A security warning from MI5 has been circulated to MPs and peers accusing lawyer Christine Lee of seeking to improperly influence parliamentarians on behalf of China’s ruling Communist party.
The “interference alert” from the security service names and pictures Christine Ching Kui Lee as an individual who has allegedly “knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist party”.
The notice added that the UFWD “is seeking to covertly interfere in UK politics through establishing links with established and aspiring parliamentarians across the political spectrum” and to “cultivate relationships with influential figures”.
Lee has made political donations totalling £675,586, of which £584,177 were “donations in kind”, almost entirely to either the Labour party or to Barry Gardiner, the Brent North MP and former frontbencher.
Lee also received a Points of Light award from Theresa May, when she was prime minister, who in a personal message, praised her for “promoting engagement, understanding, and cooperation between the Chinese and British communities in the UK”.
In a statement on Thursday, Gardiner said he had been “liaising with our security services for a number of years about Christine Lee” and that they were “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”.
“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,” he added.
Gardiner also employed her son as a diary manager. He said that the son had resigned following MI5’s disclosure. “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,” Gardiner added.
The Guardian attempted to contact Lee. But she did not immediately respond to questions about MI5’s statements sent to her law firm from the Guardian.
The warning was shared in an email from the Speaker’s office to MPs. The authorities accused Lee of having “facilitated financial donations to serving and aspiring parliamentarians on behalf of foreign nationals based in Hong Kong and China”.
Moments after being sent, the unexpected warning was discussed in the Commons chamber, with MPs Iain Duncan Smith and Tobias Ellwood 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 Smith said.
Interference alerts are only issued very rarely after talks between the spy agencies and parliamentary authorities. No such alerts relating to China have ever been released – and only one relating to Russia, a source said.
MI5 fears that politicians across the political spectrum may have been targeted in an exercise that has been monitored by the agency for some time. “This has not been about targeting the government in particular,” the source added.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, said she knew it would be “deeply concerning” that parliamentarians had been targeted by “an individual who has knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist party”. She added: “Where necessary, proportionate action is always taken to mitigate these threats, thanks to our world-leading intelligence and security agencies.”
Despite the warning, however, it is understood that the individual concerned is not being expelled or prosecuted.
Concerns about Chinese espionage have been growing among Britain’s intelligence community. Late last year Richard Moore, the head of MI6, said China had become the foreign intelligence agency’s “single greatest priority” for the first time in its history.
In 2020, Britain quietly expelled three alleged Chinese spies who it said were posing as journalists. MI5 concluded the three worked for China’s powerful Ministry of State Security (MSS), although claims of espionage are typically rejected by Beijing.