The government is facing renewed calls to label China a threat after the arrest of a parliamentary researcher on suspicion of spying for the superpower.
Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden was delivering a statement on the matter in the House of Commons.
Earlier in the afternoon, Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle warned MPs against going into details on the matter – or naming the suspect who was arrested – during the debate.
A slew of Conservative MPs – some of them sanctioned by China – shared their displeasure about the fact they were not told about the arrest of the researcher when it happened.
They, alongside MPs on opposition benches, called on the government to label China a threat to the UK.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also spoke in the Commons after meeting with China’s premier Li Qiang at the G20 over the weekend.
Mr Sunak said: “The sanctity of this place must be protected and the right of members to speak their minds without fear or sanction must be maintained.
“We will defend our democracy and our security – so I was emphatic with premier Li that actions which seek to undermine British democracy are completely unacceptable and will never be tolerated.”
Mr Dowden repeated the government’s position laid out in the integrated review refresh earlier this year, that China was a “systemic challenge” to the UK.
Liz Truss, the former foreign secretary and former prime minister, labelled China as the “largest threat, both to the world and to the United Kingdom, for freedom and democracy.”
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, another ex-leader of the Conservative Party, said: “It’s appalling news that we have a potential cell operating in and around Westminster, an espionage cell, and I as a sanctioned individual alongside many of my colleagues are particularly perturbed by this particular news.”
He added: “The problem lies in the mess we’ve got into over what we define China as in respect to us. Are they a threat or are they not? If they are a threat, why don’t we call them a threat and take the relative action that is necessary to deal with them on that basis and sanction some people?”
Conservative MPs Tim Loughton, Theresa Villiers and Sir Bob Seely also called for the government to take more action.
How much difference is there between a challenge and a threat?
Quite a lot, according to several Conservative MPs who got up to call for a more robust approach to China in the Commons this afternoon.
Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden did say the government was “clear about the threat that China poses” but the core position still appears to be that Beijing represents a “systemic challenge”.
That’s not hard enough for many on the backbenches who want China officially designated as a threat, sanctions imposed on individuals and the country barred from an Artificial Intelligence conference being held in the UK this autumn.
Such a change seems unlikely for now.
The Foreign Office has set out a clear policy of cautious engagement with Beijing, on the grounds of economic necessity and in the search for global solutions to problems like climate change and pandemics.
In a Commons session where any talk of the arrested individual was quickly shut down by the Speaker, one specific question connected to the case did come up.
Did Foreign Secretary James Cleverly raise the alleged Chinese spy with Beijing when he visited two weeks ago?
No, came the answer from Oliver Dowden, who said while ministers regularly raise the broader issue of interference – they wouldn’t talk about specific cases, especially ones currently subject to a police investigation.
Mr Dowden conceded China was the “number one state-based threat” to the UK’s economic security.
The minister added the UK government had been “clear-eyed” about the threats China poses towards the UK, and was taking action to tackle them – such as banning Huawei from UK infrastructure and banning TikTok on government phones.
Sir Keir Starmer, who responded to Mr Sunak’s statement, pushed the government on whether Foreign Secretary James Cleverly knew about the arrests before he became the first foreign secretary to visit China in five years.
The visit took place in August, five months after the arrest took place.
Mr Sunak said: “I am sure he will appreciate that as there is an ongoing investigation, as you have also said Mr Speaker, I am limited in what I can say specifically.
“But I have been emphatically clear in our engagement with China that we will not accept any interference in our democracy and parliamentary system.”
Sir Iain asked Mr Dowden a similar question earlier, and was told by the minister that a running commentary could not be provided.
In a statement released by his lawyers, the arrested man said: “I feel forced to respond to the media accusations that I am a ‘Chinese spy’. It is wrong that I should be obliged to make any form of public comment on the misreporting that has taken place.
“However, given what has been reported, it is vital that it is known that I am completely innocent. I have spent my career to date trying to educate others about the challenge and threats presented by the Chinese Communist Party.
“To do what has been claimed against me in extravagant news reporting would be against everything I stand for.”
Doonited Affiliated: Syndicate News Hunt