Britain at risk from ‘wholly inadequate’ defence to spying threat from China, damning report

Britain’s spy watchdog has slammed the Government for a “completely inadequate” response to Chinese espionage and interference which risked an “existential threat to liberal democratic systems”.

In a bombshell report, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee issued a series of alarming warnings about how British universities, the nuclear sector, Government and companies were being targeted by Beijing.

Its 207-page damning dossier, compiled over four years, stressed that:

  • The Government level of resource dedicated to tackling the threat posed by China’s “whole-of-state” approach to spying and interference to be “completely inadequate”, despite an insistence from ministers that its response was “robust” and “clear-eyed.”.

  • Much of the Chinese activity was overt rather than covert and there was a “serious failure” to identify the threats from Beijing and the UK was now “playing catch-up”.

  • The UK’s intelligence and security agencies had until recently not even recognise that they had any responsibility for countering Chinese interference activity in the UK, instead focusing on covert activity and tackling the terror threat.

  • Without “swift and decisive action” against Chinese targeting of industry and technology, the UK was on a “trajectory for the nightmare scenario” where Beijing “steals blueprints, sets standards, and builds products, exerting political and economic influence at every step”.

  • Not only was this a serious commercial challenge, but it had the “potential to pose an existential threat to liberal democratic systems”.

  • It was “unacceptable” for the Government to still be considering Chinese involvement in Britain’s criticial national infrastructure at a “granular level”, including the nuclear industry, taking each case in isolation.

  • The Business Department did not have the necessary expertise to protect the UK’s national security in this area, with the “ball being dropped on security” in Whitehall.

  • The failure to limit Chinese involvement in the “rich feeding ground” of universities meant that Beijing could exploit the “UK’s best and brightest”, with the Government yet to draw up a comprehensive list of the areas of sensitive UK research which need protecting, handing Beijing a “clear economic advantage over the UK”.

  • Some institutions seemed willing to “turn a blind eye, happy simply to take the money” from China.

The Government has not taken a long-term approach to the risks posed by China which had “taken advantage” of successive UK governments’ attempts to boost economic ties between the two countries, the report added, with a warning that ministers may be “drawn to the siren call of investment”.

The chairman of the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee told the senior MPs how “China is increasingly thinking of a future in which it could be the world power”.

China’s intelligence services, which have hundreds of thousands of workers, were targeting the UK, the report said, which was believed to be “just below China’s top priority targets”.

It added: “It is China’s global ambition to become a technological and economic superpower, on which other countries are reliant, that represents the greatest risk to the UK.

“China seeks to influence elites and decision-makers, to acquire information and Intellectual Property using covert and overt methods, and to gain technological supremacy.”

Responding to the report, Rishi Sunak said: “China poses an epoch-defining challenge to the international order.

“Under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) it is becoming more authoritarian at home and more assertive overseas.

“We have been clear that our approach to China must therefore be rooted in our national interest and coordinated with like-minded partners.”

He added: “The Government has already taken actions that are in line with many of the committee’s recommendations.

“We are grateful for the tireless work of our security and intelligence services to protect national security at home and abroad.”

He stressed: “We are not complacent and we are keenly aware that there is more to do.

“Wherever China’s actions or intent threaten the national interest, we will continue to take swift action.”

Britain’s National Security Act became law just days ago, introducing for the first time an offence of foreign interference, meaning it will now be illegal to engage in conduct that interferes with fundamental rights, such as voting and freedom of speech, that are deemed essential to the UK’s democracy.

A ban was also announced three years ago on Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from the UK’s 5G mobile networks, amid fears over potential spying “backdoors”, which the company strongly denied.

Chinese-owned social media app TikTok was banned on UK government electronic devices in March this year, a move similar to restrictions imposed by the US, Canada and the European Commission.

The Westminister Parliament has also banned TikTok from its network over security concerns.

The steps have been criticised by the social media giant.

Security minister Tom Tugendhat also told the Commons in June of alleged secret “Chinese police service stations” in Croydon, Hendon and Glasgow, which were reportedly used to monitor Chinese citizens in the UK.