Nigel Inkster, a former director of MI6, has described China as an ‘intelligence state’. This was true even before the Chinese Communist party (CCP) passed laws that all individuals and organisations must help the security forces when asked. Chinese officials, party members and citizens have long been active across a broad front in advancing the interests of the CCP, seeking out political, military, scientific, technological and commercial information. Britain has to be wary of more than just the Ministry of State Security (MSS) — China’s secret police agency — or the military intelligence department. The revelation last month that the Labour MP and former shadow minister Barry Gardiner had accepted £420,000 from Christine Lee, a CCP ‘agent of influence’, was not an isolated occurrence.
We should not make the mistake, as one newspaper did last month, of thinking that ‘China today is not really interested in old–fashioned spying’. Its intelligence services are highly active and use many different methods for recruitment.
China often engages in what I call ‘iceberg operations’: there is enough in the open to provide deniability, but what’s visible is only a fraction of the bigger picture. I know because I’ve been the target of such an operation. In 2018, when I was adviser to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, a British professor suggested that my experience in EU/China relations might earn me some good money giving lectures. Would I like to be introduced to his friends at a Chinese university? The professor himself lectures at a party school where CCP officials are trained.
I exchanged emails with the Shanghai International Studies University, which passed me on to an affiliated thinktank, the Shanghai Institute for European Studies (SIES). I soon received an all-expenses-paid offer to fly to the city. Since I was already due to speak in Shenzhen at a conference, we agreed to meet there to talk more about the offer. As the email said, by ‘lucky coincidence’ two of its people were in nearby Guangzhou for business the week after.
It was not hard to spot that this was an intelligence approach. Instead of meeting me in my hotel, they directed me to a discreet café. Of the two men, it was the younger, Mr Shen, who did the talking: unusual in a society where seniority matters. Nor was this because of the older’s lack of English. Mr Shen’s own fluency was not fit for purpose, so we switched to Chinese. They then forgot their story about doing business in Guangzhou. It was also clear that as I shifted ground on what I was competent to lecture about, they shifted too, away from their original professed interests. They had brought a printed ‘project proposal’ and turned immediately to the payment section, I presume to assess my cupidity. We parted with assurances of keeping in touch.
A few emails followed. When might I be visiting again? Could I help with advice on a lecture Mr Shen was giving on UK/China relations? (It’s a common tactic to start with some innocuous request to see how far a target might go.) I let the correspondence lapse. But I am sure that the moment I set foot in China, Mr Shen will appear before me. Except that I won’t be going back.
It wasn’t surprising that my intelligence approach was set up by a British academic: our universities are heavily targeted. Yet they seem remarkably relaxed. There has, for example, been no debate as to the appropriateness of employing staff who are CCP members. At the very least, party membership should be declared, given that the oath when you join states that ‘I will fight for communism throughout my life’ and ‘be ready at all times to sacrifice my all for the party’. And this is the party that sees itself in a struggle for a ‘dominant position’ over the countries where these academics work and that excoriates such values as intellectual freedom. There is even an academic with an MSS background in a leading position at a top UK university.
Traditional espionage, then, is flourishing. But just as much damage (perhaps more) is done by other aspects of the intelligence state, because our security services aren’t set up to counter less traditional methods.
China’s intelligence state has long been highly active in science. As early as 1956, Premier Zhou Enlai, who was steeped in intelligence work, declared that an intelligence agency for science was essential. China’s scientific academies are intimately connected to military research, yet our defences are wide open. Not long ago security cameras in a science department of a major British university filmed a PhD student downloading files from all the computers the day before his return to China. Was he an MSS officer? No. Was he harming UK interests? Yes.
In 2020, an investigation into research funded by Huawei at UK universities unearthed co-operation on a range of sensitive technologies such as drones, cryptography and gait recognition. Partners in that research included some of China’s foremost military research academies. Is that espionage? Of course not; but it is helping a hostile power.
In another ‘iceberg operation’, one UK ex-defence expert has regularly lectured in China on sensitive military weaponry. Were there side meetings to discuss ‘problems of mutual interest’? Have visits been reported?
That background is why the security services recently warned MPs about Christine Lee. The new element of the story was that the money she gave to Gardiner’s office could be traced to CCP donors. Well, sort of new. It is a measure of the government’s complacency that ministers sat on the information for some years.
To see why Ms Lee’s activities are considered dangerous, it’s important to understand China’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). Although a predominantly domestic organisation, the UFWD has transferred its methods abroad as China’s global presence has grown. In essence, it aims to isolate the main enemy (America), and move others to a neutral or preferably favourable position in dealings with the CCP.
Mao regarded the UFWD, the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army as China’s ‘Three Magic Weapons’. No doubt Xi (who has strengthened the UFWD) feels the same. The UFWD is not officially an intelligence organisation, but it often acts as a radar for the intelligence services, providing targeting information. All CCP officials have UFWD objectives in their annual assessments.
People like Christine Lee will not bring Westminster democracy to its knees. But what they can do is map out who has influence and might be brought to espouse China-friendly policies. They can influence policy because, if a politician goes against China’s interests, he or she won’t receive large donations from someone such as Lee, who when she was in China pledged to ‘do my humble part in realising the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’.
Britain mustn’t be paranoid and must seek good relations wherever possible with China. But do ministers and government departments understand the full nature of the intelligence threat? Some do; some, often the more senior ministers, still seem unaware. The UK has made some positive changes: the National Security and Investment Act has come into force, and a new body provides academia with advice on co-operation with China. But far more is needed. We need an Australian-style counter-foreign–interference body and an equivalent to America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act. We need greater capacity to investigate financial flows, whether to parliament or to other influential people. We need to know about the impact on government of ex-ministers and retired top civil servants whose political consultancy companies quietly take large sums from the likes of Huawei and Chinese state-owned enterprises to push interests synonymous with those of the CCP.
Above all, we need transparency and publicity. Britain’s ‘useful idiots’ (or perhaps ‘greedy idiots’) prosper in the shadows.
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