The Chinese government and lawmakers in Hong Kong have lashed out at the UK after its intelligence agency MI5 warned that an alleged spy had infiltrated parliament to improperly influence British politicians on behalf of China.
Christine Lee, a 58-year Anglo-Chinese lawyer, was accused of attempting to sway UK lawmakers while facilitating donations from figures in Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland, according to a security briefing circulated to MPs and peers on Thursday.
Former Labour minister Barry Gardiner received more than £500,000 from Ms Lee’s law firm to cover staffing costs, while much smaller sums were given to Labour HQ and Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey.
The alleged agent, a London-based solicitor, was given an award by then prime minister Theresa May in 2019, and David Cameron was photographed speaking at an event for a Chinese engagement group that Ms Lee founded when he was prime minister.
Foreign Office officials have raised concerns with China’s ambassador to the UK over the issue, but the Chinese embassy in London denied the allegations late on Thursday night, saying it had “no need” to “buy influence” in any foreign parliament.
“We firmly oppose the trick of smearing and intimidation against the Chinese community in the UK,” the embassy’s spokesperson said in the statement.
Leung Chun-ying, former chief executive of Hong Kong, also criticised the UK government and accused London of double standards.
“If political donations from China and Hong Kong are viewed as acts of espionage, there are too many British spies in Hong Kong who are making direct or indirect donations and promoting the ‘western agenda’ to legislators in the capacity of barristers, professors, NGOs,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “These people would all be spies then.”
Regina Ip, a top adviser to Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam, made a similar argument on Twitter.
She said that the the Chinese-controlled territory could by the same measure level accusations against foreign rights activists – referring to Benedict Rogers by name – who have constantly voiced concerns about the deteriorating state of civil liberties there.
On Chinese social media platform Weibo, The Independent identified several posts expressing sarcastic “disbelief” about the reach of China’s supposed infiltration campaign. “We have already infiltrated the British parliament? That’s amazing,” one post read.
“Are we now powerful enough to interfere with the British parliament?” said another post. “Are they going to accuse us of interfering with the Queen’s domestic matters?”
Weibo users in both China and Hong Kong accused the UK of hypocrisy, and questioned whether all donations made by the US and UK in Hong Kong would be considered infiltration attempts. Some said MI5’s warning could be part of a coordinated smear campaign by the west before the Beijing Winter Olympics start next month.
“Western countries have united once again to create rumours,” the post said. “Whenever China is about to host major events, they will always do something like this. The tactic is getting really old and tiring.”
The allegation against Ms Lee is one of interference in order to gain covert influence in the UK and not intelligence gathering, according to Whitehall sources.
The UK’s home secretary Priti Patel said stronger laws were needed since Ms Lee’s activity was “under the criminal threshold” – warning that it is likely there will be more security alerts like the one issued on Thursday.
The Independent has contacted Ms Lee’s law firm for comment.