediate press attention.
In his memo, Hoyle said: “I am writing now to draw your attention to the attached Interference Alert issued by the Security Service, MI5, about the activities of an individual, Christine Lee, who has been engaged in political inference activity on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party, engaging with members of parliament and associated political entities, including the former APPG (All Party Parliament Group) Chinese In Britain.”
Hoyle said Lee’s donations were made in a covert way in order to mask the origins of the payments. “This is clearly unacceptable behaviour and steps are being taken to ensure it ceases,” he added.
The Chinese embassy in London said in a statement that China did not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China has “no need” to engage in “so-called interference activities.”
“Perhaps, some people, after seeing too many James Bond movies, are imagining links where there is none. It is deeply irresponsible to make unfounded sensational remarks based on subjective conjecture,” Wang said.
Gardiner – the MP at the center of the scandal – said he was “angry and distressed” that he was targeted and insisted the donations were used to fund research and did not benefit him personally.
However, some journalists uncovered examples of Gardiner’s pro-Chinese position on sensitive issues, including his support for Chinese investment in Britain’s nuclear power industry.
The Times newspaper also revealed that Christine Lee spoke up publicly in favor of the Chinese Communist Party’s clampdown on the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. The newspaper added that she was involved in a fundraising event for the British Conservative Party, which is led by beleaguered Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“This case underlines the fact that China poses a serious and insidious threat to our democracy and we must ask our politicians, academics and journalists to be vigilant of CCP effort to buy influence and other forms of infiltration,” Steve Tsang, the director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, told The Diplomat.
Tsang added, “China’s efforts to influence Western democracies have focused on cultivating members of parliament, especially where a new arrival or a leading figure in an opposition party looks as though may be on track to become a minister of state at a later stage.”
Similar efforts by the Chinese government to gain influence have been uncovered in Australia.
“While all the facts are still out, this case has echoes of similar episodes in Australia: donations to political parties and politicians from Chinese citizens and CCP-associated Australian citizens with the intention of generating pro-China statements and policy positions,” noted Dr. Bates Gill, professor of security studies at Macquarie University in Sydney.
“However, Australia and the UK are not alone in this. The United Front Work Department is actively cultivating politicians and opinion-shapers around the world,” said Gill, who is also a senior associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute in London.
In the United States, intelligence agencies have been taking an increasingly high-profile position on China. In 2018, the U.S. Justice Department unveiled its “China Initiative,” meant to counter thefts of trade secrets and other forms of economic espionage conducted by – or for the benefit of – the Chinese government. FBI Director Christopher Wray said that the bureau was opening a new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours.
“Beginning under President Trump and continuing under President Biden, the United States has launched a highly public all-of-government effort to push back on Chinese influence and espionage activities,” Gill said. “This has included sharp scrutiny of university research programs, the closure of the PRC consulate in Houston, and – as in the UK – designating Chinese media outlets as agents of the PRC.”
In 2020, the U.K. government expelled three Chinese citizens who had been working in Britain on journalists’ visas, claiming that they had been involved in espionage.
Those expulsions were conducted discreetly but since then, spymasters from the U.K.’s intelligence services appear to have been encouraged by their well-resourced U.S. counterparts in becoming more public when voicing their concerns about China.
In December 2021, Richard Moore, the head of MI6, said that the rise of China was the single greatest priority of his foreign intelligence agency. He claimed that Beijing was conducting espionage activities against the U.K., with a focus on government and people involved in the technology sector.
Moore also said that Chinese state agents “monitor and attempt to exercise influence over the Chinese diaspora.”
According to Tsang of SOAS, “Under Xi Jinping, China now demands members of the Chinese diaspora to be loyal to mother China.” But he cautioned that “it would be wrong to see a Communist Party agent in every ethnic Chinese, as most overseas Chinese ignore Xi and support democracy. I fear a backlash against them will enable the Communist Party to recruit agents.”
In the United States, for example, the China Initiative has come under fire as a race-based witch hunt, subjecting ethnic Chinese researchers to a drawn-out legal ordeal based on little evidence. In the first case to go to trial, a judge acquitted the defendant of all charges, and the DOJ recently dropped charges in another highly publicized case against a scientist based at MIT. A letter signed by 177 members of the faculty at Stanford University urged the DOJ to “terminate the China Initiative,” warning that “it is harming the United States’ research and technology competitiveness and it is fueling biases that, in turn, raise concerns about racial profiling.”
Gill also warned against alienating ethnic Chinese. “In my view, members of the Chinese diaspora are more often the targets of CCP influence activities and in that sense [they] know better than most how to resist the pressure,” he said.
In terms of press coverage of U.K. politics, another scandal has taken precedence over accusations against Christine Lee and MI5’s concerns about Chinese influence.
The media is transfixed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempts to cover-up parties held at his official residence, 10 Downing Street, during the coronavirus lockdown. After weeks of bad publicity, there is now an open revolt within the Conservative party. Several members have called on Johnson to resign and one former supporter has defected to the opposition Labor side.
The turmoil will inevitably delay Parliament from agreeing on complex legislation relating to the role of lobbyists, or a reform of the Official Secrets Act to make it easier to prosecute foreign spies.
With formidable obstacles standing in the way of tough political action, the intelligence services seem to have decided to speed up the process of exposing China by taking matters into their own hands, with the support of the speaker of the Parliament. The press were delighted to have another scandal to fill their pages, alongside the “partygate” saga, which might unseat the British prime minister.