The suggestion that a British Chinese solicitor has been allegedly working on behalf of China to influence UK politics adds further evidence of the bilateral relationship mutating from a “golden era” to an “ice age”.
The latest development will clearly not help improve ties and, along with previous incidents, make the “China v the west” narrative increasingly look like an early cold war plot: suspected influence operations and – although not apparently the case here – alleged espionage as well as expulsion of personnel.
On Thursday, the British political establishment was warned that Christine Lee, a solicitor, may have been seeking to improperly influence parliamentarians for a number of years.
The memo alleged Lee, who, according to Companies House filings, is also a British national, “has facilitated financial donations to serving and aspiring parliamentarians on behalf of foreign nationals based in Hong Kong and China”. The memo further accused that the facilitation was “done covertly to mask the origins of the payments”.
Lee has not responded to the allegations. The Guardian has contacted her law firm. The Chinese embassy in London said that Beijing’s non-interference foreign policy means that it has “no need” to buy influence. “We firmly oppose the trick of smearing and intimidation against the Chinese community in the UK,” it added.
Modern states are not strangers to spycraft and influence operations. They may happen among allies, too, both through on-the-ground and cyberspace operations, as Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations showed nearly a decade ago. But Thursday’s reporting came after repeated warnings from Britain’s top security officials about Beijing amid deteriorating diplomatic ties.
Under David Cameron, the British-Chinese relationship was touted as a “golden era”. In his speech in Beijing in September 2015, the then chancellor, George Osborne vowed to make Britain China’s “best partner in the west”. The claim was made despite criticisms from his own party about China’s human rights record and the situation in Hong Kong.
In the years since, a consensus has formed among strategic communities from London to Washington: that China is seeking to change the postwar world order led by liberal democracies. The diplomatic relationship between the UK and China, in particular, has deteriorated further, particularly since the start of the Covid pandemic. There have been bilateral sanctions in place because of China’s actions in the Xinjiang region and in Britain’s former colony of Hong Kong.
“Bilateral relations between the UK and China are not in great shape, but today’s announcement might not make it worse, either, as it wouldn’t be in Beijing’s interest to see this happening,” said Dr Andrew Chubb, a China researcher at Lancaster University. “[But] it sends a clear message that London is scrutinising Beijing’s friends and allies in Britain for potential crossovers into interference.”
In his last public address, the head of MI6, Richard Moore, said a rising China had become Secret Intelligence Service’s “single greatest priority” for the first time in the agency’s history. China accused Moore of “peddling fake news and false intelligence”.
Security services in Britain have been pivoting to China in recent years as threats from Islamist terrorism recede. Last year, the British press reported three journalists were asked to leave the UK for allegedly working as spies for China. The alleged departure was low-key and was not revealed until months later. China denied the report.
As diplomatic relations sour, China’s modus operandi both inside its own territory and around the world are now under heavy scrutiny. For example, although it is dismissed by some seasoned China researchers for lack of substantial evidence, Moore insisted last month that Beijing was using a “debt trap” to exert control over smaller states.
Thursday’s announcement may come as no surprise to those who have been following Lee’s successful – and sometimes controversial – legal career in the UK. In 2017, she was accused of using money to influence British politics and through projects such as the British Chinese Project , which she founded in 2006. Politicians – across the Labour and Conservative divide – were implicated by the claims.
The irony is that, until recently, Lee was one of the few visible faces of the small but growing British Chinese community in the UK. With the British Chinese Project, which has been suspended since the Covid pandemic started, she was rewarded for including more British-Chinese people in the UK political system.
“You should feel very proud of the difference that the British Chinese Project is making in promoting engagement, understanding, and cooperation between the Chinese and British communities in the UK,” Theresa May, then prime minister, said in a personal letter to Lee when awarding her the 2019 Points of Light award. Lee’s award has now been rescinded.
The prestigious award was first established by President George HW Bush in 1990, with the UK initiative launched in the cabinet room at No 10 in April 2014. The award committee says the honour highlights “an enormous array of innovative and inspirational volunteering across the length and breadth of Britain”.
“The wellbeing of the British Chinese community in the UK will always be of great importance to me and I am pleased to have had the opportunity to assist in any small way with our integration into UK society,” Lee responded to May after the award.