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China spying claims explained: story behind country’s alleged spy researcher in UK parliament

Chinese premier Li Qiang had talks with British counterpart Rishi Sunak at the G20 summit in New Delhi, India (Adi Weda / Pool / AP)
Chinese premier Li Qiang had talks with British counterpart Rishi Sunak at the G20 summit in New Delhi, India (Adi Weda / Pool / AP)

A parliamentary researcher with potential access to sensitive information and links to senior Conservatives was recently arrested over allegations of spying for China.

MPs have since been sharing their anger over how this individual was able to work with senior politicians, some of whom are currently working as ministers, and asking for better scrutiny of individuals before they are given certain clearances.

The PM was in India to attend the G20 summit in Delhi last week, and the news led to Rishi Sunak personally challenging his Chinese counterpart Li Qiang over the reports.

Here is a comprehensive look at the spying allegations, Rishi Sunak’s response to the situation, and what China has said about it all so far.

What are the spying allegations?

A man in his 20s, who held a parliamentary pass which allowed him unescorted access to large parts of the Westminster estate, was arrested in March alongside another man in his 30s.

The man in question had spent some time teaching in China after graduating from university. More recently, he had been working with a series of senior MPs in the UK, some of whom now work on foreign affairs issues.

The alleged spy is understood to have had contact with both Alicia Kearns, the Tory MP who chairs the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, and Tom Tugendhat, the security minister. Both politicians are known for being heavily critical of China.

When asked about the allegations, Kearns declined to comment, but added: “While I recognise the public interest, we all have a duty to ensure any work of the authorities is not jeopardised.”

The alleged spy was arrested in Edinburgh, while the man in his 30s was detained in Oxfordshire. Both were held as suspects under section 1 of the Official Secrets Act, but bailed until early October.

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith told Times Radio: “I think we are deeply penetrated by the Chinese because of our ambivalent attitude towards them. People like me get criticised because we make too much of this and then you see this happening.

“If you can penetrate Parliament like this over such a long period of time, then how many other institutions with less [tight] levels of security are being penetrated on a daily basis?”

How has Rishi Sunak responded?

While in India for the G20 summit, Mr Sunak took the opportunity to personally challenge the Chinese Prime Minister in a private meeting.

After their 20-minute discussion, Mr Sunak said: “I obviously can’t comment on the specifics of an ongoing investigation but, with regard to my meeting with Premier Li, what I said very specifically is that I raised a range of different concerns that we have in areas of disagreement and, in particular, my very strong concerns about any interference in our parliamentary democracy, which is obviously unacceptable.”

How has China responded?

China has been upset about the reports that they have planted a spy within the UK Parliament.

A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in London called the reports “malicious slander”.

In a statement, they said: “The claim that China is suspected of ‘stealing British intelligence’ is completely fabricated and nothing but malicious slander.

“We firmly oppose it and urge relevant parties in the UK to stop their anti-China political manipulation and stop putting on such self-staged political farce.”