China spy row: UK Government labels China a 'systemic challenge' as Humza Yousaf insists 'precautions have been taken'
Making a statement in the Commons on Monday after the arrest of a parliamentary researcher on suspicion of spying, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden labelled China the “number one state-based threat” to the UK’s economic security.
His statement followed Mr Yousaf telling reporters there was “good” engagement between the two administrations on security, with the First Minister seeking to reassure the public measures had been taken.
Addressing MPs, Mr Dowden warned parliamentarians to be careful with their words, so as not to “hamper” the police or “prejudice any future legal processes”.
He said: “It remains an absolute priority for the Government to take all necessary steps to protect the United Kingdom from any foreign state activity, which seeks to undermine our national security, prosperity and democratic values. The Government has been clear that China represents a systemic challenge to the United Kingdom and to our values.
“We are clear-eyed about that challenge and we must be able to look the Chinese in the eye and call out unacceptable behaviour directly, just as our Prime Minister was able to do with Premier Li [Qiang] at the G20 in New Delhi this weekend. [It is] an approach that has also been taken consistently by our Five Eyes allies".
Mr Dowden claimed “actions speak louder than words”, pointing to ministers decision to ban TikTok from Government devices, and the move to investigate so-called Chinese overseas police service stations.
Responding to a question from former prime minister Liz Truss, Mr Dowden said China was the "number one state-based threat to our economic security".
Opposition parties, as well as numerous Tory MPs, reacted to the statement by demanding to know what action had been taken, and why they were not briefed.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper told the Commons: “The minister referred to the Prime Minister raising strong concerns about unacceptable interference with China. Can I ask, did the Prime Minister do so at the time of these arrests, or has he only done so now since they have been made public?”.
Mr Dowden insisted the “Prime Minister and the foreign secretary regularly raise with their Chinese opposite numbers Chinese interference in democratic institutions”, but declined to answer specifics.
SNP Cabinet Office spokeswoman Kirsty Blackman said: “When did the Deputy Prime Minister himself learn of these allegations and of these arrests? Why did MPs only learn of this from The Times, and will the Government institute as soon as possible a review into the decision-making process that led to MPs not being told about this in order that critical updates like this are given to MPs in future and this decision-making process is never allowed to happen again?”.
Defending the Government, Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle insisted it would be “wrong to expect” all MPs to be briefed on such a major security issue. But he said all MPs who needed to be told were informed.
It came as the First Minister promised the Scottish Government would do whatever was necessary to protect Scotland from hostile states such as China.
Speaking during a visit to Stirling, Mr Yousaf said: “There is a good level of engagement between the Scottish Government and the UK Government in relation to national security, and cyber security in particular.
“We know there are a number of hostile actors and hostile states which threaten our security, but it is important the public receives some reassurances we are live to these threats and are taking appropriate measures, and have done for a number of years.”
During the interview, Mr Yousaf repeatedly referred to cyber security. When asked if this was his primary concern, he said: “I think it is important people are reassured, given there have been cyber attacks in the past in both the public and private sector here in Scotland.
“People should be reassured that when it comes to security, and cyber security in particular, precautions have been taken.”
However, the First Minister said he wanted to make sure the latest concerns around China’s influence on the UK did not stigmatise Chinese communities living in Scotland.
He said: “There are Chinese communities in Scotland who contribute a lot and have done for many decades in business and academia. It is really important these communities are not stigmatised.”
His comments come as the Scottish Lib Dems called for a full review of China’s influence in Scotland on the back of this arrest.
Party leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “I am deeply troubled by these reports, which suggest worrying evidence of Chinese interference in the operation of our parliamentary democracy. Scottish Liberal Democrats have been warning about the reach of Chinese influence for some time now.
“We cannot afford to be complacent in the face of national security threats. To this end, I would like to see a commitment from both our governments to conduct an immediate strategic audit of the reach of China’s influence in Scotland.”
Other MPs unhappy about the incident included former SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, who called the situation “unacceptable”.
He said: “When you look at the Russian regime, you look at the Chinese, they behave in a different manner than we would do in terms of what's acceptable, what's responsible.
“And at the end of the day, all of us – and this is something that goes right across party – have got that responsibility of keeping people safe in our streets. That's the single most important thing that must come out of this.
“Let's leave the individual circumstances behind what's happened here, but the idea that we can have someone engaging in espionage or any of our parliamentary estates is something which is completely unforgivable.”
Conservative former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith claimed the revelation did “not come, perhaps, as any surprise” given the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament had warned the UK Government was “unprepared for this”.
He said: “The problem lies in the mess we’ve got into over what we define China as in respect to us. Are they a threat or are they not? If they are a threat, why don’t we call them a threat and take the relative action that is necessary to deal with them on that basis and sanction some people?”.
Earlier on Monday, the parliamentary researcher at the heart of the row had denied the allegations.
In a statement released through his lawyers, the 28-year-old researcher, who has not been officially named by police, said: “I feel forced to respond to the media accusations that I am a ‘Chinese spy’.
“It is wrong that I should be obliged to make any form of public comment on the misreporting that has taken place. However, given what has been reported, it is vital that it is known that I am completely innocent.
“I have spent my career to date trying to educate others about the challenge and threats presented by the Chinese Communist Party.
“To do what has been claimed against me in extravagant news reporting would be against everything I stand for.”
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