China‘s state intelligence apparatus targets the UK “prolifically and aggressively” but the government in London’s response has been “completely inadequate”, a parliamentary committee said Thursday.
“The UK is of significant interest to China when it comes to espionage and interference, given our close relationship with the United States, membership of international bodies and the perception of the UK as an opinion-former,” said the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC).
“It is China’s global ambition to become a technological and economic superpower, on which other countries are reliant, that represents the greatest risk to the UK,” it added.
“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.”
The committee’s “Report on China” looked into the national security threat from China broadly, and then specifically in relation to academia, industry and technology, and civil nuclear energy.
It concluded that China “seeks to influence elites and decision-makers” and “to acquire information and Intellectual Property using covert and overt methods”.
Beijing uses its “prolific” human intelligence capabilities and “increasingly sophisticated” cyber-espionage operation to achieve its goals, said the ISC.
The report was published a day after computer giant Microsoft said Chinese-based hackers seeking intelligence information breached the email accounts of a number of US government agencies.
Earlier this week, Australian lawmakers were told that networks of fake Facebook accounts run from China were “evolving” and adopting new tactics to sow discord overseas.
Last year, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5 warned that a Chinese spy had infiltrated parliament to interfere in UK politics.
This week, British media reported fears that a Chinese spy tried to infiltrate a meeting involving lawmakers and Hong Kong dissidents.
The ISC report highlighted China’s “whole-of-state” approach as a particular problem for the UK, whose government has been under pressure to take a tougher stance against Beijing.
Despite disagreements over issues such as rights in Hong Kong and the treatment of Uyghur Muslims, London instead argues that Western countries should work in partnership with the Asian superpower.
The report stated: “Chinese state-owned and non-state-owned companies, as well as academic and cultural establishments and ordinary Chinese citizens, are liable to be (willingly or unwillingly) co-opted into espionage and interference operations overseas.”
Much of China’s impact on the UK’s national security had been overt, by leveraging its economic might, by takeovers and mergers and through its interactions with academia.
“China’s size, ambition and capability have enabled it to successfully penetrate every sector of the UK’s economy,” said the report.
While some of its attempts to exert influence were legitimate, the ISC accused China of “overstepping the boundary”.
“It has been particularly effective at using its money and influence to penetrate or buy academia in order to ensure its international narrative is advanced and criticism suppressed,” it warned.
Beijing’s efforts to shape international narratives could be seen in its response to the pandemic, where it “sowed seeds of doubt about the origins of the virus and greatly exaggerating its work to counter it,” it added.
The committee, which oversees the UK intelligence community, called on the government to take more coordinated action against the threat.
“The level of resource dedicated to tackling the threat posed by China’s whole-of-state approach has been completely inadequate,” it added.