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Chinese Spies Among Us

What happened?

Last week, UK media were busy with a “spy in the UK Parliament” story. According to a press release, two pro-China spies of non-Chinese citizenship working in favor of the PRC were employed in the British House of Commons. We already know the name of one of the two, Chris Cash, a young (28) staffer and (at the time of his arrest) director of the China Research Group (CRG), a think tank associated with the Conservative Party and manifesting a rather critical position on China: “to promote understanding, leading to fresh thinking about issues raised by the rise of China, and provide a trustworthy source of news and informed knowledge on China issues.

What is the broader picture?

Officers from the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command arrested Cash, who denies the espionage accusations, on March 13 under the Official Secrets Act on suspicion of spying for China. Despite never have been granted a security clearance, he had links to several prominent Conservative MPs, including Minister of State for Security Tom Tugendhat and foreign affairs committee chairwoman Alicia Kearns. He was also very active in networking and organizing pub meetings for the China policy network in London.

Arguably, he had no access to the classified information as a staffer. However, one can imagine that working in an environment surrounded by MPs, policymakers, and journalists provided him with opportunities to collect various kinds of sensitive information.

According to some, his task was to turn China hawks into being apathetic. In an article which he published on the website of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) just three days before his arrest, Cash argues: “Finding a way to live with China’s international influence that doesn’t compromise our security and values is now the critical question for the UK (and the CRG) to unpack.” Publicly, he was incredibly clever. He hid behind a visage of “reasoned hawkishness,” says Luke de Pulford, Executive Director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) who knows Cash in person in a now deleted tweet.

In reaction to this case, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak raised his concerns directly with his Chinese counterpart Li Qiang (李强) at the G20 Summit in India, saying that any interference in the UK parliamentary democracy is “obviously unacceptable.

It is not the first time the British Security System has addressed the issue of Chinese foreign interference in the UK Parliament. Last year, the MI5 issued an alert on owner of a law company, Christine Lee, who was publicly named as a spy for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) operating in the Houses of Parliament. In July, the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee issued a report stating that the government had been slow to address security risks from the PRC.

The United Kingdom certainly is not the only target of Chinese espionage. Let’s remember the case of elite capture in the Czech Republic. Czech MEP Jan Zahradil, a foreign policy expert from the Czech conservative party (ODS), was investigated under accusation of receiving Chinese sponsorship when he chaired the EU-China friendship group (2019-2021). During its 14 years of existence, the group, which employed a Chinese national as its secretary general, organized 15 trips to China upon invitation by various Chinese institutions; for example, the group participated in the 2008 Olympic Games opening ceremony in Beijing. After the investigation and huge criticism which followed, Zahradil decided to shut down this European Parliament group.

Why does it matter?

The Chinese interference activities described above are not solitary cases. They are part of a broader strategy of the United Front work, a system that gathers intelligence about and works to influence private citizens overseas.

Under the Chinese counterespionage law, Chinese citizens are obliged to cooperate with the Chinese security apparatus, which could make every Chinese person (even if they are located abroad) a potential spy.

As the number of uncovered cases of espionage and Chinese interference continues to rise, European countries now realize that their governments underestimated the power of Chinese intelligence and failed to educate the potential target groups (including politicians, businessmen, academics, and students) about the risks. Typical strategies to coopt a target are presumably innocent invitations to travel to China, where targets are treated with expensive presents and lavish banquets, to one day be asked for a favor.

We have yet to determine if this was the case of the young man at the beginning of his career who previously lived and worked in China. However, we should ask ourselves what we can do better to prevent the elites from being captured.