China is targeting top British officials to access secrets, the government in London said on Thursday, as it responded to criticisms about its policies towards the Asian superpower.
Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in a July report called the UK government’s approach to tackling Chinese espionage “completely inadequate” and lacking coordination.
The official government response came just days after revelations that a parliamentary researcher was arrested earlier this year on suspicion of spying for China, prompting a denial from Beijing.
The domestic intelligence service MI5 also warned the ruling Conservative party that two would-be MPs could be Chinese spies.
“The government recognises that Chinese recruitment schemes have tried to headhunt British and allied nationals in key positions and with sensitive knowledge and experience, including from government, military, industry and wider society,” it said in a 48-page response.
It accepted “there is more work to be done” to tighten safeguards, particularly against the targeting of current and former civil servants, it added.
In a written statement to parliament accompanying the government’s response, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called China “an epoch-defining challenge to the international order”.
He defended his policies, which involve pushing for pragmatic engagement with Beijing, particularly on global issues such as tackling climate change and health crises.
Some within his own party want him to characterise China as a “systemic threat” to the UK, because of alleged rights abuses against the Uyghur minority and a crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong.
Sunak said the ISC criticisms pre-dated more recent updates to policy, including banning tech firm Huawei from the UK 5G network and Chinese involved in civil nuclear programmes.
“We are not complacent, and we are keenly aware that there is more to do,” he wrote.
But Julian Lewis, the chairman of the ISC, which oversees UK intelligence agencies, said it was “misleading to imply … that our findings are outdated”.
“Until two months before publication, we monitored all relevant developments and noted them throughout the report,” he added.
“This was not difficult to do given the glacial pace at which the government’s China policy developed.”
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