China ‘spy’ in Parliament: Rishi Sunak under pressure to designate China threat to national security

A man with links to Security Minister Tom Tugendhat and Foreign Affairs Committee chair Alicia Kearns was arrested under the Official Secrets Act in March.

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Rishi Sunak is under pressure from his backbenchers to designate China a threat to national security after a parliamentary researcher was arrested on suspicion of spying.

The Sunday Times revealed that the man was arrested in March under the Official Secrets Act, but this was not disclosed until Saturday. He has links with senior Tories including Security Minister Tom Tugendhat and Foreign Affairs Committee chair Alicia Kearns.

The researcher said in a statement through his lawyers that he is "completely innocent" and he has spent his career "trying to educate others about the challenge and threats presented by the Chinese Communist Party". The Chinese embassy said the story was "malicious slander".

The Prime Minister said he raised his “very strong concerns about any interference in our parliamentary democracy, which is obviously unacceptable” with Chinese premier Li Qiang at the G20.

However it has led hawkish Tories to turn up the heat on Rishi Sunak. Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Security Minister Tugendhat are reportedly pushing for China to be relabelled as a threat to Britain’s safety and interests under new national security laws.

Rishi Sunak is under pressure from the Tory backbenchers over China. Credit: Getty/Kim MoggRishi Sunak is under pressure from the Tory backbenchers over China. Credit: Getty/Kim Mogg
Rishi Sunak is under pressure from the Tory backbenchers over China. Credit: Getty/Kim Mogg

What would happen if China was designation a threat to national security?

Under the National Security Act, the government could designate China a threat to national security. This would mean anyone working "at the direction" of China or a state-linked firm - which could include Huawei or TikTok - would have to register and disclose their activities, or risk jail.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith hit out at the “weak” position of not labelling China a threat, telling the PA news agency: “The result is that China is penetrating all our institutions from universities to Parliament. Time to speak through strength not weakness.”

However the Treasury is reportedly concerned that this could have a significant impact on trade, because so many different jobs and activities would have to be registered.

Downing Street said it would be wrong to “reduce” the UK’s approach to China to “just one word”. The PM’s official spokesman said the government would “robustly defend our democracy” but that the UK must continue with engage with China.

“We do not think it is right to reduce the approach to just one word given we need to take the opportunity to engage with China, not to just shout from the sidelines,” he said.

While Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch suggested that designating China a threat would “escalate things”. “Whether or not you use words like threat I think is a reflection of how far you want to escalate things,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“China is the second largest economy in the world, it’s heavily integrated in our economy as it is with many of our allies… We’re taking the same approach that those countries are taking.”

What have politicians said?

Speaking in Parliament today (11 September), Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden said he couldn't comment on the specific allegations, but said China is the “number one state-based threat” to the UK economic security.

He told the Commons: "It remains an absolute priority for the government to take all necessary steps to protect the UK from any foreign state activity which seeks to undermine our national security, prosperity and democratic values. The government has been clear that China represents a systemic challenge to the UK and to our values. This has been evidenced in China’s continual disregard for universal human rights and international commitments."

Dowden added that "actions speak louder than words" and cited his decision to remove "surveillance equipment subject to China’s national intelligence law from sensitive government sites" and banning TikTok from government devices and Huawei from 5G networks.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper responded by saying that Labour "stands ready to work on a cross-party basis to keep our country safe". She added: "We recognise the seriousness of the allegations involving espionage on behalf of China at the heart of our democracy.

"The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament has been extremely critical about the lack of proper strategy on China, and short-termism. We need to be able to engage with China on issues around climate change and global issues, but we need to be very robust about defending our national security."

Why is China considered a security threat?

There has been an increasing focus on China's security threat in recent years following a spate of events and controversies. In 2019, Theresa May banned the Chinese telecoms company Huawei from supplying core parts of the 5G network, over fears the technology posed a security risk. The UK hasn't completely banned Huawei, unlike other countries, including New Zealand.

In January 2022, it was revealed via a security alert that a woman called Christine Lee has "been engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party” in Parliament. It was revealed she had donated more than £425,000 to senior Labour MP Barry Gardiner, along with other donations to MPs and local parties through her law firm.

At the time, Gardiner said that he had been “liaising with our security services for a number of years” about Lee and had correctly reported all her donations. 

There are also concerns that the hugely popular app TikTok could be used to spread pro-Beijing views or collect user information to be sent back to China. The social media giant came under more scrutiny in late 2022 after the platform confirmed, as part of an update to its privacy policy, that under certain conditions, some TikTok staff in China and other countries were permitted access to UK and EU user data "based on a demonstrated need to do their job."

In March, TikTok was banned from UK Government phones after a security review, though ministers and officials are still able to use the app on their personal phones. The then-Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden announced the move, which he said would be “good cyber hygiene” amid a risk to “sensitive Government data”, with immediate effect on 23 March. Certain US states, such as Montana, have banned TikTok from being used by the general public.

Earlier in the year, China was accused of flying spy balloons over the US. In February, US officials revealed they had shot down at least four objects in two weeks, with one said to be a balloon laden with surveillance equipment for the purpose of detecting mobile and radio signals. China disputed this.

Dr Dan Lomas, a senior lecturer in intelligence and security at Brunel University London, explained: “The amount of intelligence that’s going to be collected from a balloon is perhaps not the same amount of intelligence you can get from extensive satellite coverage over a particular target. So it may be that what we’re seeing is a test of a political message.

“Overflights of US territory are intended as a marker by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to say we can annoy you as much as you potentially in our backyard.”