The United Kingdom’s parliament has been shaken by allegations that two of its staff were Chinese spies. The scandal illustrates that Western democracies are ill-prepared for Communist China’s intelligence gathering and political interference operations.
The Times, which first broke the story last week, identified one of the alleged Chinese spies as Chris Cash, a 28-year-old British citizen. According to The Times, Cash was a history major who had studied and worked in China. Cash was recruited as a “sleeper” agent during his stay in China, tasked with infiltrating the U.K.’s political networks critical of the Beijing regime.
Cash seemed to have succeeded in his mission. Alicia Kearns, chairwoman of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, hired Cash as a researcher. Although he had no security clearance, Cash accessed almost everywhere in Westminster as an employee. He worked for the China Research Group, an internal think tank co-founded by conservative members of parliament (MP) Tom Tugendhat and Neil O’Brien in 2020. Members of the think tank are mostly conservative MPs with hawkish views on China and its ruling Communist Party (CCP).
Cash was reportedly an outgoing individual and often a fixture at Westminster’s social scenes, rubbing elbows with MPs, activists, Chinese dissidents, and journalists covering China. Cash also participated in China-related policy discussions. Early this year, Cash accompanied a conservative MP to meet with Cabinet Office minister Alex Burghart to discuss proposed amendments to the Procurement Bill.
The bill was designed to strengthen U.K. policy toward China, including the ability to exclude companies posing national security risks from bidding on government contracts. It is unclear if Cash tried to water down the bill in any way. But it seems Cash might have caused harm in other ways.
An MP sanctioned by Beijing, Luke de Pulford, tweeted about Cash’s duplicity: “Worth noting: this is a man who consistently briefed against @ipacglobal and its members, and who I believe subverted free parliamentary debate by downplaying the behaviour of the CCP. He worked to divide the movement — a typical CCP tactic — and he had success.”
In March, Cash and another staff member in his 30s were arrested under the Official Secrets Act and were released on bail until October. Only senior leaders of the parliament were aware of these arrests. Other MPs and the general public didn’t find out until last week, when The Times reported it.
Cash maintains that he is “completely innocent.” People who came in touch with Cash in the past are upset and demanding to know why parliamentary leadership kept something so egregious to themselves.
China critics are anxious about how much of the information they shared with Cash was reported back to Beijing and if their safety is now compromised. Some Hong Kong dissidents are concerned whether Cash shared their whereabouts with Beijing. Even if the spy allegation is false, Beijing has succeeded in its mission to sow distrust and division within the U.K. legislature.
U.K. Spy Agency’s Warnings
The spy incident was exposed the same week British media revealed that the nation’s spy agency, MI5, warned the Conservative Party to keep two individuals off its candidate lists in 2021 and 2022 due to their alleged links to China’s United Front Work Department, a CCP outfit responsible for spreading propaganda and conducting covert and overt interference operations overseas. In 2022, MI5 also issued a rare security alert against Christine Lee, a U.K. lawyer who was linked to the United Front and allegedly involved in “political interference activities” in Britain on behalf of China.
Despite its spy agency’s warnings, the measures the U.K. government has taken to address the security threat posed by China are “completely inadequate,” according to a parliamentary report released in July. The report accused the CCP of using its “size, ambition, and capability” to “successfully penetrate every sector of the U.K.’s economy,” and “Chinese recruitment schemes have tried to headhunt British and allied nationals in key positions and with sensitive knowledge and experience.”
U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was “appalled” by the espionage scandal. Yet he refuses to name China as a “threat” and has no plan to change his engagement with Beijing because he believes that confronting China too much will hurt his nation’s economy and discourage China from cooperating on tackling climate change.
China’s Operations in the U.S., U.K., and Canada
The United Kingdom is far from the only democracy exposed to the CCP’s subversion activities and interference operations. In Australia, an investigation uncovered a network of China-linked donors and companies that contributed more than $5.5 million to Australian Liberal and Labor parties between 2013 and 2015, aiming to influence Australia’s foreign policy by favoring Beijing’s positions.
One of the nation’s promising politicians, Senator Sam Dastyari, resigned from parliament in 2017 after he was reportedly under the political influence of a China-born businessman who is linked to the United Front. The Australian parliament passed an anti-foreign interference law in 2018 to address China’s overseas political interference activities. But former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull complained the law wasn’t rigorously enforced, even in 2023.
Last year, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) warned its government that Beijing is the “foremost perpetrator” of foreign interference in Canada. CCP operatives have employed “incentives and punishment” as part of their overseas operations, directly targeting Canadian legislators, business executives, and Chinese immigrants in the nation.
This spring, Canada expelled a Chinese diplomat, accusing him of seeking to intimidate an MP who is an outspoken critic of China by going after the MP’s relatives in Hong Kong and mainland China. Under public pressure, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered an independent investigation to “help identify and combat foreign interference in Canada’s elections and its democracy.”
The United States has also encountered Chinese espionage and political interference. A suspected Chinese spy reportedly developed extensive ties with local and national politicians in the United States, including Homeland Security Ranking Member Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., before she escaped to China. Early this year, a Chinese spy balloon flew across the continental United States for weeks, passing sensitive military sites, before the U.S. military shot it down.
Last month, two U.S. Navy sailors were arrested for passing intelligence to China. Of course, the ongoing investigation of Hunter Biden has revealed that Chinese businessmen sent him millions of dollars, seeking to buy influence over his father, President Joe Biden.
Two Worrisome Trends
All these incidents reveal two disturbing trends. First, the CCP has stepped up its spying and political interference, and its goals have expanded from gathering intelligence and suppressing overseas dissent to directly meddling in democratic processes. The CCP won’t be deterred by any arrest or publicity because it believes every revelation will spread distrust and confusion in a democratic society, to the party’s advantage.
Second, Western democracies are ill-prepared for China’s threat to their political systems, mainly because some leaders are concerned that hawkish policies would jeopardize their countries’ economic ties with China. Above all, they believe climate change is the biggest threat to humanity and desperately seek China’s assistance to solve the “climate crisis.”
These leaders’ misplaced priorities, wrong-headed policies, and unwillingness to confront China have given the CCP ample opportunities to weaken the democratic systems of their countries. We can only hope voters will wake up to the CCP’s threat and hold their leaders accountable.