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Sunak set to label China as official security threat to UK after pressure from senior Tories

There is a “strong case” for China to be classed as a threat to the UK’s national security, Rishi Sunak’s closest ministerial ally has told MPs.

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden said the Government is considering placing the country in the “enhanced” tier of the Foreign Influence Registration Scheme (FIRS), which would place stricter measures on Chinese agents and effectively categorise China as a hostile state.

A No10 source said: “All the Cabinet are very clear that we need to take a robust line on China and use the powers that we have.”

Mr Dowden revealed the possible move in the Commons as he responded to Tory MPs’ anger over the revelation that a Conservative parliamentary researcher has been arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing.

Tim Loughton, who is one of several Tory MPs to have been sanctioned by China, told the Deputy Prime Minister in the Commons that “for all the tough talk there are no consequences and the Chinese know that there will be no consequences”.

Former Tory cabinet minister Sir Iain Duncan Smith said it was “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”.

MPs have been urging Mr Sunak to place China in the enhanced tier of FIRS, as part of the new National Security Bill, for months.

Ministers were reported to be split over the move, with the Treasury urging caution while others, including Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Security Minister Tom Tugendhat, argued that tougher action is needed.

The measure would see Chinese agents and other political influencers come under extra scrutiny from the UK.

Under the new legislation, individuals seeking to “carry out political influence activities in the UK at the direction of a foreign power” would have to register with the UK authorities in order to carry out activities like communicating with MPs, senior civil servants or ministers.

But countries in the enhanced tier, such as Russia, Iran and potentially China, are to face tougher rules because those states would be considered a greater risk to the UK.

But countries in the enhanced tier, such as Russia, Iran and potentially China, are to face tougher rules because those states would be considered a greater risk to the UK. Individuals working on behalf of a state in the enhanced tier would need to register to carry out “any activities within the UK” on behalf of a foreign power.

Crucially, an exemption for domestic and international news publishers does not apply to the “enhanced” tier, which could pose a risk to state-controlled outlets.

Asked by Mr Loughton whether China would be placed in this enhanced tier, Mr Dowden said: “We are currently reviewing which countries are in that enhanced tier, but I think there is a strong case to be made, but he would not expect me to make that announcement from the dispatch box until we’ve gone through the proper process in respect of it.”

Amid growing pressure from his own backbenchers, Mr Sunak is to publish this week the Government’s response to a scathing report by parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), published in July, which warned that Beijing has penetrated every aspect of the UK’s economy and that the Government’s response to the threat has been “completely inadequate”.

The Government has been accused of delaying its response to the report.

Former Conservative chairman Lord Patten, who was the last governor of Hong Kong, said many in Westminster were “deluded” over the threat Beijing posed.

He told Times Radio: “What does amaze me is that people are surprised by it. There was a terrific report by the Intelligence and Security Committee in July, which I think the government tried to delay as long as they could … which went in detail through the acts of covert and overt espionage, influence seeking done by the Chinese.

“This is how the Chinese behave,” he added.

Asked whether he thought the people of Westminster were complacent, Lord Patten added: “Complacent. Absolutely. And many of them deluded. The argument is now focused on a rather crazy issue of whether we should deem China to be a threat. Of course, China is in many respects a threat, but we have to try to get on with it.”

In a statement released through his lawyers, the 28-year-old researcher – who has not been officially named by police – 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 challenges 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.”

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