The revelation that a British parliamentary researcher was arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing in March has focused a spotlight on the UK government’s approach to China in the interim.
Moves in the past six months to defrost five years of glacial relations between London and Beijing — including a flurry of high-level, face-to-face meetings between senior British and Chinese officials — had triggered a furious response from hawkish Conservative MPs.
However, the emergence on Sunday of the alleged security breach at the heart of the House of Commons has caused concern among milder Sino-sceptics in parliament.
The government now faces questions from MPs about which ministers knew what — and when — about the arrest, and whether the matter has been factored into Britain’s foreign policy on China, which critics deride as too soft and ministers defend as a balancing act between economic and security considerations.
More pressing in the eyes of many China-sceptic MPs are the implications of the alleged espionage for their safety and, even more worryingly, that of activists critical of Beijing who may have come into contact with the accused spy.
James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, is facing some of the sharpest questions. He publicly reset the UK’s foreign policy on China in a landmark speech at Mansion House in April, just weeks after the alleged spy was picked up by police.
In his address Cleverly insisted Britain must “engage robustly and also constructively” with China in order to “manage risks and produce results”. He refused to describe Beijing as a “threat”, “partner” or “adversary”, insisting such one-dimensional characterisations would be impractical and unwise.
His argument in favour of a diplomatic balancing act was dismissed by hardline hawks, such as Tory MP and former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who is one of five MPs who were sanctioned by China in 2021.
Parliament’s sino-sceptics had fired similar attacks at Rishi Sunak, prime minister, when he labelled China an “epoch-defining challenge”, rather than a “threat” in his refresh of the government’s integrated review of foreign and defence policy — published on March 13, the same day, it has since emerged, that the alleged spy was arrested.
The UK government further escalated its engagement with China in May, when investment minister Lord Dominic Johnson made the first formal visit by a senior British official to Hong Kong in five years.
Johnson’s mission was to deepen business ties with the Chinese territory, with a focus on financial services, infrastructure and sustainability, though he insisted Britain would be “clear about our right to act when Beijing breaks its international commitments or abuses human rights”.
The trip, the first since Beijing had imposed a crackdown on protests in the territory via a sweeping national security law in 2020, triggered uproar from pro-democracy campaigners as well as from the Tory hawks.
Another big step towards improving Anglo-Chinese relations occurred last month when Cleverly became the first foreign secretary to visit China since 2018.
He told the FT his message to his hosts, China’s vice-president Han Zheng and foreign minister Wang Yi, was that “the UK is open for business” from Beijing, provided it does not create national security concerns.
After the arrest was revealed by The Sunday Times, Sunak met China’s premier Li Qiang on the fringes of the G20 summit in New Delhi, and expressed his “significant concerns about Chinese interference in the UK’s parliamentary democracy”.
On Monday he told MPs he was “appalled” by reports of Chinese espionage in Westminster, and he vowed to “defend our democracy and our security”.
He also said Cleverly had raised the issue of Chinese interference in UK democratic institutions during his recent Beijing trip, but he did not confirm whether the foreign secretary had known of and raised specific allegations regarding the accused spy.
A series of ministers have defended Britain’s decision to engage with China, which was supported by foreign policy analysts.
Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister, said it was crucial to “be able to look the Chinese in the eye and call out unacceptable behaviour directly”.
Olivia O’Sullivan, director of the UK in the World programme at the Chatham House think-tank, questioned “what would be gained from disengaging, when understanding such a significant power is necessary to gain insight into what it might do, and influencing China’s behaviour is difficult”.
Government insiders also noted Britain has introduced new national security powers, which it has used to curb Beijing’s ability to gain influence over critical industries, using them to “call in” eight transactions involving Chinese-linked investment in British companies in the past year, according to figures published earlier this summer.
Dan Lomas, an intelligence and security analyst at the University of Nottingham, suggested the arrest on allegations of espionage was also significant and showed “the UK is potentially flexing its muscles and showing it’s prepared to act”.
However, it is not only disquiet about Britain’s stance on China that has arisen since news of the arrest emerged on Sunday. The potential impact on the safety of MPs, as well as activists and their wider network of family, friends and contacts in China, has also sparked alarm.
In addition MPs and campaigners have expressed anger that they only learnt of the alleged security breach in the media.
The arrested former parliamentary researcher had some contact with some MP members of the China Research Group, an organisation set up by Conservative parliamentarians to examine the long-term challenges and opportunities thrown up by Beijing, according to Westminster insiders.
This included some contact with Alicia Kearns, the Tory chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, and Tom Tugendhat, the security minister, said people familiar with the matter. Contact with Tugendhat was limited and the pair met on only a handful of occasions prior to him becoming minister.
While the former researcher denied the allegations made against them, and prosecutors have not decided whether to issue a charge, Hong Kong activists have accused the UK government of failing to protect them and other diaspora activists from the risks posed by the individual and their contacts in mainland China or Hong Kong.
“I was shocked that it’s been six months after the arrest, and it’s only because of the media reporting that we’re aware of the incident,” said Finn Lau, the UK-based founder of Hong Kong Liberty, who has met once with the alleged spy.
In July, Hong Kong police placed a HK$1mn (US$127,665) bounty per person for information leading to the arrest of Lau and seven other pro-democracy activists. “Although the Foreign Office have spoken out against the bounty, I haven’t received a single briefing on this espionage case at all,” Lau said.
Chung Ching Kwong, a Hong Kong activist working for the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (Ipac) in London, said: “The lack of transparency in the handling of this case poses a serious risk to those dissidents who are already at risk for criticising China, like Uyghurs and Tibetans.”
Luke de Pulford, executive director of Ipac, warned the alleged spy had taken a close interest in and “briefed very strongly” against his organisation’s work, further raising concerns about any information that could have been collated about its activists.
The arrest of the alleged spy follows a report in July issued by parliament’s intelligence and security committee which warned China’s state intelligence apparatus was almost certainly the largest in the world and that it “dwarfed the UK’s intelligence community”.
China has described the spying allegations as “entirely groundless”.