The UK has long been aware of the risk of cyber-attacks emanating from China. Back in 2007, the head of MI5 Jonathan Evans warned hundreds of British businesses about Chinese cyber-operations targeting the UK. Yet the risk from Chinese spies operating in the UK is less well understood. This is why it came as such a shock to so many when MI5 warned MPs and peers this week that the lawyer Christine Lee was allegedly seeking to influence parliamentarians on behalf of the Chinese Communist party.
A law firm that bears Lee's name made political donations totalling £675,000, of which £584,177 were 'donations in kind' to the office of Labour MP Barry Gardiner. She also received a Points of Light award – which has since been rescinded – from Theresa May when she was prime minister.
Chinese espionage has a long history in the UK. The post-revolution Chinese Embassy in London was set up in 1962 by one of China’s greatest spies, Xiong Xianghui. During the civil war between the nationalists and the communists, Xiong operated undercover in the nationalist army as an aide-de-camp to General Hu. Xiong's crowning moment came when Hu shared plans with him of an attack on Chairman Mao's communist base in, Yan'an, north-west China. Xiong tipped Mao off. Mao escaped into the mountains. And Hu captured an empty town.
One of the first people in Western Europe to be put on trial for spying for China was French diplomat Bernard Boursicot in 1986. Boursicot was recruited by his lover, Shi Peipu, a Chinese opera singer. During the trial, to the shock of the French public – and, not least, to Boursicot himself, who had been with Peipu for 18 years and believed he had a son with her – Peipu revealed she was a man. The events of this case were turned into the film Madame Butterfly.
Yet as extraordinary as the case of Peipu is, it is more illustrative of Chinese espionage than the heroic figure of Xiong. Former FBI counter-intelligence officer Paul Moore claims that those who spy for China ‘normally don’t look like spies, (or) act like spies.’ Instead, many of the operations on behalf of the Chinese state are carried out by academics, students, businessmen and journalists, who befriend those in useful positions – or use their own legitimate job – to contribute to the aims of ‘the party’ when opportunities occur. The espionage is just as likely to seek a technological or commercial information or influence, as military or political, as recent cases in the UK demonstrate.
A suspicious break in at the now bust Scottish renewable energy manufacturer, Pelamis, in 2011 is just one example. The burglars, who were never caught, targeted the firm in the dead of night. They ignored valuables, taking only a handful of laptops. The break-in occurred two months after a visit by the Chinese vice-premier Li Keqiang, who toured the firm's HQ with a delegation of dozens of his country’s top business leaders and diplomats. Five years later, a strikingly similar wave machine to the one being developed by Pelamis was unveiled by a Chinese state-owned company.
In recent years, concerns have been growing about the activities of the Chinese state in Britain. Richard Moore, the head of MI6, said in November that China had become the foreign intelligence agency’s 'single greatest priority' for the first time in its history. A year before, in 2020, Britain expelled three journalists that MI5 accused of spying.
Yet despite these warning signs, Britain has been slow to recognise the threat. China has been open about the two major initiatives designed to secure its long-term economic and national security. The first is the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to open trade routes along the old Silk Road from China to Europe. The second is Made In China 2025. This is the ten-year plan to develop sectors central to the fourth industrial revolution. The goal is to reduce dependence on foreign technology and promote Chinese high-tech. How much of this strategy is being achieved by espionage remains to be seen.
Speaking in 2020, the director of MI5, Ken McCallum claimed that the security service’s biggest task was countering terrorism. Second to that, he said, was tackling the nuisance of Russian agents. But while he conceded that Russia was delivering ‘bursts of bad weather,’ Beijing, he warned, was ‘changing the climate.’ No-one doubts the importance of stopping terror attacks, yet under political and public pressure, MI5 still uses most of its resources looking at a threat that has killed relatively few people and has little impact on our long-term economic prosperity. The revelations about Christine Lee would appear to suggest that more of its resources should be allocated to dealing with Beijing.
Yet due to the elusive nature of Chinese ‘spies’, even with greater resources, MI5’s job remains exceptionally difficult. Educating sensitive industries to the potential risks remain a priority. The UK government’s Research Collaboration Advice Team, which promotes security advice on export controls, cyber-security, and protection of intellectual property, was remarkably only formed last year.
In Lee's case, though, we should avoid pearl-clutching over China’s activities. We are in competition with China, not necessarily conflict, and we also seek to influence other states, even our allies. After all, perhaps the largest covert influence operation of the last century was British intelligence’s efforts to influence the US to join the Second World War. In Chinese, the term espionage was traditionally expressed by the character ‘jian’, which denotes a ray of sunlight coming through a half open door. We have left the door fully open. Without an over-reaction that risks stirring up anti-Chinese sentiment, we need to be better informed of the risks to our long-term prosperity.