The government is under growing scrutiny to implement heightened measures against Beijing, stemming from the recent arrest of a parliamentary researcher suspected of espionage for China.
Prominent Conservative MPs are agitating for a redefinition of China as a threat, a sentiment echoed increasingly by some members of the cabinet. During his time at the G20 in India, chancellor Rishi Sunak broached issues of Beijing’s potential interference. Simultaneously, the prime minister underlined the essentiality for open dialogue with China.
This past Saturday, law enforcement confirmed the arrests of two individuals under the auspices of the Official Secrets Act back in March. Metropolitan Police shared that the arrestees, one in his 30s and the other in his 20s, were apprehended in Oxfordshire and Edinburgh, respectively. Additional searches were conducted at their residences, as well as at a third location in east London.
Inside sources disclosed to the BBC that one of these individuals was a parliamentary researcher working on international affairs. The Sunday Times first reported that this researcher had connections to several Conservative MPs. Both detained men have been granted bail, and the investigation by the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command, responsible for espionage-related cases, continues.
Following these arrests, the Conservative Party has renewed a long-standing debate: should the UK adopt a stricter policy in response to China? Despite considerable pressures, ministers have yet to label Beijing a clear and present danger.
This past August, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly paid a visit to Beijing – a first in five years – and he expressed to the BBC the implausibility of disengagement. Yet, the discordant voices advocating for a reevaluation of policy are gaining volume.
Senior figures within the Tory backbench, including ex-leader Iain Duncan Smith and MP Tim Loughton, have raised their voices in urging the government to act with resolve. Duncan Smith has dubbed it high time to discern the intensifying threat projected by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by President Xi. Loughton has sounded the alarm regarding the extent to which the CCP’s influence permeates British institutions, highlighting the recurrent compromises to Parliament’s security and underscoring the necessity to perceive CCP as a hostile foreign entity.
Some members of the cabinet, such as Home Secretary Suella Braverman, reportedly favour a more stringent set of regulations. Sunak conveyed his grave concerns about any Chinese interference in British democracy to Premier Li Qiang of China. However, he maintains that the UK should not merely carp from the sides but actively raise these concerns from within.
Justice Secretary Alex Chalk has defended the UK’s existing approach towards China, suggesting the necessity to engage with the country while proceeding with caution. This stance comes amid reports indicating China’s increased intent to interfere in UK’s governmental procedures and tactical decisions pertaining to China.