MI5 has issued an alert to MPs after identifying a suspected Chinese agent who it has “judged to be involved in political interference activities in the UK”.
House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle shared a letter with ministers on Thursday detailing the security service’s warning that 58-year-old solicitor Christine Ching Kui Lee “has been engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), engaging with members here at parliament”.
The news comes after a “significant, long-running” MI5 investigation, Whitehall sources told the BBC.
MI5 said Lee has “established links” between the CCP and existing and aspiring UK parliamentarians. She is known to have contributed funds to ministers, including donations totalling more than £420,000 to Labour MP Barry Gardiner over a five-year period.
In a statement, the MP for Brent North said he had been “liaising with our security services for a number of years about Christine Lee and they have 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”.
Neither Lee nor Gardiner have been accused of criminal activity.
China has denied the allegations of political interference. A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in the UK said: “China always adheres to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs.
“We have no need and never seek to ‘buy influence’ in any foreign parliament. We firmly opposes [sic] the trick of smearing and intimidation against the Chinese community in the UK.”
Who is Christine Lee?
At the age of 11 Lee, referred to by her Chinese name Li Zhenju in a Chinese state media report published in 2019, moved from Hong Kong to Northern Ireland with her parents in 1974. The “twice-married mother of two” now lives “in the affluent Birmingham suburb of Coleshill”, and has legal offices in London and Birmingham, said the Daily Mail.
A “well-known Chinese lawyer”, Lee has brought “dignity and self-confidence to overseas Chinese”, according to China’s report, and she was invited to attend the 70th anniversary of the founding of the CCP, The Guardian reported.
Her “links to the heart of the British establishment stretch back more than a decade”, said The Times. Lee was photographed with David Cameron during his time in No. 10, and “as recently as 2019” she was “awarded and congratulated personally by then prime minister, Theresa May, for helping Chinese-British cooperation”, The Guardian said.
May honoured Lee with the Points of Light award for her work on the British Chinese Project, a non-profit organisation Lee founded to promote engagement and cooperation between the Chinese community and wider UK society. The award, which recognised Lee’s fundraising and work to address loneliness and isolation for members of the British-Chinese community, has since been rescinded.
Lee’s son Daniel Wilkes also volunteered in Gardiner’s Brent North constituency office. He was subsequently hired as the MP’s diary manager, a position he held until tendering his resignation yesterday.
According to the MI5 notice, Lee is suspected of having “knowingly engaged in political interference” on behalf of the United Front Work Department (UFWD), “a long-established organ” of the CCP, said Sky News’ Asia correspondent Tom Cheshire.
A 2018 report by US security officials described the UFWD as working “to co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition to the policies and authority” of the CCP.
One cause for Washington’s growing concerns over the department’s activities, the report explained, was its “political interference in Australia and New Zealand”.
Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday, former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith described the case as a “matter of grave concern”.
Lee “isn’t the cloak and dagger type who works for China’s Ministry of State Security”, said Sky News’ Cheshire. “If she were, she wouldn’t still be in the UK.”
The UFWD typically conducts its work “in the open”, he continued, and “Lee apparently operated in the same way”. She “never hid her links to the Beijing regime”, said The Times and her law firm’s website “lists its role as legal adviser to the Chinese embassy”.
But the notice to MPs indicates a level of significant concern about Lee’s activities.
“Issuing an alert about an individual is an unusual move for MI5,” said the BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera. To do so signifies that the security service has “become sufficiently concerned that they felt they had to act now”.
Foreign agents lobbying in the US are “governed by a strict code”, said The Times, and “such a code needs to be spelt out much more clearly in Britain”.
MI5’s warning to ministers raises “two grave issues”, said The Times, namely “the vulnerability of MPs to unscrupulous lobbying by hostile governments, and the extraordinary measures that today’s China, under the rule of President Xi, will adopt to influence western governments”.
Addressing the Commons yesterday, former defence minister Tobias Ellwood said of the allegations against Lee that “this is the sort grey-zone interference we now anticipate and expect from China”.