World

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

On Thursday, Britain’s domestic counterintelligence service MI5 issued an “interference alert” about a “potential threat” posed by Christine Cheng-Kui Lee, a lawyer with offices in China and the United Kingdom.

MI5 said the warning said Li “acted secretly” with the CPC’s United Front Action Department to interfere in British politics by developing links with parliamentarians “across the political spectrum” and facilitating donations “on behalf of foreign nationals”.

Lee’s company was announced on a website for the Department of International Trade recently on Friday, before it was taken offline.

CNN has contacted Lee for comment but has not received a response. On Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied that Li had a Chinese “agent” and said Beijing “does not need and will not engage in so-called intervention activities.”

“We urge relevant British officials to refrain from making baseless statements or exaggerating the theory of ‘Chinese threat’ for hidden political purposes,” said Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.

A CNN analysis of Britain’s Parliamentary Register, through which lawmakers recorded donations, showed Lee gave at least 461,000 pounds ($639,000) to Barry Gardiner, an elected member of the opposition Labor Party between 2014 and 2020, Mostly by funding his crew. Her son even worked in his office and had a parliamentary pass.

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

It is not illegal for me to make donations because the UK does not yet have a foreign agent registration law like the US, nor is it illegal for a British national or a foreign national working in the UK to be affiliated with the CCP. Lee is listed as a British citizen on the UK Companies Register.

In a statement to CNN, Gardiner said he has not personally benefited from Lee’s donation in any way. The funds have been properly reported and their provenance verified.

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

Davey told CNN that his local association accepted the donation, that it was properly reported, and that “this was the first time he’s had cause for concern.”

“The government must make protecting democracy in the UK from threats and interference by foreign actors a national security priority,” Davey said.

Lee’s services are advertised on the UK government portal

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

An introduction to the guide says that “this was facilitated by an invitation from the UK government” and that “members are subject to strong vetting procedures for accession”.

“The network provides a forum for government feedback on issues affecting the business environment and ultimately guides efforts to make the UK more business-friendly,” she says.

Lee’s services can still be accessed through the Department for International Trade on Friday via a recently revamped government portal to attract overseas investment to UK projects.

Lee’s ad on the UK website great.gov offered the first hour of free legal advice, as did other listed companies.

The disclaimer on the site states that the department “does not endorse the character, goods, services, or ability of directory members” and that there is no legal relationship between the department and said service providers.

The Department for International Trade said in response to CNN that it had to do “a fair amount of research” on the matter and that the great.gov.uk page no longer exists, even though the site was on the web until Friday’s closing.

“This case demonstrates a catastrophic failure of government scrutiny, and shows extraordinary naivety on the part of government when it comes to the purpose of these kinds of institutions and individuals,” said Luc de Pulford of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China. This is pushing for stricter rules in China.

He said having someone MI5 posted an alert about “advertising their services on the government’s website is really cool and needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible”.

Pictured with Prime Ministers

Li, the former Legal Counsel of the Chinese Embassy in London, has been active in political circles for 15 years.

She first established the British-Chinese Project in 2006 to encourage British citizens of Chinese descent to vote in the UK. From 2011 onwards, she was involved in the now-defunct All-Party Parliamentary Group called Chinese in Britain.

She is pictured 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 has a network of legal, cultural and educational property and ventures in her name.

A copy of a letter sent by the Speaker of the House of Lords in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the UK, and obtained by CNN, said Lee had facilitated the donations “on behalf of foreign nationals residing in Hong Kong and China. This facility was made to conceal the origins of payments”.

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

The Interior Ministry launched a consultation last year on new legislation aimed at strengthening safeguards against hostile state actions. Parliamentary sources told CNN that the bill is expected to be presented to the House of Commons during the first part of this year.

When CNN visited Lee’s law firm in London, in the heart of Soho, it appeared to have been closed for a while due to window dust. It was empty with a notice in the window saying it was closed due to the pandemic. Emails and calls with contact details on the sign were not answered.

In an article it wrote for Britain’s Daily Mail in 2020, the company said: “Christine Lee & Associates is proud of her record of public service and of the support she has given the democratic process. We have never sought to improperly influence any politician or to obtain any favors in exchange for the support we have provided.”

Ian Duncan Smith, the former leader of the ruling Conservative Party and a fierce critic of China, raised the alarm about Lee in Parliament on Thursday, saying that MI5 had warned House Speaker Lindsey Hoyle that a “Chinese government agent” had been active. Work to “sabotage” the parliament process.

“This is a very worrying issue,” he said.

CNN’s Allegra Goodwin contributed to this report.

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