China threat: what has MI5 said about Chinese threat to UK, could it invade Taiwan - and what’s being done?

(Photo: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)(Photo: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)

The head of MI5 has said the security service will increase its inquiries into China in response to the "game-changing" threat posed by the government's Communist Party.

Director general Ken McCallum stated that MI5 is conducting seven times as many investigations into China as it did four years prior, and that it plans to "grow as much again" to combat the pervasive inference attempts that permeate “so many aspects of our national life”.

According to McCallum, the threat is a “coordinated campaign on a grand scale” and the CCP's use of covert, coercive or corrupt techniques to launch "deceptive" plots to buy and exercise influence as well as the employment of “sophisticated interference efforts” is "breathtaking."

But should we be worried?

Here is everything you need to know about it.

What is the threat?

McCallum was speaking alongside at MI5's Thames House headquarters in London on Wednesday (6 July) in an unprecedented joint appearance with the director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, to an audience of corporate and academic leaders.

McCallum said they were speaking for the first time in public together to “send the clearest signal we can on a massive shared challenge: China”, adding: “The most game-changing challenge we face comes from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It’s covertly applying pressure across the globe … We need to talk about it. We need to act.”

The audience also heard warnings that if China invaded Taiwan as feared, it could “represent one of the most horrific business disruptions the world has ever seen”.

FBI boss Wray said he was “confident in saying that China is drawing all sorts of lessons from what’s happening with Russia and its invasion of Ukraine”.

Should we be worried?

The threat is one directed more at businesses than at everyday people going about their lives.

But of course, major disruption to the world’s business systems would eventually affect all aspects of normal waking life.

Describing the threat as a “complex, enduring and pervasive danger” to “innovative businesses” which was “getting worse” and was “even more serious” than many realise, Wray said: “We consistently see that it’s the Chinese government that poses the biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security, and by our I mean both our nations, along with our allies in Europe and elsewhere.”

Wray told the audience Beijing’s administration is “set on stealing your technology, whatever it is that makes your industry tick, and using it to undercut your business and dominate your market”.

Over the last year the UK has shared intelligence about Chinese cyber threats with 37 countries and in May disrupted a “sophisticated threat” against aerospace companies, McCallum said, adding that visa reforms had seen 50 students linked to Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army, leave the UK.

He cited a series of examples of Chinese interference, including the case of a British aviation expert who was approached online and offered an “attractive employment opportunity” which saw him twice travel to China to be “wined and dined” before being asked, and paid for, technical information on military aircraft by a company which was a front for Chinese intelligence officers.

McCallum also pointed to the security alert issued to Parliament earlier this year over Christine Lee, a suspected Chinese spy accused of targeting MPs, as he said operations which aimed to amplify pro-CCP voices and silence those which question its authority “need to be challenged”.

What is being done?

The UK needs to become a “harder target” by becoming more aware of the risks, McCallum said, as he highlighted how proposed laws in the National Security Bill, if passed, will provide a “long-needed and essential shift in powers to combat state threats”.

But he said the aim was “not to cut off from China”, adding: “We want a UK which is both connected and resilient.”

The FBI has substantially increased its investigations into China in recent years, with about 2,000 probes at present and a new one opened every 12 hours on average, Wray told reporters.