Successive governments have failed to grasp the scale of the threat posed by China, a report by an influential group of MPs has warned, stating that Chinese intelligence is “prolifically and aggressively” targeting the UK and its interests.
In a wide-ranging report the Commons intelligence and security committee (ISC) is scathing about the government’s “completely inadequate” response to the threat of China, saying it had “no strategy” to tackle the problem.
It sparked an immediate row with Rishi Sunak, who insisted that his government was not “complacent” about China. But MPs on the committee branded his response “weak” and accused him of trying to “undermine the committee”.
The ISC also warned that Beijing had been “buying up” control and influence in Britain – condemning successive governments for accepting Chinese money with “few questions asked”.
The dossier, published on Thursday, also said the UK is of “significant interest to China when it comes to espionage and interference” – placing Britain “just below China’s top priority targets” around the world.
It stated: “China’s state intelligence apparatus – almost certainly the largest in the world with hundreds of thousands of civil intelligence officers ... targets the UK and its interests prolifically and aggressively, and presents a challenge for our agencies to cover.”
The committee, chaired by Tory MP Sir Julian Lewis to scrutinise the work of the UK’s intelligence agencies including MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, said China has the “potential to pose an existential threat to the liberal democratic system”.
The report said the government’s approach for dealing with the threat posed by China is “completely inadequate” – with the nation “severely handicapped” by too much focus on short-term economics rather than long-term risks.
The former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith – sanctioned by Beijing – told The Independent that the report was “absolutely damning” and described government policy as a “shambolic mess”.
“It is one of the most damning reports of government security failings that I have read in the 30 years I have been here,” Sir Iain said. “The government has got to pay attention, because they are in a mess. Their China policy is a complete and shambolic mess.”
Senior Tory MP Bob Seely, a leading China hawk, told The Independent: “It basically substantiates everything China-sceptics have been saying. There is a battle of values in the 21st century, between open societies like our own and closed societies like China.”
Responding to the report, Mr Sunak insisted that his government was “not complacent” and would “continue adapting ... to meet the challenge that China presents”.
In a written statement the PM also said: “We are not complacent and we are keenly aware that there is more to do. Wherever China’s actions or intent threaten the national interest, we will continue to take swift action.”
Cabinet minister Grant Shapps said China is “a reality” that Britain cannot “wish away” – saying Beijing was acting like the old British Empire.
The energy secretary told reporters: “They do want to change the world, to operate under their world order. That is no surprise – we did that when we had an empire … I don’t agree with a policy that says let’s just pretend they are not there and exclude them.”
But Mr Shapps also told Tory China hawks that “we do have to accept that this is the world as it is”, adding that the UK should welcome investment from China but not let the country become “part of our critical national infrastructure”.
Security minister Tom Tugendhat said: “We have woken up in time to make the right decisions to protect the British people and that is exactly what we’re doing now,” he said.
Mr Sunak also claimed that the bulk of the committee’s evidence was gathered before the government’s integrated review of 2021 and “refresh” of defence and security policy this year.
But Sir Julian insisted that the group of MPs had been “continually in dialogue” with various agencies and had received quarterly reports.
Committee member Kevan Jones, a senior Labour MP, called Mr Sunak’s response “weak”, and said the claim it was partly out of date showed “the depth to which the government is trying to again undermine the committee”.
The report raises particular concerns about Chinese influence in UK universities – saying the government has shown “very little interest” in warnings from academics, despite being “rich feeding ground” for Beijing.
It warned that China exerts influence over institutions “by leveraging fees and funding, over individual UK academics through inducements and intimidation, over Chinese students by monitoring and controlling, and over think thanks through coercion”.
The report also said it was “unacceptable” for the government to be considering any Chinese involvement in the UK’s civil nuclear industry. China General Nuclear last year exited the Sizewell C nuclear power plant project in Suffolk.
But MPs said serious questions remain about future projects. “The government would be naive to assume that allowing Chinese companies to exert influence over the UK’s civil nuclear and energy sectors is not ceding control to the Chinese Communist Party,” the report said.
“China has been buying up and seeking to control or influence the UK’s industry and energy sector and – until the Covid-19 pandemic – Chinese money was readily accepted by HMG with few questions asked.”
The report also warned that the West is “on a trajectory for the nightmare scenario where China steals blueprints, sets standards and builds products, exerting political and economic influence at every step”.
A senior Whitehall official told The Independent: “The serious problem we faced is that it took a long time for successive UK governments to accept what was going on.
“There was, frankly, complacency – an unwillingness to face up to what was developing. We were falling out of step with our American allies, that became very clear. At the end there was serious alarm at what happened.”
In evidence to MPs, MI5 director general Ken McCallum said the challenge posed by China was “the central intelligence challenge for us across the next decade”.
The Sunak government has characterised the growing influence of China as an “epoch-defining challenge” but some backbench China hawks – including former PM Liz Truss – have pushed for a much stronger stance to counter Beijing’s influence.
Mr Seely called for the government to publish an annual statement on our trade dependency on Beijing. “China is not going to go away. We need to not only understand the nature of the threat but also to act on it,” he said.
Sir Iain said: “We are becoming far too dependent on China economically, and therefore worried about upsetting them, such that the economics of the government trumps any security concerns. That is very dangerous.”
It comes as Foreign Office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said it was “very concerning” to hear reports that China sent a “spy” to infiltrate a Commons event involving Hong Kong campaigners.
Ms Trevelyan said she could not comment on security matters of individuals, adding: “The security of the parliamentary estate is a matter for parliament and I wouldn’t wish to try and answer that one on behalf of Mr Speaker.”
The minister also said the government will formally protest to the Chinese ambassador over attempts by Hong Kong officials to “intimidate and silence” pro-democracy activists.
Ms Trevelyan expressed concerns over the arrests of five individuals in the former British territory. “Any attempt by any foreign power to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in the UK will not be tolerated,” she said.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies