An MI5 alert about a suspected Chinese agent targeting British MPs shines a rare light on shadowy and hard-to-prevent efforts by authoritarian powers to subvert UK democracy.
That no further action is apparently being taken against the woman – named by the Security Service as Christine Lee – is further evidence of the limited tools available to the authorities to combat alleged attacks taking place in a grey zone under the threshold of war.
It is only the second time that MI5 has ever issued an “interference alert”. The first one was related to Russia.
In the alert, Lee, a solicitor who has been linked to Labour MP Barry Gardiner, was accused of being “involved in political interference activities for the Chinese Communist Party”.
It alleged she was of acting on behalf of China’s United Front Work Department (UFWD), which is viewed by experts as an arm of the Chinese state that seeks to promote Communist Party ideals and silence criticism at home and abroad.
It does this through educational, cultural and other soft forms of engagement – making it hard to distinguish between legitimate influence operations and more sinister, subversive interference.
MI5 said that Lee was facilitating donations to serving and aspiring MPs on behalf of foreign nationals based in Hong Kong and China.
It added: “This facilitation was done covertly to mask the origins of the payments. This is clearly unacceptable behaviour and steps are being taken to ensure it ceases.”
The Security Service reminded MPs of the need to verify the source of all donations.
But it has only limited powers to prevent abuse.
That is set to go some way to being addressed under proposed legislation that will require anyone working for a foreign government to sign a register and make clear their affiliation.
Failure to do so would then become a criminal offence.