Monday, January 17, 2022

Pictured with PMs, the ‘Chinese agent’ who infiltrated Westminster

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Christine Ching Kui Lee, clutching her purse and grinning while posing for a photograph next to then Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2016, cuts a modest figure. But the 58-year-old lawyer has now been exposed as an alleged Chinese agent – who has been accused by MI5 of attempting to improperly influence MPs on behalf of the country’s ruling Communist Party.

The photo with Corbyn, taken at an event hosted by the Chinese for Labor group, is one of a series of images showing the extent of her ties to figures across Westminster over more than a decade, even starring Theresa May as a she was especially praised as prime minister.

Other pictures show her with David Cameron standing proudly in front of the entrance to No 10 in Downing Street. She was also seen with former Labor MP Tom Watson, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone and Labor MP Barry Gardiner, who received hundreds of thousands of pounds through Lee’s law firm.

Meanwhile, she can be seen in a group with Chinese President Xi Jinping in a 2019 photo.

Lee was brought into the spotlight on Thursday as the subject of a rare alert known as the Security Service Interference Alert (SSIA), issued by Britain’s security services and circulated to parliamentarians by Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle.

“I should highlight the fact that Lee has facilitated financial donations to serving and prospective MPs on behalf of foreigners based in Hong Kong and China,” Sir Lindsay wrote in a cover letter.

“This facilitation was done covertly to disguise the origin of the payments. This is clearly unacceptable behavior and steps are being taken to ensure it stops.”

The SSIA said Lee had been “covertly acting” in coordination with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) United Front Work Department (UFWD). “We believe the UFWD is seeking to covertly meddle in British politics by forging links with established and emerging MPs from across the political spectrum,” it said.

“Lee has worked to encourage monetary donations to political parties, MPs, would-be MPs and individuals seeking political office in the UK, including encouraging donations to political bodies on behalf of foreign nationals.

“Lee has stated publicly that her activities are to represent the Chinese community in the UK and to increase diversity. However, the above activities were carried out in covert coordination with the UFWD, with funding provided by foreign nationals in China and Hong Kong.

“Lee has extensive engagement with individuals across the UK political spectrum, including through the now defunct Chinese in Britain all-party parliamentary group, and may seek to found more APPGs to further the CCP agenda.”

But who is Lee and how did she seem to blend into the Westminster fabric?

Lee married Martin Wilkes, also a lawyer, in 1990 and the couple had two sons. The couple sold their four-bedroom family home in Coleshill, Warwickshire for £680,000 in 2019, which featured an indoor pool and gym. In a property sales brochure, an “Insights to the Seller” section, citing the then-owners, details how they first saw the property in 1996 when they were planning an addition. “Our ‘wow moment’ came when we saw the indoor pool,” it says, adding, “Our kids were young at the time and we knew this would be the perfect family home for us.”

Lee’s law firm based in Birmingham, Christine Lee & Co Solicitors, was registered with Companies House in 1994. Lee and Wilkes are co-owners and she is listed in Companies House as a British national

Her firm’s website states that she has “served the UK community for over 30 years, offering a range of legal services specializing in broad areas of legal work for the benefit of individuals and corporate clients”. A separate profile on a Department of Commerce website shows the law firm advising the Chinese Embassy in London. “We enjoy the trust of the official channels as professionals of Chinese heritage with strong local knowledge of both the UK and China, providing no-nonsense practical advice and solutions,” the profile reads.

Lee founded a group called the British Chinese Project in 2006, which describes itself on its Facebook page as “a non-partisan, volunteer-run organization that seeks to advance the interests of the British Chinese through integration, representation, participation and education”. It sponsored the now defunct all-party parliamentary group, Chinese Britain, and acted as its secretariat.

When May was Prime Minister, she personally commended Lee’s work on the Sino-British project in a commendation, available online today. “You should be very proud of the difference The British Chinese Project is making in fostering engagement, understanding and cooperation between the Chinese and British communities in the UK,” May said, adding, “I wish All the best to you too in your work to promote the inclusion and participation of the British-Chinese people in the UK political system.”

Analysis of MPs’ Financial Interests Register revealed that Lee’s law firm donated more than £500,000 to Brent North MP Gardiner between 2015 and 2020, mostly through funding for his staff. Her son, Daniel Wilkes, was also employed by the MP as his diary secretary until he abruptly resigned on Thursday.

In a statement, Gardiner said he had been “making connections with our security services” about Lee for many years. “You have always known and been fully made aware by me of your dedication to my office and the donations you have made in the past to fund researchers in my office,” he said. “Steps have been taken to ensure that Christine Lee has no role in either the appointment or management of these researchers. You also know that I personally have not benefited in any way from these donations. She stopped funding employees in my office in June 2020.”

The former Labor Secretary later added to Sky News that he personally did not benefit from the money, adding that he was “deeply dismayed” to have been targeted by Lee. “I don’t feel stupid — but I’m very angry, and I’m very angry that someone tried to use me in this way,” he said.

Asked on Sky News if he had held talks on government policy in relation to China, he said: “No, not very detailed… I think she must have felt it was a very bad investment if she hoped to get some of it because I have criticized the Chinese government on many occasions.”

Meanwhile, the Labor Party centrally said it received around £5,000 from Lee’s company in 2016, while several small donations went to local Labor branches.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey also received a £5,000 donation from Lee in 2013 when he was energy secretary in the coalition government, but said the money had been accepted by his local association and was said to be proper.

A spokesman for Lib Dem said Sir Ed was “shocked by these revelations”, adding: “Today’s email from the Speaker of the House of Commons was the first time he has had concerns about a donation to his local party association. ”

In 2014, Lee helped sponsor a Chinese Liberal Democrat dinner to support then-party candidate for Somerton and Frome, Sarah Yong. And in 2008 it funded flights for a four-day trip to Beijing for then Labor MP for Hendon, Andrew Dismore, who was then leader of the Chinese in Britain APPG.

As part of her association with the UFWD, Lee met Chinese President Xi Jinping and was filmed shaking his hand at a conference in 2019. She was featured just a few positions away in an official photo for the 2019 UFWD Overseas Chinese Meeting.

According to an analysis by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the united front system is a network of Chinese parties and state agencies responsible for influencing outside groups. The institute calls the united front an export of the Chinese Community Party and says it “influences politics, compromises media integrity, facilitates espionage and increases uncontrolled technology transfer.”

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