Christine Lee: UK government promoted company at center of alleged Chinese influence operation for years
On Thursday, Britain’s counterintelligence service MI5 issued an “interference alert” over a “potential threat” posed by Christine Ching Kui Lee, a lawyer with offices in China and the UK.
The alert says Lee ‘acted covertly’ with the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department to interfere in British politics by cultivating ties with parliamentarians ‘from all political backgrounds’ and facilitating donations “on behalf of foreign nationals,” MI5 said.
Lee’s venture was announced on a Department of International Trade (DIT) website just Friday, before being taken offline.
In a statement, a DIT spokesperson told CNN, “The department has no record of a relationship with Christine Lee.”
CNN contacted Lee for comment but did not receive a response. On Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry denied that Lee was a Chinese “agent” and said Beijing “does not need him and will not engage in so-called interference activities.”
“We urge relevant UK officials to refrain from making baseless remarks or exaggerating the ‘China threat’ theory for further political gain,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang said. Wenbin.
A CNN analysis of the UK Parliamentary Register, by which lawmakers record donations, shows Lee gave at least £461,000 ($639,000) to Barry Gardiner, an elected member of the opposition Labor party between 2014 and 2020, mostly through staff funding. His son even worked in his office and had a parliamentary pass.
Lee also donated £5,000 ($6,800) to Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey in 2013.
It is not illegal for Lee to donate as the UK does not yet have a foreign agent registration law like the US, nor is it illegal for a UK citizen or a foreign national working in the UK to be affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party. . Lee is registered as a UK national in the UK Companies Registry.
In a statement to CNN, Gardiner said he in no way personally benefited from Lee’s donations. The money had been properly declared and its source verified.
“I will continue to work closely with our security services on this and all other issues related to the security of our country,” Gardiner said.
Davey told CNN his local charity accepted the donation, it was properly reported, and “this was the first time he had reason to be concerned.”
“The government must make this a national security priority to protect Britain’s democracy from threats and interference from foreign actors,” Davey said.
Lee’s services advertised on UK government portal
The payments were made through Lee’s eponymous law firm, Christine Lee & Co Solicitors, which since at least 2016 has been included in the ‘UK Advisory Network’ directory – a list of business services compiled by this which is now the Department for International Trade. to, as the yearbook puts it, ‘providing an accessible route’ ‘for overseas investors moving to the UK’.
A preface to the directory says it is “facilitated by invitation from the UK government” and that “members go through a rigorous vetting process to join”.
“The network provides a forum for feedback to government on issues affecting the business environment and ultimately informs efforts to make the UK even more business-friendly,” it says.
Lee’s services were still accessible through the Department for International Trade on Friday through a newly revamped government portal to attract foreign investment for UK projects.
Advertising for Lee’s firm on the UK’s great.gov website offered the first hour of legal advice free of charge, as did the other firms listed.
A disclaimer on the site states that the department “does not endorse the character, goods, services, or abilities of directory members” and that there is no legal relationship between the department and listed service providers.
“This case shows an abject failure of government verification and shows extraordinary naivety on the part of the government regarding the purpose of these sorts of institutions and individuals,” said Luke de Pulford of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which is pushing for tougher rules on China.
To have someone issued an alert to MI5 about “advertising their services on the government website is truly remarkable and needs to be addressed as soon as possible”, he said.
Photographed with Prime Ministers
Lee, a former legal adviser to the Chinese embassy in London, has been active in political circles for 15 years.
She first set up the British Chinese Project in 2006 to encourage British citizens of Chinese descent to vote in the UK. From 2011, she was involved in a now defunct all-party parliamentary group called Chinese in Britain.
She was pictured with former Tory prime ministers David Cameron and Theresa May. The latter even awarded him a prize two years ago for his work with the Chinese community in Great Britain.
According to the UK Companies House register, Lee has a network of property, legal, cultural and educational businesses under his name.
A copy of a letter sent by the Lords Speaker to the House of Lords, the UK’s upper house, and obtained by CNN said Lee facilitated donations “on behalf of foreign nationals based in Hong Kong and China This facilitation was done to covertly hide the origin of the payments.”
“This is clearly unacceptable and steps are being taken to ensure this stops.” reads the letter.
The Home Office last year launched a consultation on new legislation to strengthen safeguards against hostile state action. Parliamentary sources told CNN the bill is expected to be introduced in the House of Commons early this year.
When CNN visited the London office of Lee’s law firm in the heart of Soho, it appeared to have been closed for some time with the windows thick with dust. It was empty with a notice in the window saying it had closed due to the pandemic. Emails and calls to the contact details provided in the panel went unanswered.
In an article written for the UK’s Daily Mail in 2020, the company said: “Christine Lee & Co are proud of their record of public service and the support they have given to the democratic process. We have never sought to influence a politician inappropriately or to seek favors in return for the support we have provided.”
Ian Duncan Smith, the former leader of the ruling Conservative Party and outspoken China critic, sounded the alarm over Lee in parliament on Thursday, saying MI5 had warned House Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, that “a Chinese government agent” had been actively working to “subvert” the parliamentary process.
“This is a matter of grave concern,” he said.
CNN’s Allegra Goodwin contributed to this report.