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By UK Sport

Government Confirms Two Cyber Attacks Linked to Chinese State Affiliated Actors

Oliver Dowden addressed the House of Commons on Monday (Alamy)

6 min read

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden has criticised "malign" cyber attacks made by China-state affiliated actors, which he said had targeted UK institutions in two separate attacks.

Dowden told the House of Commons that Beijing was behind a slew of attacks on peers and MPs. He said the UK along with the Five Eyes partnership – made up of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US and UK – had found two cyber campaigns targeting democratic institutions and parliamentarians.

The Deputy Prime Minister told the House it was an “absolute priority” for the UK Government to protect Britain's democratic system and values.

“I hope this statement helps to build wider awareness of how politicians and those involved in our democratic processes around the world are being targeted by state-sponsored cyber operations,” he said.

“We will continue to call out this activity, holding the Chinese government accountable for its actions.”

Dowden told MPs the Government did not accept that China's relationship with the United Kingdom is set on a "predetermined course". He said the Government would "continue to hold China and other state actors accountable for their actions".

"We will engage with the Chinese government, but we will not hesitate to take swift and robust actions wherever the Chinese government threatens the United Kingdom's interests," he said.

The government said between 2021-22 the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which is part of GCHQ, found there was a high probability the Electoral Commission was targeted by Chinese state-affiliated actors. However, it said this had not affected any of the UK’s electoral processes.

The NCSC has suggested it was also certain the China state-affiliated APT31 – an advanced persistent threat group – targeted a number of MPs in 2021. The vast majority of those MPs and peers could be described as China hawks who have been very critical of the state.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in response sanctioned the company and two actors involved in the operations of APT31 on Monday. The second was looking into parliamentary accounts. The government confirmed none of the members who it looked at were compromised.

Partners across the Indo-Pacific and Europe are expected to express solidarity with the UK’s efforts to call out malicious cyber activities targeting democratic institutions and electoral processes.

Foreign secretary Lord Cameron is set to address Tory backbenchers at the 1922 Committee on Monday evening. He is expected to face questions on China and the UK’s relationship with it from those critical of the state. Prior to the meeting Lord Cameron said it was “completely unacceptable” that China state-affiliated organisations and individuals have targeted our democratic institutions and political processes.

“I raised this directly with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and we have today sanctioned two individuals and one entity involved with the China state-affiliated group responsible for targeting our parliamentarians,” he said.

“We will always defend ourselves from those who seek to threaten the freedoms that underpin our values and democracy. One of the reasons that it is important to make this statement is that other countries should see the detail of threats that our systems and democracies face.”

Cameron has been criticised for being too relaxed on the UK’s relationship with China. When he was prime minister he said the UK and China were about to step in to a “golden era” of relations.

Earlier on Monday a press conference was held by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, Tory MP Tim Loughton and Scottish National Party MP Stewart McDonald to address the ongoing threat of China, Duncan Smith said he believed China should be formally classed as a threat. This would require putting China in a Foreign Influence Registration Scheme, which gives assurance to Government on the activities of foreign powers.

The press conference was held after it was reported China had stepped up cyber attacks on UK democratic institutions, peers and MPs. 

Duncan Smith said the UK Government should learn the lessons from the 1930s that “appeasement never works”. This was a reference to UK foreign policy under former prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who tried to avoid war with Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany prior to World War Two. 

“The behaviour of the Chinese government has gone unchecked and we have been too passive here in the West, particularly here in the UK, as Beijing's overseas influence operations have rapidly expanded,” he said.

“Turning a blind eye to what the Intelligence and Security Committee termed penetration of every sector of the UK economy. There is a debate within the UK Government, we understand, over whether or not China should be in the enhanced tier of the new foreign influence registration scheme.”

Duncan Smith, who has persistently criticised human rights abuses in China, and has subsequently been sanctioned by the foreign state, said MPs had faced “harassment, impersonation and attempted hacking from China for some time”. He said malign actors had used a fake email address under his name, and contacted senior politicians around the world to renounce his views and beliefs on the Chinese state. 

The UK economy is particularly intertwined with the Chinese economy. According to a House of Lords report, it found that China was the UK's fourth largest trading partner – accounting to 6.5 per cent of UK trade. 

Despite this, the UK does not feature in China's top five trading partners. They include the US, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korean and Vietnam, according to data from the World Bank. 

Duncan Smith said multinational businesses such as Apple had begun to pull out of China as he believed many were worried they were in danger of getting their intellectual property stolen.

“This is only damaging to China at the end of the day, so we should stand up, call them what they are,” he said.

Loughton added that he believed it was not “helpful” or “appropriate” for MPs to travel to China where a number of MPs have been sanctioned. James Cleverly, when he was foreign secretary, visited China in August 2023. He said at the time no "significant" global problem could be tackled without China's input. 

McDonald added that politics had “so much catching up to do” in distancing its relations from the Chinese state.

“Industry, and business is further ahead than government and politics in general, we're already seeing de-risking or decoupling,” he said.

“Government badly needs to catch up, because not only will this keep happening, it will get worse and worse and worse. And we can't let that happen.”

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