MI5 Warning Shows Tone Has Changed Regarding China | MI5 | Top stories
MI5 Warning Shows Tone Has Changed Regarding China | MI5
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British intelligence agencies have gradually stepped up their warnings over fears of Chinese espionage and influence peddling over the past two years – but so far there has been no public warning about a campaign secret in the UK.
Thursday’s warning from MI5 which accused lawyer Christine Lee of engaging in “political interference activities” on behalf of the ruling Chinese Communist Party contrasts with its response when it concluded that three spies were operating in the UK. United in 2020.
They were posing as journalists, the agency concluded, and were quietly expelled – news of which only emerged in February 2021.
MI5 has so far favored caution when it comes to China.
A warning from the agency last April that at least 10,000 Britons had been targeted by people using fake profiles, hoping to gain information by posing as online recruiters on LinkedIn, was done so diplomatically that he didn’t even mention China at all. Yet agency sources privately admit that Beijing is behind the activity.
What has changed, in part, is the growing willingness of the British Secret Service to voice concerns about China’s activities, amid deteriorating government relations. It has been just over six years since President Xi Jinping was invited to the UK on a state visit; just two years ago, official circles were nervous about criticizing Beijing.
The tone changed in November when Richard Moore, the head of foreign intelligence agency MI6, declared China the agency’s “top priority” for the first time in its history. Like MI5, he believes that after the reorganizations mandated by Xi, China professionalized its espionage activities, for example developing a global surveillance capacity.
The warnings had something of a theoretical quality about them.
But this time, MI5 used a rare device – a formal “interference alert” – to alert MPs and their peers of its fears about Lee.
Sent via the offices of the Speakers of the House of Commons and Lords, parliamentarians received a pdf containing information about Lee and his passport photo, with the agency’s logo visible at the top left.
It could only have been more public if the warning had been posted on the MI5 website.
MI5 won’t say how long it has been investigating Lee, although a source has suggested it has been around a year. Sources indicate that she has been reflecting for a few weeks on how to act and that the timing of the warning was of her choice, unrelated to the political difficulties otherwise encountered by Boris Johnson.
Nevertheless, the agency will not have acted without informing Priti Patel, the Minister of the Interior, who is responsible for MI5, of what it believes to have discovered.
A prominent Anglo-Chinese lawyer, Lee has been active and courting politicians for many years, making her first donation to a Labor MP in 2005, and donating £ 584,177.88 to the office of Brent North MP Barry Gardiner (according to figures provided by Labor), largely in benefits in kind to help fund its researchers.
Lee was also pictured with David Cameron and former Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, and received an award from Theresa May.
All of this could have been quietly prevented if MI5 had been actively concerned about its activities at the time, but for some reason the intelligence agency decided the time to act was now.
Such episodes are likely to be repeated. For 20 years since September 11, British intelligence agencies have mainly focused on the fight against Islamist terrorism.
But, stung by accusations that they have “turned the ball” on the threat posed by Russia, MI5 and MI6 are keen to demonstrate that they are on top of evolving security threats. British – which are increasingly posed, they say, by determined nation-states, not terrorists.
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