Whether planted in the heart of Parliament or floating in the skies, China’s alleged methods of espionage to gather intelligence on the West have long caused diplomatic furore.
The revelation this week that a British parliamentary researcher was arrested on suspicion of spying for China has revived debate over the UK’s relationship with Beijing, and prompted questions over the extent of Chinese intelligence activity.
The 28-year-old researcher – who has not been named by police – was arrested along with another man on 13 March, just over a month after a suspected Chinese spy balloon floated across the US before it was shot down.
In April, two men were arrested in New York for allegedly running a covert “police station” in the city on behalf of Chinese authorities, and using it as a base to track Chinese dissidents living in the US.
Beijing was also accused last year of employing hackers to gather trade secrets from manufacturing and technology firms in the US, Europe and Asia in what was labelled by security analysts as “industrial espionage”.
Dr Steven Wagner, senior lecturer in international security at Brunel University London, has observed a pattern emerging in reports of Chinese espionage techniques in the past decade.
He told i that most of the known methods China uses to spy on the West fall under the category of “bribery and flattery of academics, specialists, businessmen and women, and policy wonks in the pursuit of technology and trade secrets, and influence”.
“Technical means to collect intelligence, including the balloon, are normal,” he added, “although the balloon was of course a show-stopper.
“We [Western countries] presumably do the same things, but with satellites and high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft.”
The Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) noted in a July report on Chinese interference, including in politics, that there has been “a general rise in attempts to penetrate the Government or the UK intelligence community”, adding that British students studying in China may also be targeted.
Chinese intelligence services are gathering “everything they can” and often collect information not typically considered to be classified, making it harder to spot such activities, the ISC said.
“The nature of China’s engagement, influence and interference activity in the UK is difficult to detect, but even more concerning is the fact that the Government may not previously have been looking for it,” the committee said.
“The UK is now playing catch-up.”
Dr Wagner said it was safe to assume that the Chinese government approves of these activities, but that it remains unclear how authority is delegated and the extent of its involvement.
“At a minimum, they are setting policy and requirements for information,” he added.
“You can also expect that the Communist Party of China, the People’s Liberation Army and government ministries will each be working – and not necessarily together – on variations of these requirements.
“Each will have a different distance from the central government administration.”
Benedict Rogers, founder of UK-based non-profit Hong Kong Watch, which seeks to promote freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, said the UK should be “extremely concerned” about the allegations of Chinese spying.
“As someone who has been directly and repeatedly threatened in a variety of ways, I have known for several years that this is serious, and this latest case shows that the challenge is even more serious than many realised,” he told i.
“We must wake up and act to counter this threat urgently.”
Ministers are pressing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to label China a “threat”, while Beijing has branded the allegation of espionage a “malicious smear”.
The man at the centre of the allegations has insisted he is “completely innocent”, saying he has spent his career highlighting the “challenge and threats presented by the Chinese Communist Party”.
Analysts say that while the incident is significant, the British Government should try to strike a delicate diplomatic balance with China.
“There are questions about what would be gained from disengaging, when understanding such a significant power is necessary to gain insight into what it might do, and influencing China’s behaviour is difficult,” said Olivia O’Sullivan, director of the UK in the World Programme at the Chatham House think-tank.
Dr Wagner believes there is no reason to panic and said there is value in the UK sending clear signals of its intentions to China.
“The fact that the arrests happened are evidence that our system can work,” he added.