Britain's domestic intelligence agency, MI5, is coming under political pressure to explain why it did not alert lawmakers sooner about the activities of a suspected Chinese spy, who the security service now say was "knowingly engaged in political interference in the U.K."
The British security agencies have been warning in recent months about China increasing espionage activity in the country, but alleged spy Christine Lee, a 59-year-old mother of two and legal adviser to the Chinese embassy, was allowed to work unhindered and even received an award in 2019 from 10 Downing Street.
According to a rare alert sent by MI5 Thursday to authorities at the House of Commons, Lee facilitated and channeled financial donations from China to political parties and parliamentarians and spent the best part of three decades establishing connections with politicians and high-flyers.
The MI5 alert said Lee is an agent for the United Front Work Department, a department that reports directly to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The alert says she has been using the financial donations to gain access to British politicians and to exert political influence. One of the biggest beneficiaries was senior Labour MP Barry Gardiner.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin denied the allegations on Friday.
"China has always adhered to the principle of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs," he said during a press briefing in Beijing. "We have no need and will not engage in so-called interference activities. Certain people may have watched too many '007' movies, resulting in too many unnecessary associations."
The Chinese embassy in Britain said the accusations against Lee were part of a campaign of "smearing and intimidation against the Chinese community in the U.K."
Between 2015 and 2020, Lee's law firm, based in the English town of Birmingham, alone donated $900,000 to Gardiner for the running of his office. The Labour lawmaker employed one of Lee's sons in his private office. Gardiner told a London broadcaster that Christine Lee would seek his view on "who was up and who was down in politics."
And in a statement, the British lawmaker said he had been "liaising with our security services for a number of years" about Lee and had correctly reported all donations. Gardiner served for a time as Labour's main spokesman on energy and climate change and on international trade. He has generally taken pro-Beijing stances and has been a supporter of a contentious nuclear power plant being built in Britain in partnership with a Chinese-state owned energy company.
But there has been no suggestion from British authorities of impropriety on his part. Gardiner said MI5 had advised him there was no intelligence that shows Lee's son, Daniel Wilkes, "was aware of, or complicit in, his mother's illegal activity."
After receiving a warning from MI5, Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons, alerted parliamentarians Thursday, saying Lee "has been engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party, targeting members here at Parliament and associated political entities." He said MI5 had informed him Lee had masked the origins of the donations she gave to serving and aspiring parliamentarians.
Born in China, Lee set up a home in the English Midlands in the 1980s and established a successful law firm with its main office in Birmingham and branches in London's Chinatown, Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangzhou. She is believed to be a naturalized British citizen.
Damian Hinds, the security minister, said Friday there would be a review to examine how Lee managed to forge ties with establishment figures. Hinds said the incident demonstrated the way in which hostile countries were trying to interfere with British politics.
"You have operators who specialize in trying to, you know, find ways of getting into influential positions and work in all manner of different ways," he told Sky News.
Hinds added, "This is a story, an incident, an item about how other states can seek to influence our country in different ways, one of which is political interference, and one of the ways of doing that is through provision of finance."
Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative party leader, has called for a wider ranging review to include examining why lawmakers were not warned much earlier by the security services about Lee, who has been making donations to British politicians for 17 years.
"Why in heaven's name is such an agent allowed in this country?" he asked Thursday in the House of Commons.
British officials say Lee was suspected of seeking to influence several MPs, regardless of their party affiliations. Several lawmakers, including senior ones, from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties received donations and she had access to a succession of British prime ministers. In 2019, she received a Points of Light Award from then-Prime Minister Theresa May for her work on behalf of the British-Chinese community. The award was rescinded Thursday.
A middle-aged, bespectacled and respected lawyer, Lee would seem at first glance to be an improbable spy. But British intelligence officials say her spycraft was a textbook case of influence peddling, enlisting the assistance of sympathizers and identifying potential recruits.
"People think spying is all glamorous James Bond stuff," a serving British intelligence officer told VOA. "But Lee's role was not to steal state and military secrets but to insinuate her way into political and business circles in ways useful for China's foreign-policy aims and to open up avenues of influence," he added.
"She is a classic case of a spy hiding in plain sight," he added.
Certainly, Lee was not low-key. She was a familiar figure in the British parliament, and she did not hide her high-level connections with the Chinese political establishment. Her law firm advised the Chinese embassy, and she has been photographed standing next to China's President Xi Jinping.
In December, Richard Moore, head of MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence agency, said the rise of China was the "single greatest priority" for his officers. He warned Beijing was increasing its espionage activities and focusing on politicians and government workers and those employed in industries and universities that could be useful to the CCP.
"They also monitor and attempt to exercise undue influence over the Chinese diaspora," he said.