In a rare move last week, British spy agency MI5 issued a warning to members of Parliament about ongoing political interference by a known Chinese agent on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. The identified Chinese agent is Christine Ching Kui Lee, a U.K.-based lawyer and immigrant from Hong Kong. MI5 has kept an eye on Lee for several years because Lee has been politically active in China and Britain.
Lee has a close tie with the Chinese Community Party through the party’s secretive influence organ, the United Front Work Department, which has been called the CCP’s “magic weapon.” The United Front’s primary functions include recruiting influential individuals to gather intelligence, promote government propaganda, and influence decision-making domestically and internationally.
United Front employees are assigned to many government branches inside and outside China, including “almost all Chinese embassies, [which] now include staff formally tasked with United Front work.” Under Xi Jinping, the United Front has increasingly spread Communist China’s influence overseas, including through Confucius Institutes on foreign college campuses.
The United Front also recruits prominent overseas Chinese to conduct “grey-zone” interference — covertly influence policies in foreign countries that may have economic or geopolitical effects on China.
Christine Lee’s CCP Ties
MI5 identifies Lee as one of United Front’s recruits. Lee served as a former chief legal adviser to the Chinese embassy in London and a legal adviser to the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.
She is reportedly an overseas member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, a political body created by United Front specifically for organizing influential non-CCP individuals. As a member of the group, Lee frequently travels to China to attend either the annual National People’s Congress meeting or many conferences organized or hosted by the United Front.
Lee has been pictured shaking hands with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. She also reportedly pledged at one of United Front’s conferences to “safeguard the motherland’s unity, pledge to put my feelings for the motherland into action and do my humble part in realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Lee had put her words into action. Her law firm has offices in London, Birmingham, Beijing, and Hong Kong, which gives her the perfect social and economic status to promote the CCP’s agenda. According to MI5, Lee has established “extensive engagement with individuals across the UK political spectrum” over the years.
She reportedly had a good relationship with former Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron. Lee serves as the secretary of the Inter-Party China Group, and founded the British Chinese Project. In 2019, then-Prime Minister Theresa May awarded Lee a Points of Light Award, recognizing her “contribution to good relations with China.”
Lee was known to have made significant donations to current and aspiring members of parliament. MI5 accused Lee of using these donations to further the CCP’s geopolitical and economic agenda and influence members’ positions on Chinese companies’ involvement in Britain’s infrastructure projects, such as nuclear power plants.
MPs Friendly with Lee Pushed for Chinese Nuclear Influence in U.K.
From 2015 to early 2019, the relationship between the United Kingdom and China was in its honeymoon phase. After Chinese state enterprise China General Nuclear invested in a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in the U.K., the expectation was that China would follow a similar model to construct other nuclear plants in the U.K. and eventually become the nation’s largest owner of all nuclear power plants.
At the time, some in Britain raised questions of whether the U.K. was putting its national security and sensitive intellectual property at risk by having a Chinese state-owned company build and own nuclear power plants. The Labor Party’s Barry Gardiner, who served as Labor’s shadow secretary of state for trade, dismissed such concerns and vehemently opposed any criticism of China. He went so far as to claim no cybersecurity risk rising from China General Nuclear’s involvement because “such an attack would undermine the very reason the Chinese wanted to be involved in the project in the first place.”
Gardiner favored keeping Chinese involvement in the U.K.’s nuclear power sector. It turned out that Gardiner had received more than £500,000 from Lee from 2015 to 2019 and employed Lee’s son as an analyst in his office as recently as last week (the son resigned after the MI5 warning became public).
Gardiner wasn’t the only one who carried water for Lee. Liberal Democrat Party leader Sir Ed Davey received £5,000 from Lee in 2013. Martin Thorley, a longtime China watcher who covered Lee’s suspicious political activities in the U.K. and China in the past, accused Davey of “almost single handedly convincing the Liberal Democrats to back nuclear energy.”
Britain Finally Starting to Oust CCP Influence
Since May 2019, however, the relationship between China and the U.K. has deteriorated over various issues, including China’s suppression of democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019 and Beijing’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
The British government finally realized that Beijing is not a trustworthy partner and Chinese state enterprises shouldn’t play any role in critical infrastructure projects in the United Kingdom. The British government moved to oust China General Nuclear from plans to construct Sizewell nuclear power station in Suffolk and made it known that it wanted to remove the company from all future power plant projects in the U.K.
Yet, incredibly, after MI5 issued the warning about Lee’s “grey-zone” interference in British politics, neither Lee nor the politicians who received her political donations were charged for any wrongdoing. Britain doesn’t have any laws to address foreign political interference. Lee remains free and faces no threats of deportation.
The United States should take MI5’s warning about Lee seriously because American politicians are not immune from similar “grey-zone” interference by Chinese agents. The most recent example was Fang Fang, an alleged Chinese spy. She reportedly cultivated relationships with several American politicians including California Democrat Rep. Eric Swalwell, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. Fang escaped to China before U.S. government officials questioned her.
Given that 2022 is an election year, political interference from America’s adversaries such as China and Russia will only intensify. The U.S. government must take action to address “grey-zone” interference by foreign agents.
Western Countries Should Ally with Anti-CCP Chinese
It is important to know that not all overseas Chinese support the CCP. Many overseas Chinese have taken personal risks, including risking the safety of their families back in China, to expose Beijing’s human rights abuses and overseas influence. These Chinese are indispensable in helping Western democracies counter the CCP. They should be embraced and protected.
Any actions the U.S. government takes to stamp out China’s political interference in America should distinguish between those who support the CCP and those who do not. Failing to do will hand the CCP a propaganda victory and reinforce the party’s claim of racism and xenophobia in the West against all Chinese. The United States should take the threat of “grey-zone” interference seriously while framing the challenges posed by China clearly and carefully, without causing harm to innocent people.