Britain’s Security Agency MI5 Warns Lawmakers of China’s Political Interference
LONDON — Britain’s domestic security agency, MI5, sent an unusual alert on Thursday to lawmakers warning that an agent of the Chinese government was actively working to subvert the political processes of Parliament.
The existence of the alert, revealed by lawmakers in Britain’s House of Commons, led some outspoken critics of the Chinese government to demand a response from Britain’s Conservative government on its plans to combat political interference.
This is the sort of interference “we now anticipate and expect from China,” said Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative lawmaker. “But the fact that it has happened to this Parliament — there must be a sense of urgency from this government.”
It comes as tensions have heightened between the two nations, with Britain in recent years taking an increasingly firm stance against Beijing. It has revoked the license of a Chinese-backed broadcaster, suspended an extradition treaty with Hong Kong and granted visas to tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents in the aftermath of a security law from Beijing that stifles political dissent. In a much-watched case in 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson largely banned the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei from providing equipment for Britain’s 5G network.
In response, China has sanctioned several British lawmakers and groups for their public criticisms of the government, including their repression of Uighurs, a Muslim minority.
Top officials have in the past cited China’s political reach as a concern. Richard Moore, chief of MI6, the country’s foreign intelligence service, said in a speech in November that the agency’s “single greatest priority” was adapting to a world where China’s power is rising. He warned that Chinese intelligence services were seeking to conduct “large scale espionage operations” against Britain and its allies.
The notice from MI5 was published by several British news media outlets and its authenticity was confirmed by the Office of the Speaker of Parliament. It warned that a woman identified as Christine Ching Kui Lee had “acted covertly” through the United Front Work Department, a branch of the Chinese Communist Party devoted to furthering the government’s agenda in the world. The branch had sought to “cultivate relationships with influential figures in order to ensure the U.K. political landscape is favorable to the C.C.P’s agenda,” the notice said.
Ms. Lee, a lawyer, was also openly affiliated with two other groups, the China Overseas Friendship Association and the British-Chinese Project, the statement said, using the cover of representing the British Chinese community to obscure her activities on the behalf of the Chinese government.
Ms. Lee had been involved in the “facilitation of financial donations to political parties,” lawmakers and potential candidates for public office in Britain and to “political entities” on behalf of foreign nationals, the statement said. She had “extensive engagement with individuals across the U.K. political spectrum,” and she had been involved in informal cross-party groups run by lawmakers known as All-Party Parliamentary Groups, the statement added.
Those contacted by Ms. Lee, the notice cautioned, should be “mindful of her affiliation with the Chinese state and remit to advance the C.C.P.’ s agenda in U.K. politics.”
In its records on political funding, Britain’s Electoral Commission listed a series of donations from Christine Lee & Co to support the office of an opposition Labour Party lawmaker, Barry Gardiner.
Mr. Gardiner said in a statement on Thursday that he had liaised for a number of years with British security services and that they had “been made fully aware by me, of her engagement with my office and the donations she made to fund researchers in my office in the past.”
He added that Ms. Lee had no role in either the appointment or management of those researchers, that she had ceased funding any workers in his office in June 2020. He had not benefited personally from those donations, he said.
Ms. Lee’s son was working in his office but resigned Thursday, the statement said. Security services had advised him that “they have no intelligence that shows he was aware of, or complicit in, his mother’s illegal activity.”
Efforts to reach Ms. Lee on Thursday were unsuccessful.
“I know it will be deeply concerning to many that an individual who has knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party has targeted” lawmakers, Priti Patel, Britain’s home secretary, said in a statement.
Nevertheless, she added, the revelation was a sign of the structures Britain had in place to identify foreign interference or any potential threats to democracy.
Iain Duncan Smith, a Conservative lawmaker who has been sanctioned by China, said that the presence in British politics of an active agent of the Chinese government was “a matter of grave concern,” adding that it put people seeking refuge in Britain from the Chinese Communist Party at risk.
Tom Tugendhat, a leading voice on foreign policy in Parliament, said on Twitter that the current case illustrated the need to maintain vigilance against foreign interference.
“It is clear that the challenge from Beijing is increasing, and we need to defend our democracy against hostile activity,” said Mr. Tugendhat, who is the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select committee.