LONDON – British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak claimed to be “acutely aware” of the “particular threat” posed to his country by China, as his government faced fresh allegations about the activities of an alleged Chinese spy who worked in Parliament, the heart of Britain’s political system.
But his reassurances failed to stem an increasingly angry political dispute that threatens to derail Mr Sunak’s desire to place Sino-British relations on a more predictable path.
The row erupted earlier this week, after Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper revealed that a 28-year-old man employed as a parliamentary researcher for the ruling Conservative Party had been arrested – along with another suspect – on allegations of offences under Britain’s Official Secrets Act by spying for China.
Some British media outlets named the parliamentary researcher, even though he claimed to be “completely innocent” and, at least for the moment, has not been formally charged.
But since the initial arrest in March was not made public at the time, Mr Sunak’s government is accused of a politically motivated cover-up.
Political tempers in London rose even further after information emerged about the researcher.
The man, who grew up in Scotland, is not of Chinese descent but worked as an English teacher in China after completing his university studies, and subsequently worked with Mr Tom Tugendhat, Britain’s current security minister, and Mrs Alicia Kearns, chair of British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
He is unlikely to have been privy to top-secret documents. Still, he appears to have been in discussions between ministers on sensitive matters, such as drafting new legislation to restrict Chinese investment in Britain if it was deemed to be a security risk.
Mr Sunak has tried to contain the scandal by claiming that he had raised “very strong concerns” about China’s alleged interference in Britain’s Parliament in his talks with Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang at the recent Group of 20 summit in India.
But the Prime Minister failed to explain why he decided to protest to China only now and not in March, when he was first notified of the parliamentary researcher’s arrest.
In heated parliamentary exchanges on Wednesday, Mr Sunak also declined to say whether British Foreign Minister James Cleverly, who visited Beijing in late August, had raised the matter with his Chinese hosts.
Mr Sunak’s hesitant response has infuriated his backbench MPs.
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