Non-Military Security

Chinese espionage poses a major threat to British national security

Jerguš Lajoš

On July 13, a report released by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) revealed the extent of China’s spying and interventionist activities in the UK. The report, the outcome of a four-year investigation, reveals the worrying reality of how ‘China’s enormous size, ambition and capabilities have helped the country to infiltrate every sector of the British economy, posing a significant threat to the country’s national security and sovereignty’. The report highlights China’s extensive influence on academia, industry, technology and critical national infrastructure. One of the most disturbing findings is the British government’s lack of focus and response to the threats posed by Beijing’s UK-wide approach. Moreover, the resources allocated to address this wide-ranging challenge have been described as wholly inadequate.

In academic circles, Chinese efforts to exert influence through incitement and intimidation tactics have raised concerns about the independence of UK institutions. A 200-page report issued by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee reveals the growing influence of the Chinese regime in British universities. The inquiry found that Chinese officials offered bribes, such as research funding and travel opportunities, to British academics to prevent criticism of the Communist rule. The Chinese government was also accused of infiltrating universities to steal research results intended for military purposes. Beijing used research programmes at British universities to benefit the development of the Chinese military. The findings also showed that the Confucius Institutes had been filtering staff based on political views and ethnicity. In addition, Chinese students in the UK faced monitoring and intimidation, which created a certain culture of fear. The report highlighted concerns that academic institutions were unaware of the threat posed by such collaboration and highlighted the need for better safeguards.

Neither the focus on industry nor technology has escaped China’s attention. The UK government has been criticised for endorsing blatant Chinese acquisition practices without adequately considering the potential risks to national security. Committee chairman Sir Julian Lewis warned that such moves could set the ground for a worst-case scenario in which China appropriates plans, sets its industrial standards and wields political and economic influence at nearly every turn. The trade deal that allowed Chinese company Huawei to be part of the 5G network in the British Isles in 2020 could be seen as such an action. The decision came despite warnings from the US, where the tech giant has been the subject of a data theft scandal. However, later that year, London reconsidered its decision and imposed a ban on products from the Chinese company following an analysis by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). The decision came into effect in early 2021, and all devices are to be removed from the 5G network by 2027.

Particularly worrying are China’s attempts to be part of the British energy sector. The report questions the rationality and appropriateness of allowing Chinese companies to exert influence over critical national infrastructure, including nuclear power stations, without fully considering the implications of placing power in the hands of authorities under Communist Party influence. Such a move could have serious consequences for the country’s energy security and independence. A possible threat was apparently averted at the end of 2022, when London pulled Beijing out of the nuclear power plant project Sizewell C. Prime Minister Sunak subsequently said in a statement that the “golden era” of UK-China relations was over, saying the Asian giant posed a systemic threat to the UK’s interests and values.

The adverse influences from the East have been known in London for some time, but the spillover to the public has been muted. In 2020, Britain quietly expelled three Chinese spies posing as journalists, with MI5 confirming their affiliation with China’s Ministry of State Security. The UK’s cautious approach to China in dealing with espionage made it quite difficult to fully understand the scale of the threat at the time. As a consequence of the above events, there was a need in political circles to introduce an Espionage Act that would modernise definitions of espionage and prosecute foreign agents involved in economic espionage. Many British MPs have also called for a tougher stance against Beijing over concerns about human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims and Hong Kong’s National Security Act.

Last year, Britain’s MI5 intelligence service faced criticism for failing to warn lawmakers sooner about a suspected Chinese spy, Christine Lee, who was involved in political interference in the United Kingdom. Lee, a legal adviser to the Chinese embassy, established and strengthened contacts with British politicians and their parties for three decades through financial donations from China. MI5 revealed that she is an agent of the United Front Work Department, which reports to the Communist Party of China. Despite warnings of growing Chinese espionage, Lee operated unhindered in the islands and even received an award from then-Prime Minister May in 2019. The scandal has implicated lawmakers, including senior figures from various parties, raising concerns about foreign influence in British politics. MI5’s warning prompted calls for a review of the situation to prevent similar incidents in the future.

In response to the report, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak acknowledged that China poses a fundamental challenge to the international system. Despite the revelations, Sunak has expressed a desire to maintain constructive relations with China, which has been a point of contention among members of his party who, on the contrary, are seeking to adopt a tougher stance towards Beijing. The delay in releasing the report has also come under criticism, raising concerns about the transparency of the government’s handling of the situation. Critics argue that a failure to address the issue swiftly could have long-term implications for the UK’s national interests and security.

As the UK Government deals with this difficult and complex challenge, it faces a delicate balancing act between protecting national security and maintaining diplomatic and economic relations with China. The Security Committee report called for a more comprehensive and forward-looking strategy, highlighting the need for a whole-of-government approach to addressing the wide-ranging threats posed by espionage and disruptive activities (also) from the People’s Republic of China. The findings and conclusions emerging from the strategy document have also intensified discussions about the UK’s position within the broader international context, particularly in the context of rising tensions between China and other countries. The geopolitical complexity of the direction of the global community is forcing the UK to carefully consider and adapt its response to growing challenges and the potential implications for both sovereignty and individual democratic institutions.

Photo credit: flickr.com/Fabien DUMONT

This brief is supported by

NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division

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