Rishi Sunak at at the G20 summit in India
The Prime Minister is under increasing pressure to designate China a threat to national security after a parliamentary researcher was arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing. The arrest under the Official Secrets Act led to the Prime Minister confronting Chinese premier Li Qiang at the G20 summit in India on Sunday over “unacceptable” interference in democracy.
The researcher, who had links with senior Tories including security minister Tom Tugendhat and Foreign Affairs Committee chair Alicia Kearns, was arrested back in March – but it went undisclosed until Saturday.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Tugendhat are said to be pushing for China to be relabelled as a threat to Britain’s safety and interests under new national security laws.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman wants China to be relabelled as a threat
Now, reports claim that British intelligence services will, in the coming months, expose a number of Chinese spies in the coming. It comes amid concerns that a network of operatives is operating in Westminster.
The Telegraph says it “understands” that security services suspect a number of Chinese agents to be working in Westminster. They plan to use the new National Security Act, passed this summer, to detain them.
The Act created a new offence – “foreign interference” – which makes it illegal for spies to try to influence elections, or to attempt to disrupt parliamentary democracy, in the UK.
The report comes after the news broke that a parliamentary researcher was one of two men arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing. One of the suspects, a man in his 30s, was detained in Oxfordshire on March 13, while the other, in his 20s, was arrested in Edinburgh, Scotland Yard said. Searches were also carried out in an east London property. They have been bailed until early October.
Both were arrested on suspicion of offences under Section 1 of the old Official Secrets Act 1911, which punishes offences that are said to be “prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state”. However, as an offence, this is harder to prove than the newly created offence.
They were charged under the old act because their alleged offences occurred before the National Security Act came into force. It is a basic tenet of the UK’s rule of law and unwritten constitution that new legislation cannot be retroactive and must not be applied retrospectively.
Tobias Ellwood, the Tory MP who chairs the Commons Defence Committee, warned it is “potentially part of a wider, long-term, Chinese strategy to infiltrate Parliament”.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former party leader who has been sanctioned by Beijing, was among Tories pressing the Prime Minister to strengthen his language towards China. He hit out at the “weak” position of not labelling China a threat, telling the PA news agency: “The result is that China is penetrating all our institutions from universities to Parliament. Time to speak through strength not weakness.”
On the subject of recent arrests, he said they demonstrated the “deepening threat” being posed by China under President Xi Jinping. Sir Iain told PA: “This story gives the lie to the Government’s attempt not to see China as a systemic threat.
“Time for us to recognise the deepening threat that the CCP under Xi now pose. What price was Cleverly’s kowtow visit to Beijing?”
However, PM Sunak cited his confrontation with Chinese Premier Li Qiang in New Delhi as an example of the benefits of his policy of engagement rather than “shouting from the sidelines”. He told broadcasters that he raised his “very strong concerns about any interference in our parliamentary democracy, which is obviously unacceptable”.
“There’s no point carping from the sidelines, I’d rather be in there directly expressing my concerns, and that’s what I did today,” he added.
Li Qiang at the G20 summit
Labour’s shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds said not describing China as a threat is “naive” but argued that economic ties with Beijing could “over the long-term be a positive thing”.
But he told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg China cannot be treated the same when “when you have got these appalling and shocking allegations today”.
A report from Parliament’s spy agency watchdog, the Intelligence and Security Committee, warned in July that Beijing is targeting the UK “prolifically and aggressively”. Last year, MI5 issued a rare security alert, warning MPs that a suspected Chinese spy called Christine Lee had engaged in “political interference activities” on behalf of China’s ruling communist regime.