Government Warns Against Shutting Out China After Spy Allegations
Oliver Dowden met with Chinese Vice President Han Zheng earlier this year (Alamy)
Conservative MPs have stressed the importance of continued dialogue with China, with the deputy prime minister saying it was important to "look the Chinese in the eye" and one backbench MP warning that “fear” could affect the UK’s ability to compete with other nations and defend itself.
Two men were arrested in March on suspicion of spying for China, one of whom was a parliamentary researcher with links to a number of prominent Conservative MPs. Both suspects were released on bail and charges have not been issued.
The researcher strongly denies the allegations and has said in a statement that he is “completely innocent”.
The allegations have stirred up debate in parliament over the effectiveness of parliamentary security and the UK government’s stance on China, with ‘hawkish’ MPs such as former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith warning of a “deepening threat” posed by the Asian country.
However, Mark Logan, Conservative MP for Bolton North East and a vice-chair for the China All-Party Parliamentary Group, told PoliticsHome he believes the “fear” surrounding the reaction to the allegations could threaten the UK’s interests.
“It's a very serious matter and the Prime Minister was right to raise this with the premier of China during the G20,” Logan said.
“In the last few days in the headlines, without us knowing any of the details of the case, to me it feels like there's an implicit kind of fear of the ‘other’ and the UK's ability to compete and contest with other nations.
“Therefore it's a sort of inward looking state of being anxious all the time and fearful, with the China ‘threat’ theory.”
Logan said he believes the UK government should continue to make “representations” to China and that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak can only hope to influence China if he is in the room with them.
The MP for Bolton North East, who worked in China before becoming an MP for the Foreign Office at the British Consulate-General Shanghai, said the allegations would personally not make him more wary of who he speaks to regarding China foreign policy.
“That's one of the key differences, right, between our system in the UK and the Chinese system,” he said.
“There is much more transparency and there's much more openness with how we conduct our business in the United Kingdom.
“So I don't think that will have an impact on your ability to voice your concerns or to have freedom of speech because the Chinese system is much more opaque and shrouded in secrecy, but that's not the nature of the system that we operate within.”
Other MPs told PoliticsHome they disagreed with this approach. One Labour MP said the allegations showed parliament needs to have “high standards for vetting”, while a Conservative MP said Logan’s comments were “extraordinarily naive at best”.
Addressing the allegations in parliament, both the Speaker of the House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle and the Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office and Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden warned MPs against using parliamentary privilege to name the suspects for legal reasons.
Dowden said it remained an "absolute priority" for the UK government to protect the country from international security threats, but that it was important for the UK to be able to speak to the Chinese state "directly" about concerns.
"We are clear-eyed about that challenge, and we must be able to look the Chinese in the eye and call out unacceptable behaviour directly, just as our Prime Minister was able to do with Premier Xi at the G20 in New Delhi this weekend," Dowden said.
Duncan Smith has repeatedly urged a more sceptical approach towards Beijing and has said the allegations show the extent of the threat.
“I think we are deeply penetrated by the Chinese because of our ambivalent attitude towards them,” he told Times Radio.
“People like me get criticised because we make too much of this and then you see this happening.
“If you can penetrate parliament like this over such a long period of time, then how many other institutions with less [tight] levels of security are being penetrated on a daily basis?”
In an interview with Bloomberg on Monday, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt insisted that "diplomacy is about talking to everyone".
"When you have that dialogue, you are able to talk about the things you disagree about," he said.
"We are a very resilient democracy and we take threats to the functioning of our democracy very, very seriously."
The Chancellor said the government was "confident" that it would be able to keep UK democracy secure.
There have been calls for China to be disinvited from the government’s global AI summit due to take place in November in response to the allegations, but Downing Street did not appear to be preparing to make such a move when briefing reporters on Monday.
A government spokesperson said that James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, was briefed about the arrest of the Commons researcher before his recent visit to China, which was the first visit from a UK foreign secretary in five years.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe