British MPs have been warned by MI5 that a Chinese agent has been “engaged in political interference activities” in parliament for the Chinese Communist party, including donating more than £420,000 to one Labour member.
Christine Ching Kui Lee, a solicitor who runs her own law firm in London, Christine Lee & Co, has been accused of “facilitating financial donations to serving and aspiring politicians” on behalf of foreign nationals based in Hong Kong and China.
MI5 warned that anyone contacted by Lee should be “mindful of her affiliation with the Chinese state and remit to advance the CCP’s agenda in UK politics”. Lee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a memo to all MPs and peers, Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the Commons, said MI5 had issued an “interference alert” about Lee, who he said “has been engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist party”.
It is rare for MI5 to issue interference alerts on foreign nationals. Charles Parton, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, said the move “reflects the fact that the security services are pretty worried about what China is doing in this country, both in terms of traditional espionage, which this isn’t, but also in terms of modern forms of interference and influence”.
Beijing denied the allegations and accused the UK government of promoting a “China threat theory” for political purposes.
“China has always adhered to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and we do not need to and will not engage in the so-called intervention activities,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry told a press briefing on Friday.
Wang added that there was “no factual basis” for claims Lee worked for the Chinese government.
Lee has been on the agency’s radar for some time. But the decision to circulate a formal warning was motivated by concerns that she was deliberately concealing her links with the United Front Work Department, the Chinese Communist party unit dedicated to building power overseas through opaque influencing operations.
The lawyer founded a group called the British Chinese Project and in 2019, Theresa May, former Tory prime minister, gave her an award for “promoting engagement, understanding, and co-operation between the Chinese and British communities in the UK”. The award has since been rescinded.
According to the MPs’ register of interests, she has donated more than £420,000 to the Labour MP and former shadow minister Barry Gardiner.
The MP said he had been “liaising with our security services for a number of years” about Lee, and said MI5 had “always known, and been made fully aware by me, of her engagement with my office and the donations she made to fund researchers in my office in the past”.
Gardiner said he had not benefited personally from the donations in “any way” and Lee ceased funding any workers in his office in June 2020.
Lee’s son had been employed in Gardiner’s office until leaving the role on Thursday, the MP confirmed. He added: “The security services have advised me that they have no intelligence that shows he was aware of, or complicit in, his mother’s illegal activity.”
Priti Patel, home secretary said: “I know it will be deeply concerning to many that an individual who has knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist party has targeted parliamentarians.”
She described Lee’s activity as “under the criminal threshold” and officials suggested it was hard to prosecute, Lee who has been accused of influence, not espionage.
Patel is expected to address MPs on the matter in the Commons on Friday.
The Home Office declined to comment on Lee’s citizenship status or why she has not been deported. However, intelligence officials have long complained that Britain lacks the legal powers needed to combat modern challenges such as influence operations, which cannot easily be prosecuted. A planned overhaul of espionage legislation, first announced in 2019, has yet to come into effect.
Richard Moore, chief of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, warned in November that China was now the “single greatest priority” for his agency. “The Chinese intelligence services are highly capable and continue to conduct large-scale espionage operations against the UK and our allies,” he said.
Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader and an outspoken critic of Beijing, questioned why Lee was not facing deportation.
“How can it be that an agent of a foreign despotic and despicable power . . . how can they put somebody into parliament and then that individual has nothing done to them other than they’re not allowed in parliament. This is surely not good enough.”
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing