Spies come in different flavors.
Christine Ching Kui Lee is not the cloak-and-dagger type who works for the Chinese Ministry of State Security. If she was, she wouldn’t be in the UK yet. Three agents who worked for the MSS, posing as journalists, were quietly expelled in 2020.
The Home Secretary has already made it clear that Ms. Lee’s actions are “below the criminal threshold.”
MI5 alleges Ms Lee worked for United Front Work departmenta long-established organ of the Chinese Communist Party.
Labor MP Barry Gardiner says Chinese agent ‘did not gain any political advantage’ from him
Pressure and influence
According to the US government, the department “uses a range of methods to influence overseas Chinese communities, foreign governments and other actors to take action or take positions favorable to Beijing’s preferred policies.” .
And above all, it does it in the open air. His website is full of pictures of events. Ms Lee has apparently operated the same, with publicly recorded donations to politicians, high profile trips to Downing St, even a (now canceled) award from Theresa May.
Concerns about her ties to the Communist Party’s elite – she’s certainly very connected – date back to at least 2017. But she was allowed to continue her activities.
MI5 warns Chinese government ‘agent’ has been ‘active’ in UK parliament
Thus, the unprecedented warning to Parliament represents a change of approach. MI5 may now have substantial evidence of its ties to the Chinese Party-State. But it’s also a recognition that China’s attempts to influence the outside world come in many forms, and just because some are more public doesn’t mean they are less troubling.
Pressure on overseas Chinese communities
And the meddling notice also shows something else: that these public activities potentially harm not only the interests of Britain, but also those of Chinese, or people of Chinese descent, living in the UK.
Last year, a deputy minister of the United Front’s Labor Department said the organization was committed to “strengthening the unity and solidarity of all Chinese people at home and abroad” in the part of its mission “to build a strong and prosperous country”.
Ms Lee’s activities in the UK included setting up the British Chinese Project, to involve the British Chinese community in British politics, according to Martin Thorley, a researcher at the University of Exeter.
It was presented as a popular initiative. If Ms. Lee is a Chinese state agent, it has to be seen in a different light.
It is telling that the Chinese Embassy in London dismissed the allegations against Ms Lee as “libel and intimidation against the Chinese community in the UK”.
The mission of the United Front’s Labor Department is precisely to co-opt the Chinese people abroad – to blur the line between the actions and legitimate interests of the Anglo-Chinese people and the political objectives of the Party.
This can only damage confidence, potentially creating an atmosphere of paranoia. And it is not the fact of MI5, but that of the Chinese government.