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China accused of interfering in UK ‘parliamentary democracy’

Rishi Sunak has told Chinese premier Li Qiang he has “significant concerns about Chinese interference in the UK’s parliamentary democracy” after the arrest of a British parliamentary researcher on suspicion of spying for Beijing.

The Metropolitan Police has confirmed that two men were arrested under the Official Secrets Act in March over allegations of espionage-related offences.

One of the men, who is in his 20s, worked as a parliamentary researcher and has been arrested on suspicion of spying for China, according to people familiar with the situation.

They added he has links to Conservative MPs including security minister Tom Tugendhat and House of Commons foreign affairs committee chair Alicia Kearns.

The man had previously lived and worked in China and has held a parliamentary access pass at Westminster for several years. The Sunday Times first reported the news.

It comes after warnings about China’s spying operations in the UK. A scathing report by parliament’s intelligence and security committee in July said the British government’s response to China’s “increasingly sophisticated” espionage had been “completely inadequate”.

The UK prime minister, who met Li on the margins of the G20 summit in New Delhi, said afterwards he could not comment on the “specifics” of any police investigation.

But Sunak told journalists he had confronted the Chinese premier over Beijing’s spying in the UK.

“With regard to my meeting with premier Li what I said very specifically is that I raised a range of different concerns that we have in areas of disagreement, and in particular, my very strong concerns about any interference in our parliamentary democracy, which is obviously unacceptable,” said Sunak.

Asked whether now was the time for a closer relationship with China, the UK prime minister said: “I think our approach is completely aligned with that of our allies.

“If you look at how countries like America, Japan, Canada all engage with China, that’s what they do, because engaging with people allows you to raise concerns directly.” 

UK foreign secretary James Cleverly was last month forced to defend how he led the first high-level British government visit to Beijing for five years. He warned failure to engage with China would be a sign of British “weakness”.

But the arrests by the Met are the latest evidence of tensions between Beijing and western countries over issues ranging from espionage to human rights to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

They have also raised concerns about access to the parliamentary estate at Westminster.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former Conservative leader and a leading China “hawk” in the Tory party, said the arrest of the man who held a parliamentary access pass suggested a “significant breach in security”.

“If you can penetrate parliament like this over such a long period of time . . . then how many other institutions with less levels of security are being penetrated on a daily basis,” he added. “China is determined to undermine the UK.”

When asked about possible weaknesses in the arrangements for parliamentary access passes, justice secretary Alex Chalk said the authorities needed to learn lessons.

“I don’t think that you should rule anything out . . . we’ve got to take it extremely seriously,” he added.

The Sunday Times said Tugendhat reportedly had limited contact with the parliamentary researcher, with no dealings with him while security minister. Tugendhat and Kearns both declined to comment.

Scotland Yard said on Saturday that an investigation was being carried out by officers from the Met’s counter-terrorism command.

“Officers from the Metropolitan Police arrested two men on March 13 on suspicion of offences under section one of the Official Secrets Act . . . both men were taken to a south London police station and were released on police bail until a date in early October,” it added.

Section One of the act relates to the passing of information “prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state”, including documents, pictures or passwords which are “calculated to be or might be . . . useful to an enemy”.

The intelligence and security committee said in July that the UK “is of significant interest to China when it comes to espionage”, adding that Beijing’s “whole-of-state” approach meant Chinese companies and citizens were co-opted into spying.

The committee said much of the impact that China had on UK national security was overt, involving company takeovers and interaction with academia and industry, enabling Beijing to “successfully penetrate every sector of the UK’s economy”.

In January last year British MPs were warned by MI5 that a Chinese agent had been “engaged in political interference activities” in parliament for the Chinese Communist party.

Christine Ching Kui Lee, a solicitor, was accused by the Security Service of “facilitating financial donations to serving and aspiring politicians” on behalf of foreign nationals based in China and Hong Kong.

The Daily Telegraph reported in July that Lee was suing MI5, and denied the Security Service allegations against her.

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