MI5 shut down the operations of a Chinese spy because they believed she was targeting a new generation of future British leaders after concluding her main Westminster contact was “yesterday’s man”.
Christine Ching Kui Lee, outed by MI5 as an agent of the Chinese Communist Party, was feared to be “grooming” prospective parliamentary candidates in order to give Beijing leverage in British politics.
Her law firm, Christine Lee & Co, had given more than £425,000 to the private office of Barry Gardiner, the Labour MP and a member of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.
However, MI5’s “K” branch, in charge of hostile states’ counter-intelligence, became concerned that Ms Lee, 59, had started seeking out a new generation of would-be MPs.
At one prominent Conservative Party fundraising event, organised by a parliamentary candidate, Ms Lee attended along with Boris Johnson, who at the time was foreign secretary.
A Whitehall source said: “Barry Gardiner was yesterday’s man. The great worry was she was grooming future MPs. It looks like she was seeding people to bring them under her control.”
Ms Lee’s main campaign vehicle, the British Chinese Project (BCP), which she founded in 2006, featured a number of parliamentary candidates on its website ahead of the 2019 general election, including Alex Yip, a Conservative councillor in Birmingham and a magistrate who was also vice-chairman of the BCP.
Mr Yip stood in the last general election in Birmingham Edgbaston but lost to Labour’s Preet Kaur Gill. In 2015, he was identified as an organiser of Chinese crowds cheering on Xi Jinping, China’s president, during a state visit that had attracted counter-demonstrations.
In 2018, Mr Yip organised a Conservative Party fundraising event in Birmingham, attended by Ms Lee at which Mr Johnson and Andy Street, the mayor of the West Midlands, were also present. The event raised £45,000 for upcoming local elections in Birmingham.
Another candidate featured by BCP was Sarah Mei Li Owen, who was elected Labour MP for Luton North, becoming the first female MP of Chinese descent in the process.
There is no suggestion that any of the candidates were aware of MI5’s concerns over Ms Lee’s conduct nor that they had done anything wrong.
On Friday night, Downing Street said it was “deeply concerning that an individual who is knowingly engaged in the interference activities of the Chinese Communist Party targeted parliamentarians”. The Prime Minister’s spokesman said that the Government will bring forward stronger anti-espionage legislation.
Greg Hands, the former Tory trade minister, on Twitter raised specific concerns about the information passed to Mr Gardiner when he was Labour’s shadow trade secretary:
This is extremely concerning.
I was Trade Minister. Barry Gardiner was our Labour Shadow, and we used to brief him confidentially on complex and sensitive international trade negotiations which certainly would have been of interest to the Chinese Govt. https://t.co/OIdP90zyo2
— Greg Hands (@GregHands) January 14, 2022
Damian Hinds, the Security Minister, indicated that the Government would be conducting a review, but officials later slapped down that suggestion. He told LBC Radio that the security services had been aware of Ms Lee’s activities, including channelling funds to British politicians in an attempt to secure influence, for “some time”.
The Telegraph understands that MI5, along with counter-terrorism police, would have preferred to arrest and bring charges against Ms Lee, but were prevented from doing so by an outdated Official Secrets Act.
Instead, MI5 circulated a Security Service Interference Alert sent to MPs and peers, in which she was alleged to have “acted covertly” in co-ordination with the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party.
Ms Lee, a naturalised British citizen, has so far declined to comment. Nobody answered the door at the £1 million family home in the West Midlands.
Mr Gardiner, 64, the Labour MP for Brent North, said he had been “liaising with our security services for a number of years” over the donations given by Ms Lee. He denied any wrongdoing and said he had received assurances from MI5 that the funding from Ms Lee had come from legitimate sources.
Mr Gardiner said he had not discussed policy with Ms Lee “in great detail” and insisted on Friday that he was “confident” he “did not put my colleagues at risk” with his behaviour.
Mr Gardiner also told LBC Radio that Ms Lee had been seeking his guidance on who were the rising stars in Westminster. “She would ask me things like who was up and who was down in politics… but we never discussed any policy in detail,” said Mr Gardiner.
“What she may have sought is to be in a position of friendship with somebody who might at some stage have influence.”
Mr Gardiner had been a Labour minister in Sir Tony Blair’s government. He was later promoted to Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and stood to take up a position of prominence in power should Mr Corbyn have won either of two elections that he lost.
In a statement, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in London denied MI5’s claims, inisting China always adhered to the principle of non-interference in other country’s internal affairs.
“We have no need and never seek to ‘buy influence’ in any foreign parliament. We firmly oppose the trick of smearing and intimidation against the Chinese community in the UK,” it said.
Barry Gardiner ‘introduced Tory MP to spy’
A former Conservative MP employed as a consultant by Ms Lee’s law firm said on Friday that he was introduced to her by Mr Gardiner.
Neil Carmichael, who represented Stroud between 2010 and 2017, lists himself as the chief education consultant at Christine Lee & Co on his website. He is also the chief executive of UK-China Culture and Education Co-operation Promotion Centre Ltd, which is registered at the address of Ms Lee’s law firm, and classes Ms Lee as vice chairman.
Mr Carmichael said that his direct work with the law firm was limited, adding: “In the House of Commons, I initially met her [Ms Lee] via Barry Gardiner, who introduced me to give a talk to some Chinese students. The allegations have come as a complete surprise, my work has been around education and marketing, not politics.”
Sam Armstrong, the director of communications at the Henry Jackson Society, said: “While there is little evidence that it was successful, Christine Lee’s activities look a lot like a bad version of The Manchurian Candidate. The political parties involved must now probe whether these individuals -- very well unwittingly -- have been exploited by a communist state.”