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UK, Canadian Intelligence Agencies Raise the Alarm Over Chinese Espionage Activity

Published: January 13, 2022
WUHAN, CHINA - AUG. 5:(CHINA OUT) A view of Wuhan, China shows the Chinese national flag on a ferry boat beside the Yangtze River on Aug. 5, 2021 in Wuhan, China. Both the UK and Canadian intelligence agencies (MI5 and CSIS) have raised the alarm over China’s attempts to clandestinely interfere with domestic politics. (Image: Getty Images)

In a rare move, on Jan. 13, MI5, the UK’s domestic counterintelligence and security agency, raised the alarm over lawyer Christine Lee, who was allegedly seeking to improperly influence UK parliamentarians on behalf of China’s ruling Communist party, The Guardian reported. 

MI5 has issued an “interference alert” concerning Lee, whose full name is Christine Ching Kui Lee, stating that she has allegedly  “knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Chinese Communist Party.”

The UFWD, is a department that reports directly to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and gathers intelligence on, manages relations with, and attempts to influence elite individuals and organizations outside China. The department was first established in 1979 under leader Deng Xiaoping and its role and scope has only intensified under Xi Jinping’s leadership.

The notice stated that the UFWD “is seeking to covertly interfere in UK politics through establishing links with established and aspiring parliamentarians across the political spectrum” in order to “cultivate relationships with influential figures.”

Lee is no stranger to UK politics. Over the years she has made considerable donations to political entities in the UK totaling £675,586 (US$927,214). The donations were almost exclusively handed over to either the UK Labour Party or to Barry Gardiner, the Brent North MP.

Lee is also the recipient of a Points of Light award. The award is issued every weekday by the Prime Minister and according to the Prime Minister’s website, is intended to “recognise inspirational volunteers and outstanding individuals” who make change in the community. The award is modeled after a U.S. custom first established by former U.S. president George W. Bush and was implemented in the UK in April, 2014.

Gardiner was aware of Lee’s influence peddling. In a statement issued Thursday the MP said that he had been “liaising with our security services for a number of years about Chirstine Lee,” adding that MI5 was made “fully aware be me, of her engagement with my office and the donations she made to fund researchers in my office in the past.”

Gardiner said, “All the donations were properly reported in the register of members’ interests and their source verified at the time. I have been assured by the security services that whilst they have definitively identified improper funding channelled through Christine Lee, this does not relate to any funding received by my office,” The Guardian reported. 

Lee’s son held a role in Gardiner’s office as a diary manager however, immediately resigned from the role following the MI5 alert. In response, Gardiner said, “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.”

The alert was immediately discussed in the Commons chamber, with MPs Iain Duncan and Tobias Ellwood both demanding “urgent updates” from the government in a point of order. 

“The key issue here is I understand that Mr Speaker has been contacted by MI5 and is now warning members of parliament that there has been an agent of the Chinese government active here in parliament,” Duncan said.

Canada’s intelligence agency raises the alarm

Canada’s intelligence agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has also recently raised an alarm over improper Chinese influence on Canadian parliamentarians. 

For the first time in the agency’s history CSIS is “warning individual MPs and senators from all major parties about influence operations being carried out by China and other adversarial states,” the Globe and Mail reported on Jan. 11.  

CSIS is saying that it has become increasingly alarmed over efforts by Chinese agents to covertly influence and cultivate relations with elected officials in an attempt to sway debates and government decision making.

John Townsend, a CSIS spokesperson, told the Globe and Mail that “CSIS actively investigates threats that are carried out in a clandestine or deceptive manner or involve a threat to any person,” adding that, “CSIS delivers these briefings in order to promote awareness of foreign interference and the actions of other hostile actors and to strengthen individual security practices and protect Canadians and their interests.”

While CSIS declined to name the parliamentarians targeted, the agency did say it had a list of MPs and senators it believes should be aware of Chinese influence operations. 

While it is normal for foreign governments to attempt to influence other nation’s politics, CSIS has identified activity outside of the norm referring to activity by Chinese nationals in Canada as coercive and subversive.

The renewed alarm follows two reports published in 2019 and 2020 that called on the Canadian federal government to develop a public foreign interference strategy. 

A committee was struck that consists of both Canadian MPs and senators who have access to classified intelligence that identified China and Russia as “primary culprits” of “significant and sustained” interference operations in Canada.

The 2019 report stated that “This targeting occurs regardless of an official’s status in government or opposition” adding that Chinese nationals are attempting to gain leverage over officials and to use them to enhance their interests. 

CSIS said that political targets  include members of all major Canadian political parties including the reigning Liberal Party of Canada, as well as the Conservative and New Democratic parties. 

The Canadian intelligence agency says that Chinese operatives are mobilizing third parties such as proxies and lobby groups to conduct interference operations in Canada that seek to “interfere with policy actions by attempting to discredit or attack public officials.”

The committee has asserted that China is known to harass and attempt to intimidate critics of Beijing particularly those in the Canadian-Chinese community and that China is attempting to control Chinese language media in Canada, “thereby undermining the free and independent media in Canada.”

“Chinese diplomats and agents of the United Front, which is in charge of burnishing China’s image abroad and managing the Chinese diaspora, are active in the Chinese-Canadian community and student associations, including the establishment of Confucius Institutes at universities that offer language instruction but are accused of reinforcing Beijing’s positions on issues,” The Globe and Mail reported.