Britain’s intelligence agencies have been gradually stepping up their warnings about their fears of Chinese espionage and influence peddling over the past couple of years – but until now there has not been such an public warning about a covert campaign in the UK.
Thursday’s warning from MI5 that accused the lawyer Christine Lee of engaging “in political interference activities” on behalf of China’s ruling Communist party contrasts with its response when it concluded three spies were operating in the UK in 2020.
They had been posing as journalists, the agency concluded, and were quietly expelled – news of which only emerged in February 2021.
Until now, MI5 has favoured caution when it comes to China.
A warning from the agency last April that at least 10,000 Britons had been targeted by people using fake profiles, hoping to elicit information by posing on LinkedIn as online recruiters, was made so diplomatically that it did not even mention China at all. Yet sources at the agency privately admit Beijing is believed to be behind the activity.
What has changed, in part, is a growing willingness by British intelligence to call out its concerns about China’s activities, against a backdrop of deteriorating government relations. It is just over six years since President Xi Jinping was invited to the UK on a state visit; even two years ago there was nervousness in official circles about criticising Beijing.
The tone changed in November when Richard Moore, the head of the foreign intelligence agency MI6, declared China was the agency’s “single greatest priority” for the first time in its history. Like MI5, it believes that after reorganisations mandated by Xi, China has professionalised is espionage activities, developing, for example, a capacity for global surveillance.
The warnings have had something of a theoretical quality about them.
But this time MI5 used a rare device – a formal “interference alert” – to warn MPs and peers about its fears relating to Lee.
Sent via the Speakers’ offices in both the House of Commons and Lords, parliamentarians received a pdf with information about Lee and her mugshot, with the agency’s own logo visible on the top left.
It could have been more public only if the warning had been published on the MI5 website.
MI5 won’t say how long it has been investigating Lee, although one source suggested it was about a year. Sources indicate that it has been deliberating about how to act for some weeks, and that the timing of the warning was of its choosing, unrelated to political difficulties faced elsewhere by Boris Johnson.
Nevertheless, the agency will have not acted without informing Priti Patel, the home secretary, who is responsible for MI5, of what it believes it had discovered.
A prominent Anglo-Chinese lawyer, Lee has been active and courting politicians for many years, making her first donation to a Labour MP in 2005, and making donations of £584,177.88 to the office of the Brent North MP Barry Gardiner (according to figures provided by Labour), largely in benefits in kind to help fund his researchers.
Lee has also been pictured with David Cameron and the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and has received an award from Theresa May.
All this might have been discreetly prevented had MI5 been actively concerned about her activities at the time, but for whatever reason the intelligence agency has decided the time to act is now.
Such episodes are likely to be repeated. For 20 years, since 9/11, Britain’s intelligence agencies have primarily been focused on tackling Islamist terrorism.
But, stung by accusations that they took “their eye off the ball” when it came to the threat posed by Russia, MI5 and MI6 are keen to demonstrate they are on top of the evolving threats to British security – posed increasingly, they say, by determined nation states, not terrorists.