An unprecedented security warning from MI5 was circulated to MPs and peers on Thursday that accused a lawyer, Christine Lee, of seeking to improperly influence parliamentarians on behalf of China’s ruling Communist party.
It is the first time that MI5 has issued an “interference alert” relating to China and concerns a high-profile Anglo-Chinese lawyer who received an award from Theresa May and who has donated £584,177 to the office of Labour MP and former shadow cabinet member Barry Gardiner.
The alert names and pictures Christine Ching Kui Lee, who has allegedly “knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Chinese Communist party”.
It added that the UFWD was “seeking to covertly interfere in UK politics through establishing links with established and aspiring parliamentarians across the political spectrum” and to “cultivate relationships with influential figures”.
In a statement issued on Thursday night, the Chinese embassy in London said: “China always adheres to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. We have no need and never seek to ‘buy influence’ in any foreign parliament. We firmly opposes the trick of smearing and intimidation against the Chinese community in the UK.”
The security warning was shared in an email from the Speaker’s office to MPs. In it, the authorities also accused Lee of having “facilitated financial donations to serving and aspiring parliamentarians on behalf of foreign nationals based in Hong Kong and China”.
Lee, 58, has been active in political circles for at least 15 years, promoting Anglo-Chinese relations through a range of groups such as the British Chinese Project and the all-party parliamentary group Chinese in Britain. Photographs also show her meeting David Cameron when he was prime minister, and China’s president, Xi Jinping.
A law firm that bears her name made political donations totalling £675,586, of which £584,177 were “donations in kind” to Gardiner’s office, according to Labour. The first of these was made in 2015.
Electoral Commission figures show Lee’s firm also donated a further £90,029 in cash, largely to Labour party bodies, including Gardiner’s Brent North constituency party. A further £5,000 was received by Labour centrally, the party said.
A further £5,000 was sent to the Lib Dems in Kingston in 2013, where the party leader and then energy secretary, Ed Davey, holds his seat.
Lee had also received a Points of Light award from Theresa May, when she was prime minister. In a personal message, the then Conservative leader praised her for “promoting engagement, understanding, and cooperation between the Chinese and British communities in the UK”. On Thursday night, the award was withdrawn. The online page for Lee’s Points of Light award said it had been “rescinded”.
In a statement on Thursday, Gardiner said he had been “liaising with our security services for a number of years about Christine Lee” and that they were “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”.
“All the donations were properly reported in the register of members’ interests and their source verified at the time. 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,” he added.
Later in an interview with Sky News, Gardiner added that the first time he had been aware there were allegations of influence-peddling by Lee was on Thursday morning “when I had a meeting with the director of parliamentary security and two Security Service agents”.
Gardiner also employed a son of Lee’s as a diary manager. He said the son had resigned after MI5’s disclosure. “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,” Gardiner said.
Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, Gardiner was shadow trade secretary and briefly shadow energy secretary in 2016, when he spoke in support the new nuclear power station at Hinckley Point, in which a Chinese company was a minority investor.
When questioned about that, Gardiner told Sky News he “wasn’t a cheerleader for the project” and was “highly critical of the government at the time and the way they were allowing the investors to get away with ripping off British billpayers” with the terms of the deal proposed at the time.
The Liberal Democrats said that Davey was shocked by the revelations, and that it was the first time he had been given cause for concern about the donation from Lee’s law firm. “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,” a spokesperson for the party said.
The Guardian has attempted to contact Lee. She did not immediately respond to questions about MI5’s statements sent to her law firm from the Guardian.
Interference alerts are issued very rarely, after talks between the spy agencies and parliamentary authorities. No such alerts have ever been released relating to China, and only one relating to Russia, Whitehall sources said.
MI5 is understood to have been monitoring Lee for some time, concerned that she was targeting politicians from all political parties. The decision to issue an alert was made inside the agency, sources added, based on the tools at their disposal and without external political direction.
Despite the warning, however, it is understood Lee is not being prosecuted.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, said she knew it would be “deeply concerning” that parliamentarians had been targeted by “an individual who has knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist party”.
She added: “Where necessary, proportionate action is always taken to mitigate these threats, thanks to our world-leading intelligence and security agencies.”
The government is planning to bring in a new espionage legislation to update the Official Secrets Acts. Dr Alan Mendoza, the executive director of the Henry Jackson Society, said the Lee case demonstrated that the bill should be brought forward urgently and “that Britain’s arcane espionage laws require urgent updating”.
Concerns about Chinese espionage have been growing among Britain’s intelligence community. Late last year, Richard Moore, the head of MI6, said China had become the foreign intelligence agency’s “single greatest priority” for the first time in its history.
In 2020, Britain quietly expelled three alleged Chinese spies who it said were posing as journalists. MI5 concluded that the three worked for China’s powerful Ministry of State Security (MSS), although claims of espionage are typically rejected by Beijing.
Moments after being sent on Thursday, the unexpected warning was discussed in the Commons chamber, with the MPs Iain Duncan Smith and Tobias Ellwood demanding urgent updates from the government in a point of order.
Duncan Smith said: “The key issue here is, I understand, that Mr Speaker has been contacted by MI5 and is now warning members of parliament that there has been an agent of the Chinese government active here in parliament.”