For almost three decades, Christine Ching Kui Lee has been a pillar of the Anglo-Chinese community. A wealthy lawyer and campaigner, Ms Lee, from her home in the suburban West Midlands, has been energetic, it is fair to say, in promoting Chinese interests in Britain.
Now we know why: the 59-year-old mother-of-two is a spy.
An MI5 investigation, conducted over several years – intelligence agencies refuse to disclose operational details – concluded that Ms Lee is an agent of the Communist Chinese state. The bespectacled, respectable-looking, middle-aged mother from Birmingham had used hundreds of thousands of pounds – if not more – channelled to her by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing to buy influence that even included access to Downing Street.
In the end, MI5 decided enough was enough, and after several years of monitoring Ms Lee’s activities, decided to intervene. At noon on Thursday, MI5 issued to all parliamentarians – that is, MPs and peers – a Security Service Interference Alert that warned them all to steer clear of Ms Lee. For the avoidance of doubt, the notice included her photograph and an assertion that she was seeking to “covertly interfere” in UK politics.
From China to Birmingham and beyond
Born in China, Ms Lee moved to the UK in the Eighties, setting up home in the Midlands. For the past 20 years, she has operated a successful law firm – the eponymous Christine Lee & Co – with its headquarters in Birmingham and satellite offices in London’s Chinatown and in Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
From 2015 onwards, the law firm would spend hundreds of thousands of pounds funding the private office of Barry Gardiner, the Labour MP and shadow energy secretary under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Mr Gardiner, but he became a close friend of Ms Lee, employing one of her sons in his private office. He was also a keen advocate of Hinkley Point C power station, a controversial nuclear power plant that was being built in partnership with a Chinese state energy corporation.
By 2006, Ms Lee was starting to exert her grip on the UK, establishing the British Chinese Project to “empower” Britain’s Chinese community.
The project, it is now suggested, was a front for the suitably named United Front Work Department, an agency of the Chinese Communist Party utilised to exert political influence both in the motherland and overseas.
The chairman of the British Chinese Project was Mr Gardiner, who four years later set up an all-party parliamentary group, Chinese in Britain, to represent Chinese citizens in the UK. Again, Mr Gardiner was its chairman and the secretariat listed as Ms Lee’s British Chinese Project. The group has been recently disbanded.
It is unclear when Ms Lee was recruited to the cause. But she was so successful that in 2019, she was rewarded for her hard work in promoting good relations in the UK-Chinese community with a prestigious Points of Light Award, given to her by Theresa May, when she was prime minister.
“You should feel very proud of the difference that the British Chinese Project is making in promoting engagement, understanding, and co-operation between the Chinese and British communities in the UK,” wrote Mrs May, adding: “I also wish you well with your work to further the inclusion and participation of British-Chinese people in the UK political system.”
Ms Lee was delighted. “I am both surprised and honoured to receive this award and feel humbled that it relates to work which I have always felt privileged to carry out,” she responded. “The wellbeing of the British Chinese community in the UK will always be of great importance to me and I am pleased to have had the opportunity to assist in any small way with our integration into UK society.”
A photograph of her, beaming as well she might, in front of Number 10 confirmed her pivotal role. The Downing Street entrance was decorated with red banners, proclaiming the Chinese new year. Incredibly at the time Ms Lee made her visit, she was under investigation by MI5.
Mrs May was not the only prime minister to give her attention. Four years earlier, Ms Lee was photographed at a British leadership awards ceremony bending the ear of David Cameron when he was PM.
The Barry Gardiner connection
However, it was her close association with Mr Gardiner, the MP for Brent North since 1997 and a former Labour minister in Sir Tony Blair’s government, that drew scrutiny. In 2017, The Times reported concern over £180,000 received by Mr Gardiner, at the time Labour’s shadow international trade secretary and previously shadow energy secretary, to pay for staff in his office. It is unclear if the British intelligence agencies were already monitoring Ms Lee’s activities.
But if they weren’t, the newspaper report was a wake-up call. In some ways, Ms Lee had been hiding in plain sight. Her law firm boasted of its connections to Beijing as the only British law firm “authorised by the Chinese ministry of justice to practise as a law firm in China”. Ms Lee was also chief legal adviser to the Chinese embassy in London and a legal adviser to the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, which in turn was overseen by the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department.
The news reporting did not deter her. Between 2015 and 2020, her law firm funded Mr Gardiner’s office to the tune of £420,000. One of Ms Lee’s sons worked for Mr Gardiner as his diary manager and received a parliamentary pass.
In a lengthy statement on Thursday, Mr Gardiner said: “I have been liaising with our Security Services for a number of years about Christine Lee and they have always known, and been made fully aware by me, of her engagement with my office and the donations she made to fund researchers in my office in the past.”
Mr Gardiner said “steps were taken to ensure Christine Lee had no role in either the appointment or management of those researchers” and that he had not benefited personally from her largesse.
He said all donations were properly reported and added: “I have been assured by the Security Services that whilst they have definitively identified improper funding channelled through Christine Lee, this does not relate to any funding received by my office.”
He added that Ms Lee’s son had “resigned from my employment earlier today” as a result of MI5’s issuing of its alert, saying: “The Security Services have advised me that they have no intelligence that shows he was aware of, or complicit in, his mother’s illegal activity.”
Mr Gardiner admitted speaking to his friend as recently as this week. He denied they had discussed the MI5 alert, insisting he was unaware of it until Thursday.
“What we spoke about earlier this week was actually the situation of my parents-in-law, who are elderly and ill,” he told Sky News. “She had expressed concern as to their wellbeing, and that’s what we spoke about.”
Mr Gardiner was not her only target. Sir Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrats’ leader, received a £5,000 donation when he was energy secretary in the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition. He said that the money had gone to his constituency office and at the time had caused no concern.
In recent times, Ms Lee has become increasingly emboldened. In December 2019, she attended a banquet at the Chinese embassy in London where Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK at the time, criticised Western nations including Britain for attacking China over pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Ms Lee, according to newspaper reports, told guests that “Western [media] coverage” of the bloody clashes between protesters and riot police, including allegations of police brutality, had “failed to explain the exact true picture”.
A photograph emerged on Thursday of her in China shaking hands with Xi Jinping, China’s all-powerful president and scourge of the West. In a local Chinese newspaper, she is quoted recently as saying: “Although I have spent these years in Great Britain, no matter how long the shadow of the tree, the roots forever penetrate the soil… I must be a communicator of China’s voice, let the world understand China, help the motherland develop.”
It is unclear the precise trigger for MI5’s startling intervention after years monitoring Ms Lee’s activities. The Security Service Interference Alert declares its “purpose is to draw attention to individuals knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the United Front Work department of the Chinese Communist Party”.
Intelligence agencies investigated the money trail and traced the source of her funding to the Chinese Communist Party. Whitehall sources said she had not conducted “conventional espionage”, but had deployed a more “subtle and nuanced” method to exert influence on British policy.
“This is about her getting herself into positions where she has levers of power to pull,” said a Whitehall source. “We didn’t want to see her keep going.”
Raising the alarm
Security services decided to intervene and go public when they concluded that the “risk of harm” she posed in influencing public figures outweighed the benefits of keeping secret tabs on her.
“The accumulated risks of not doing something were higher than intervening,” said a source, adding: “We believe that ultimately she was taking money from the Chinese communist party in order to influence parliamentarians.”
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, raised a point of order in the Commons about the alert. He raised concerns about the security of the offices of MPs such as himself who have helped Hong Kong democracy campaigners flee the territory.
Sources said that Ms Lee was not the only Chinese agent operating in the UK in this way, but refused to speculate on the scale of the problem.
Intelligence agencies have repeatedly claimed that out-of-date espionage laws, based on the Official Secrets Act of 1911, make it difficult to arrest and charge foreign spies. Ms Lee is unlikely to face charges while her deportation is also unlikely to proceed. She is understood to be a naturalised British citizen with a husband and children in the UK.
On Thursday, Ms Lee had gone to ground at the family home in Solihull, bought last year for £985,000. Her Mercedes with a personalised licence plate, including a lucky Chinese number, was parked in the drive.
The Chinese spy had run out of road.