Christine Lee: UK government promoted firm at center of alleged Chinese influence operation for years

On Thursday, Britain’s counterintelligence agency, MI5, issued an “interference warning” about a “potential threat” from Christine Ching Kui Lee, a lawyer with offices in China and the UK.

According to the warning, Lee has “traded covertly” with the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department to interfere in British politics by establishing ties with parliamentarians “across the political spectrum” and facilitating donations “on behalf of foreigners.” said MI5.

Lee’s firm was advertised on a Department of International Trade website Friday before it was taken offline.

CNN has contacted Lee for comment, but has received no response. 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 the relevant British officials not to make unwarranted comments or hype the theory of the ‘Chinese threat’ for covert political purposes,” said Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry.

A CNN analysis of the UK Parliamentary Register, through which lawmakers record donations, shows that between 2014 and 2020, Lee donated at least £461,000 ($639,000) to Barry Gardiner, an elected member of the opposition Labor Party, mainly through funding of its staff. Her son even worked in his office and had a parliamentary pass.

Lee also donated £5,000 ($6,800) to Liberal Democrat party leader Sir Ed Davey in 2013.

It is not illegal for Lee to make the donations as the UK does not yet have a foreign agent registration law like the United States, nor is it illegal for a UK citizen or foreign national working in the UK to be affiliated at the Chinese Communist Party. Lee is listed as a British citizen in the UK Business Register.

In a statement to CNN, Gardiner said he had not personally benefited from Lee’s donations in any way. The money was correctly reported and the source verified.

“I will continue to work closely with our security forces on this and all other matters related to the security of our country,” Gardiner said.

Davey told CNN that his local association had accepted the donation, that it had been properly reported and that “this was the first time he was concerned.”

“The government must make it a national security priority to protect British democracy from threats and interference from foreign actors,” Davey said.

Lee’s services advertised on the UK government portal

The London offices of Christine Lee and Co.

The payments were made through Lee’s eponymous law firm Christine Lee & Co Solicitors, which has been listed in the UK Advisory Network directory since at least 2016 – a list of business services compiled by what is now the Department for International Trade to, as the directory says, “provide an accessible route” “for foreign investors settling in the UK.”

A foreword to the directory says it has been “facilitated at the invitation of the UK Government” and that “members go through a rigorous screening process to become members”.

“The network provides a forum for feedback to the government on issues impacting the business environment and ultimately provides information on efforts to make the UK even more business-friendly,” it says.

Lee’s services were still accessible through the Department of International Trade Friday through a recently revamped government portal to attract foreign investment for UK projects.

The advertisement for Lee’s firm on the great.gov website in the UK offered free legal advice for the first hour, as did the other firms mentioned.

A disclaimer on the site said the department “does not endorse the character, goods, services or assets of the directory’s members” and that there is no legal relationship between the department and the listed service providers.

The Department of International Trade said in response to CNN it had to do a “decent amount of digging” on the matter and that the great.gov.uk page was no longer live, although the site was online until the end of the day. business on Friday.

“This case shows that government control has abnormally failed 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 for China. pushing for stricter rules for China.

Someone who has had MI5 issue a warning about “advertising their services on the government website is truly remarkable and should be dealt with 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 initiated the Anglo-Chinese project in 2006 to encourage British citizens of Chinese descent to vote in the UK. As of 2011, 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 latter even gave her an award two years ago for her work with the Chinese community in Britain.

According to the UK Companies House register, Lee runs a web of property, legal, cultural and educational businesses under her name.

A copy of a letter sent by the Lords Speaker in the House of Lords, the UK’s upper chamber, and obtained by CNN, said Lee has facilitated donations “on behalf of foreigners based in Hong Kong and China. This facilitation was done to covertly mask the origin of the payments.”

“This is clearly unacceptable and steps are being taken to ensure it stops.” reads the letter.

The Interior Ministry launched a consultation last year on new legislation designed to strengthen safeguards against hostile government action. Parliamentary sources told CNN the bill is expected to be presented to the House of Commons early this year.

When CNN visited the London office of Lee’s law firm, in the heart of Soho, it was found to have been closed for some time with the windows thick with dust. It was empty with a message in the window saying it was closed due to the pandemic. Emails and phone calls to the contact details on the board went unanswered.

In a piece written for the UK’s Daily Mail in 2020, the company said: “Christine Lee & Co is proud of its track record and the support it has given to the democratic process. We have never tried 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 a staunch critic of China, raised the alarm about Lee in parliament on Thursday, saying MI5 House Speaker Lindsay Hoyle had warned “an agent of the Chinese government” had been active. working to “undermine” the process of parliament.

“This is a matter of great concern,” he said.

Allegra Goodwin of CNN contributed to this report.

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