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UK prime minister deplores Chinese interference in democracy

Rishi Sunak reportedly confronts China’s Premier Li Qiang on the G20 sidelines over spying report.

By Chris Taylor for RFA

Septermber 11, 2023

A man is silhouetted against the sky as he walks past the Houses of Parliament in central London, Britain October 26, 2015.

United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has accused China of meddling in Britain’s democracy as he faces a government split at home over whether to formally designate China a threat to national security.

Sunak “confronted” Chinese premier Li Qiang on the sidelines of the G20 summit in its final session on Sunday morning.

Speaking afterwards, Sunak told broadcasters in New Delhi that he had raised his “very strong concern” about interference with parliamentary democracy, which he said was “obviously unacceptable.”

It was the “right approach” to talk face-to-face with China's premier, he said.

The accusation, made to Li on Sunday, comes in the wake of a Sunday Times report that a parliamentary researcher had been arrested on spying charges.

Police have confirmed that two men, one in his 20s and another in his 30s, were arrested under the Official Secrets Act in March, according to British media reports.

The arrests underscore heightened concerns in Western democracies over China’s infiltrating espionage maneuvers in leading Western economies such as the U.S., Canada and Australia, as the rift between the two sides widened. China has denied such claims.

Earlier this year Sunak was accused of being too “soft” on China for failing to shut down Communist Party-backed Confucius Institutes on university campuses and as concerns mounted over Chinese Communist Party infiltration of all aspects of British life.

Last year the British government pledged to be more vigilant against creeping Chinese infiltration amid a global investigation into Chinese police-run "overseas service centers," some of which have been ordered to shut down by foreign governments for operating outside of diplomatic channels

“Chinese Communist Party aggression is global,” U.S. Representative Mike Gallagher warned earlier this year while leading a bipartisan congressional delegation in London.

“The United States and United Kingdom face common economic, military and ideological threats posed by the CCP,” according to comments retweeted by the official X account of the Select Committee on the CCP, which he chairs.

Everywhere – and at the same time

In August, Chinese spies used LinkedIn to infiltrate targets in the U.K., prompting calls for Foreign Secretary James Cleverly to cancel a trip to China. It went ahead anyway.

After the Times of London reported a Chinese agent had been offering cash and contracts to British government employees via the professional social media network LinkedIn, former ruling Conservative Party leader Ian Duncan Smith commented via his account on X, “Our policy towards China is like a front door mat…”

Australia has issued warnings about Chinese espionage, as has New Zealand, which called Chinese spying and influence operations a “complex intelligence concern,” prompting calls for new laws to protect the country's democracy against foreign interference.

An online seminar run by the Hudson Institute earlier this year said, “The Chinese Communist Party will again be indoctrinating and spying on students on American college campuses this academic year in an organized effort known as ‘cognitive warfare.’"

In July Taiwan arrested five people accused of spying for China and in the biggest espionage event of the year – and kicking parlous China-U.S. relations to an unprecedented low – a Chinese spy balloon floated over the U.S. before being shot down at sea.

A spy in the ranks

In London’s latest espionage shakeup, the Sunday Times reported that one of those arrested for spying was a parliamentary researcher with links to several senior Tory MPs, including the foreign affairs committee chair Alicia Kearns.

“I am aware of the Sunday Times report,” Kearns said on X, adding, “I will not be commenting. While I recognise the public interest, we all have a duty to ensure any work of the Authorities is not jeopardized.”

The parliamentary researcher, who is in his 20s, was arrested on March 13 in Edinburgh, and the other man – whom the Times has not named – was arrested on the same date in Oxfordshire. He is in his 30s.

The parliamentary researcher is believed to have pushed the line that “China hawks lack nuance,” which some are now concerned may have actually had some impact on policy.

“An alleged spy for China infiltrates the U.K. parliament as a staff expert claiming that China hawks ‘lack nuance,’ which helped convince back-benchers into soft-on-China positions,” Anders Corr, publisher at the Journal of Political Risk and Principal at Corr Analytics, said on social media.

On Monday, the Times reported that Sunak was likely to return from the New Delhi G20 to a divided parliament, with Suella Braverman, the home secretary, and Tom Tugendhat, the security minister, pushing for China to be categorized as a threat to Britain’s “safety and interests.”

According to possible new state security laws, anyone working “at the direction” of China or state-linked Chinese companies will have to register with the government.

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China claimed to be “appalled at reports of the infiltration of the U.K. parliament by someone allegedly acting on behalf of the People’s Republic of China.”

IPAC has in the past acted as a pressure group on the U.K. government to adopt a more hawkish stance toward Beijing.

“Since its inception, IPAC has insisted that democratic governments must take seriously the threat of foreign interference from Beijing. This case adds sad urgency to our call,” the alliance said in a statement.

A Whitehall source told the Times, “This is a major escalation by China. We have never seen anything like this before.”

Edited by Mike Firn and Elaine Chan.


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