Security chiefs ‘reviewing how Chinese spy infiltrated Parliament’

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  • Damian Hinds
    British politician (born 1969)
  • Barry Gardiner
    British politician (born 1957)
   (PA Archive)
(PA Archive)

Security chiefs are reviewing how a Chinese spy was able to infiltrate Parliament, Security Minister Damian Hinds has said.

MI5 took the rare step on Thursday of issuing an interference alert to MPs and peers warning them over the Chinese lawyer Christine Lee.

The Security Service claims Ms Lee has been working in Britain on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party and is accused of “facilitating financial donations to serving and aspiring politicians” on behalf of foreign nationals based in Hong Kong and China.

Asked on LBC if there would now be a review into how Ms Lee was able to build such close relations with senior British politicians, Mr Hinds said: “Yes. We are learning all the time. All the implications have to be taken into account.”

Ms Lee gave donations to politicians, including Labour MP Barry Gardiner, who received more than £420,000 from her, and Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey.

She also appears to have also developed a good relationship with former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and in January 2019 she received an award from then premier Theresa May, in recognition of her contribution to good relations with China via the British Chinese Project.

“This is not a story about one particular British politician or one particular party,” Mr Hinds said. “It is about what others may do to try and influence what happens and how we have to be vigilant and I am sure on the back of this notification our whole political system will be, will have a heightened vigilance.”

Earlier on BBC Breakfast he said: “We should be concerned when people acting on behalf of foreign states, in this case the Chinese Communist Party are seeking to influence our domestic processes.”

Foreign Office officials have raised concerns with the Chinese ambassador to the UK over MI5’s warnings but China hit back, accusing Britain of “smearing and intimidation.”

In a statement posted on its UK Embassy website it said: “China always adheres to the principle of non-interference in other country’s internal affairs.

“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.”

But while he was careful not to single out China, Mr Hinds warned there were likely to be more interference notices like the one issued by MI5 on Thursday.

“I’m afraid there will be more of these notices likely in future,” the Minister told Sky News. “But it’s an example, an illustration of the system at work.”

He said that the UK’s open economy and important research and commercial sectors made the country a target for hostile states like China.

“We are one of the leading nations of the world, we have an open economy, we have very important research, academic, commercial sectors...there are a number of countries around the world that will take an interest in us. That shouldn’t surprise us but we need to make sure we have the defences the ways of protecting and that we can disrupt.”

Mr Hinds said the UK was upgrading its legislation so it is “fit for the modern face of state threats” including greater protection for elections and new laws to beef up powers to target foreign influence operations and spies.

Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith told the Standard however, that the Government needed to take the threat from China more seriously.

He said: “This is the tip of the iceberg. There ought to be a real investigation into what has happened.

“I am angry that the Government won’t see China as a threat. What more do you need? We say Russia is a threat but we refuse to say China is a threat. We are too dependent on China and I am afraid it all comes down to money.”

In the Security Service Interference Alert (SSIA) sent to MPs and peers, MI5 said Ms Lee “acted covertly” in co-ordination with the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

“The UFWD seeks to cultivate relationships with influential figures in order to ensure the UK political landscape is favourable to the CCP’s agenda and to challenge those that raise concerns about CCP activity, such as human rights,” it said.

“Lee has been engaged in the facilitation of financial donations to political parties, parliamentarians, aspiring parliamentarians, and individuals seeking political office in the UK, including facilitating donations to political entities on behalf of foreign nationals.”

Mr Gardiner, the Labour MP for Brent North, said he had been “liaising with our security services” for many years about Ms Lee.

In a statement, he said: “They have always known, and 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.

“Steps were taken to ensure Christine Lee had no role in either the appointment or management of those researchers. They are also aware that I have not benefited personally from those donations in any way. She ceased funding any workers in my office in June 2020.”

Analysis of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests showed Lee donated more than £500,000 to Mr Gardiner and Labour between 2015 and 2020, mostly through funding for Mr Gardiner’s staff.

She also donated £5,000 to Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey in 2013, and in 2014 she helped sponsor a Chinese Liberal Democrats dinner to support the party’s then candidate for Somerton and Frome, Sarah Yong.

The register showed that in 2013 she funded flights for a four-day trip to Beijing for then Labour MP for Hendon Andrew Dismore, in his role as chairman of the Chinese in Britain APPG.

Mr Gardiner said all the donations were properly reported and “their source verified at the time”, and added: “I have been assured by the Security Services that whilst they have definitively identified improper funding channelled through Christine Lee, this does not relate to any funding received by my office.”

Mr Gardiner, the former chairman of the Chinese in Britain APPG, also said he had employed Lee’s son as his diary manager until he abruptly resigned earlier on Thursday.

“Christine Lee’s son volunteered in my office many years ago and was subsequently employed by me as a diary manager. He resigned from my employment earlier today,” he said.

“The Security Services have advised me that they have no intelligence that shows he was aware of, or complicit in, his mother’s illegal activity.

“I will continue to work closely with our Security Services in this and all other matters that relate to the security of our country.”

A spokesman for the Lib Dems said: “Ed is shocked by these revelations and the email from the Speaker of the House of Commons today was the first time he has been given cause to be concerned about a donation to his local party association, received in 2013.

“The Government must make it a national security priority to protect the UK’s democracy from threats and interference by foreign actors.

“This donation was reported properly and all rules and guidance was followed – as Ed expects is the case with donations made to colleagues across the House.”

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