How MPs warned of threat from China in damning report last year

MPs have long warned of the threat posed by China

Last July, a report by Westminster’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) was highly critical of the UK Government’s response to the threat posed by China, questioning the trade-off between economic interest and security concerns.

Here we look at what the report said and what it recommended the Government should do.

How severe did the report say the threat from China is?

A police officer stands guard over the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China.A police officer stands guard over the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China.
A police officer stands guard over the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China.
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The 200-page report said the UK was “of significant interest to China” when it comes to espionage and interference, due to the close relationship with the United States, membership of international bodies and the perception of the UK as an opinion-former.

It said these things placed the UK “just below China’s top priority targets” and warned it was China’s global ambition to become a technological and economic superpower, on which other countries are reliant, that represents the greatest risk to the UK.

What did it say about espionage?

The committee said hundreds of thousands of civil intelligence officers target the UK and its interests prolifically and aggressively and that it “presents a challenge for our agencies to cover”. It said China’s human intelligence collection was prolific and it had a highly capable and increasingly sophisticated cyber-espionage operation.

The report said: “China is [similarly] aggressive in its interference activities: while seeking to exert influence is legitimate, China oversteps the boundary.”

Did it mention British universities?

The report said China had been “particularly effective at using its money and influence” to penetrate or buy academia to ensure its “international narrative is advanced and criticism suppressed”. It is estimated there are 151,690 Chinese students at universities in the UK – the largest number from any one country.

The report also said the UK’s academic institutions provide a “rich feeding ground for China to achieve political influence in the UK and economic advantage over the UK” and that China was well placed to “exploit the achievements of the UK’s best and brightest”.

The document also details pressures on Chinese students in the UK, including incidents in Scotland. In November 2019, a Chinese student was photographed in Edinburgh with a sign supporting Hong Kong citizens’ demands for free elections.

"The following day, he was secretly photographed at Edinburgh Airport while escorting his mother to her flight," the report says. "Both pictures were circulated on Weibo, the Chinese social media site, by someone who believed he was returning to Chengdu, his home town.

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"The post – entitled ‘Brothers from Chengdu, beat him to death’ – contained the flight number and a call for him to be arrested by police or assaulted by citizens. It was shared 10,000 times."

What did it say about Chinese influence among politicians?

The committee said its “predecessor committee” had sounded the alarm about Russia, warning too many politicians could not take a decision on an investment case because they had taken money from those concerned.

"We know that China invests in political influence and we question therefore whether similar problems might be arising in relation to China,” it said.

What did the report recommend?

The report said the UK Government’s focus was still dominated by short-term or acute threats and that strategies change with every political cycle.

It said the UK Government needed to formulate a strategy that utilised a ‘whole-of-government’ approach to China.

It put forward a series of other recommendations, including the Government should ensure transparency around the source of foreign donations to higher education institutions was improved; and explore the possibility of a multi-year spending review for intelligence agencies, to allow them to develop long-term, strategic programmes on China.



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