On Thursday Britain’s domestic counter-intelligence service, MI5, issued an “interference alert” about a “potential threat” posed by Christine Ching Kui Lee, a lawyer with offices in China and the UK.
The alert said Lee “acted covertly” with the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party to interfere in UK politics by cultivating links with parliamentarians “across the political spectrum” and facilitating donations “on behalf of foreign nationals,” MI5 said.
Lee’s firm was advertised on a website of the Department of International Trade as recently as Friday, before being taken offline.
CNN has contacted Lee for comment but has not received a reply. On Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry denied that Lee was a Chinese “agent” and said Beijing “has no need and will not engage in so-called interference activities.”
“We urge relevant British officials to refrain from making groundless remarks or hyping up the ‘China threat’ theory for ulterior political purposes,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said.
A CNN analysis of Britain’s 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 Labour party between 2014 and 2020, mostly through funding of his staff. Her son even worked in his office and had a parliamentary pass.
Lee also donated £5,000 ($6,800) to the leader of the Liberal Democrat party Sir Ed Davey in 2013.
It is not illegal for Lee to make the donations as the UK does not yet have a foreign agents registration act like the United States, nor is it illegal for a British citizen or foreign national working in the UK to be affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party. Lee is listed as a British national in the UK’s corporate registry.
In a statement to CNN, Gardiner said he had not benefitted personally from Lee’s donations in any way. The money had been properly reported and its source verified.
“I will continue to work closely with our security services in this and all other matters that relate to the security of our country,” Gardiner said.
Davey told CNN his local association had accepted the donation, that it was reported properly, and that “this was the first time he had been given cause to be concerned.”
“The government must make it a national security priority to protect the UK’s democracy from threats and interference by 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 directory of the “UK Advisory Network” — a list of business services compiled by what is now the Department for International Trade to, as the directory says, “provide an accessible route” “to foreign investors setting up in the UK.”
A preface to the directory says it is “facilitated by invitation from the UK government” and that “members go through a robust vetting procedure to join.”
“The Network provides a forum for feedback to the government on issues affecting the business environment and ultimately informs efforts to make the UK even more business friendly,” it says.
Lee’s services could still be accessed through the Department of International Trade on Friday via a government portal recently revamped to attract overseas investment for UK projects.
The advertisement for Lee’s firm on the UK’s great.gov website offered the first hour of legal advice for free, as did the other firms listed.
A disclaimer on the site said the department does not “endorse the character, goods, services or ability of the members of the directory” and that there is no legal relationship between the department and the service providers listed.
“This case shows is an abject failure of government vetting, and shows extraordinary naivety on the part of the government when it comes to the purpose of these kinds 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 somebody who MI5 published an alert about “advertising their services on the government website truly is remarkable and needs to be dealt with as soon as it possibly can be,” he said.
Photographed with prime ministers
Lee, a former legal advisor to China’s 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 with Chinese ancestry to vote in the UK. From 2011 onwards she was involved in a now-defunct All Party Parliamentary Group called Chinese in Britain.
She has been photographed with former Conservative Prime Ministers David Cameron and Theresa May. The…