The biggest surprise in Thursday’s security warning about a Chinese agent seeking to influence British politicians is that it came as a surprise at all. The Chinese Communist Party operates a vast and growing influence operation in Britain, which has pretty much been allowed free rein.
The warning came from MI5 in the form of an ‘interference alert’ sent to House of Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsey Hoyle, which he then passed on to MPs. It warned that Christine Lee, a lawyer, was ‘knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist party.’
Lee was accused of attempting to influence several MPs from the Labour, Lib Dems and Conservative parties through donations or ‘donations in kind’. Among them was Labour MP Barry Gardiner, whose office received over £400,000 in donations. Lee’s son was employed as a diary manager for Gardiner, who generally took a pro-Beijing line while he was in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.
In a statement on Thursday, the Brent North MP said the donations were fully declared, and he had been ‘liaising with our security services for a number of years about Christine Lee’. He said he made MI5 fully aware ‘of her engagement with my office and the donations she made to fund researchers in my office in the past’.
Lee also made a £5,000 donation to the local party association of Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey while he was energy secretary in the coalition government. A spokesman for the party said Sir Ed was ‘shocked by these revelations’
Lee even received a ‘Points of Light’ award from Theresa May when she was prime minister. In a personal message, May praised Lee for ‘promoting engagement, understanding, and cooperation between the Chinese and British communities in the UK.’
Lee, who is affiliated with the Chinese Overseas Friendship Association, reportedly targeted members of the now disbanded parliamentary group, Chinese in Britain. Hoyle said payments had come from Hong Kong and China, but were made covertly to disguise the origin of the money.
The interference alert was the first issued on China and is only the second by MI5, which has become increasingly alarmed at the scale of CCP influence operations and espionage in the UK.
In a speech in November at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, MI5 chief Richard Moore warned that:
“‘Chinese intelligence services are highly capable and continue to conduct large scale espionage operations against the UK and our allies. This includes targeting those working in government, industries, or on research of particular interest to the Chinese state. They also monitor and attempt to exercise undue influence over the Chinese diaspora.’
Home Secretary Priti Patel said on Thursday that it was ‘deeply concerning’ that someone ‘who has knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party has targeted parliamentarians.’ She insisted the UK has measures in place ‘to identify foreign interference’.
MI5’s outing of Christine Lee demonstrates the extent of its concern, but she is just the tip of a much larger CCP influence operation that stretches from parliament to the common rooms of British academia and the board rooms of major businesses.
The United Front Works Department, for whom Lee was allegedly working, operates in parallel with China’s more conventional espionage operations. Its occupies a large and nameless compound next to Communist Party headquarters in Beijing. United Front work has been a priority for Xi Jinping, who has overseen a massive expansion in an effort to influence decision-making of foreign governments and public opinion more broadly.
The concept of a United Front work dates back to Lenin in the Soviet Union. At its heart are efforts to extend influence over non-Party individuals, groups and organisations. Some of the work is overt, but much is clandestine and conspiratorial. The targets range from professional and religious groups to gullible academics and business people – as well as politicians.
A particular international focus under Xi has been overseas Chinese, particularly students. The Chinese Students and Scholars Association – a united front organisation – is the Party’s eyes and ears on Britain’s university campuses, where it spies on Chinese students as well as mobilising loyalists to disrupt critics.
During the Chinese civil war, Mao Zedong described United Front work it as one of his three ‘magic weapons’, alongside armed struggle and Party-building. Xi began to reinvigorate the system soon after coming to power. In a 2015 speech to the Central Conference on the United Front, he called on them to step up their befriending of non-Party individuals: ‘We conduct the United Front work not for window dressing or good name, but for pragmatic reasons, because it plays a role, a big role, and an indispensable role. In the final analyses, the job of the United Front is to win over more people; we use the United Front to strengthen the forces for the common goal.’
A United Front teaching manual describes United Front work as ‘a big magic weapon which can rid us of 10,000 problems in order to seize victory’. It exhorts cadres to be gracious and inclusive as they attempt to ‘unite all forces that can be united,’ but to be ruthless against enemies: ‘Enemy forces abroad do not want to see China rise and many of them see our country as a potential threat and rival, so they use a thousand ploys and a hundred strategies to frustrate and repress us,’ the manual says.
The term ‘influence operations’ has in recent years been more closely associated with Russia, as with Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. But whereas Russian action is usually aimed at destroying trust and undermining Western political systems, China largely works within those systems.
It will be intriguing to see if the scandal galvanises British lawmakers in the same way as in Australia in 2017. Extensive attempts to attempts by China to buy political influence down under led to a fierce backlash and the introduction of tough new anti-foreign influence laws. These put Australia at the forefront of the democratic push-back against the covert intrusions of foreign states. Sir Linsey Hoyle could do a lot worse than circulate a copy of these laws to MPs alongside the MI5 warning.