Receive free Political espionage updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Political espionage news every morning.
A senior UK minister said on Monday there was “a strong case” for tough new action against Beijing, amid cabinet tensions over how to deal with China following a spying scandal at Westminster.
Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden said ministers were looking at whether to include China in an “enhanced tier” of countries under the government’s new National Security Act, which is intended to “protect the safety or interests” of the UK.
Including the country could result in anyone working in Britain “at the direction” of China having to identify themselves on a UK “foreign influence registration scheme” or face up to five years in jail. Such a scheme could cover thousands of people, including those employed by Chinese companies.
Dowden also said he was “exploring” adding genomics — the study of the genome sequence — to the UK register of national critical infrastructure, after MPs expressed concern about China’s activity in the field.
He was speaking after the Metropolitan Police confirmed at the weekend that two men had been arrested in March under the Official Secrets Act over allegations of espionage-related offences.
One of the men, who is in his 20s, worked as a parliamentary researcher at Westminster and was arrested on suspicion of spying for China, according to people familiar with the situation.
The Treasury is concerned about any new government moves against China that could damage the UK economy and Rishi Sunak has resisted pressure from Conservative MPs to label Beijing “a threat”.
Business secretary Kemi Badenoch said politicians should not use language that “makes people scared”, while chancellor Jeremy Hunt stated Britain should carry on talking to China.
Dowden’s comments appeared to align him with home secretary Suella Braverman and security minister Tom Tugendhat in pressing for China to be subject to tougher controls under the National Security Act.
“We are currently reviewing which countries are in the enhanced tier,” Dowden told MPs, adding there was “a strong case” for including China.
An ally of Dowden said no decisions had been taken — the review is not due to conclude until next year — but that ministers had already been robust in taking action to defend Britain’s interests.
The prime minister told the Commons that MPs were “rightly appalled” by media reports “of espionage in this building”.
“The sanctity of this place must be protected,” he added. “We will defend our democracy and our security.”
But in a statement Sunak said the UK’s current approach to China was in line with the approach taken by other western countries, including “every other G7 partner”.
The fear at the Treasury is that if the UK takes reprisals against China it will trigger a response by Beijing, while other western countries refrain from taking similar action.
Emmanuel Macron, French president, Olaf Scholz, German chancellor, and Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, are among those who have recently visited Beijing.
Lord Kim Darroch, former UK national security adviser, said including China in the “enhanced tier” of countries under the National Security Act could potentially force thousands of people to register with the British authorities.
He said it could turn into a “bureaucratic exercise” that would swamp the security services with data and could backfire.
“It’s not like all of our partners are taking an ever-tougher line against China — they are not,” added Darroch. “If you designate China they will retaliate.”
Meanwhile, the parliamentary researcher accused of working for Beijing has denied the spying allegations levelled against him. Speaking through Birnberg Peirce, the law firm representing him, the researcher said he felt “forced to respond to the media accusations that I am a ‘Chinese spy’.”
“Given what has been reported, it is vital that it is known that I am completely innocent,” he added. “I have spent my career to date trying to educate others about the challenge and threats presented by the Chinese Communist party.”
A highly critical report by parliament’s intelligence and security committee in July said the UK government’s response to China’s “increasingly sophisticated” espionage had been “completely inadequate”. The government is expected to reply to that report this week.
Former Tory prime minister Liz Truss stepped up pressure on Sunak to take tougher action against Beijing. “What we need to do is to recognise that China is the largest threat both to the world and the United Kingdom, for freedom and democracy,” she said.
China denied the spying allegations on Monday. “The so-called Chinese involvement in espionage activities in the UK is entirely groundless,” said the foreign ministry.
Credit: Source link