Downing Street has said it is “deeply concerning” that a suspected Chinese agent was able to target MPs in an attempt make British policy more favourable to Beijing.
MI5 has taken the rare step of circulating a warning to MPs that Christine Lee, a prominent London-based solicitor, has been engaged in “political interference activities” on behalf of China’s ruling communist regime.
The claims were angrily dismissed by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman who accused the UK Government of being “too obsessed with James Bond 007 movies”.
However, a No 10 spokesman made clear the issue was being taken seriously and that ministers remained committed to strengthening anti-espionage legislation through a new counter-state threats bill.
“It will be deeply concerning that an individual who is knowingly engaged in the interference activities of the Chinese Communist Party targeted parliamentarians,” the spokesman said.
“Safeguarding our democracy will always be an absolute priority for this Government.
“We have robust systems in place but we will always ensure security services and law enforcement have the powers they need to tackle future threats.”
Earlier, Security Minister, Damian Hinds appeared to indicate that a review would take place into how Ms Lee was able to get so close to senior politicians.
Asked on LBC if there will be a review into the way she operated, he said: “Yes. We’re learning all the time, all the implications, of course, have to be able to be taken into account.”
However, officials later indicated that he was simply referring to the fact that the situation was being kept under review.
Mr Hinds said the security services have been aware of Lee’s activities – including channelling funds to British politicians in an attempt to secure influence – for “some time”.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin dismissed the claims, accusing the UK Government of making “groundless allegations and hyping the China threat” to serve its own purposes.
“It is highly irresponsible to make sensational remarks based on hearsay evidence and certain individuals’ conjecture,” he said.
Among those to accept donations from Lee is the senior Labour MP Barry Gardiner, who received more than £500,000 over six years to cover staffing costs in his office as well as employing her son as his diary manager.
Lee also received an award from Theresa May when she was prime minister, for her work on a project promoting good relations between the Chinese and British communities in the UK, and was a VIP guest when David Cameron hosted President Xi Jinping in London.
In the Security Service Interference Alert (SSIA) sent to MPs and peers, MI5 said Lee “acted covertly” in co-ordination with the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
It said she had been “engaged in the facilitation of financial donations to political parties, parliamentarians, aspiring parliamentarians, and individuals seeking political office in the UK, including facilitating donations to political entities on behalf of foreign nationals”.
Following the disclosure, Mr Gardiner said he had liaised with the security services for many years regarding his contacts with Lee, but had only learned on Thursday that she had been engaged in “illegal activity”.
In a statement, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in London denied the claims, saying it always adhered to the principle of non-interference in other country’s internal affairs.
“We have no need and never seek to ‘buy influence’ in any foreign parliament. We firmly oppose the trick of smearing and intimidation against the Chinese community in the UK,” it said.