The British government has rejected calls to officially label China a threat to its interests. Several lawmakers have called for a tougher line from the government after it was revealed that a researcher in the British parliament was arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing.

Spying suspects

British police detained two men in March on suspicion of breaking Britain’s Official Secrets Act. The arrests came to light this week, when the Sunday Times newspaper reported that one of the suspects was a researcher in the British parliament with connections to several prominent members of the ruling Conservative Party, including government ministers.

In a statement posted online Monday by his lawyers, the researcher — whom VOA is choosing not to name because he had not been charged — said he was innocent.

“I have spent my career to date trying to educate others about the challenge and threats presented by the Chinese Communist Party. To do what has been claimed against me in extravagant news reporting would be against everything I stand for,” the statement said.

Diplomatic response

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak raised the incident with Chinese Premier Li Qiang at last week’s G20 summit in India. Speaking to lawmakers Monday, Sunak said he would defend British democracy.

“The whole House is rightly appalled about reports of espionage in this building,” Sunak said. “The sanctity of this place must be protected and the right of members to speak their minds without fear or sanction must be maintained. We will defend our democracy and our security. So, I was emphatic with Premier Li that actions which seek to undermine British democracy are completely unacceptable and will never be tolerated,” Sunak added.

However, the prime minister did not say that Britain would officially recognize China as a threat to its interests.

Beijing, meanwhile, said the allegations of spying were a fabrication. “We urge the U.K. to stop spreading false information and stop its anti-China political manipulation and malicious slander,” Mao Ning, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told reporters Monday in Beijing.

Security threat

Critics say Britain must be more critical of China, following a series of allegations over security breaches, including the harassment of exiled pro-democracy activists in the U.K. and the establishment of overseas police stations on British soil. Beijing denies those allegations.

Finn Lau helped to organize pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019. After his arrest by Chinese police, the 29-year-old fled to Britain. He suffered serious injuries following an attack in a London street in 2020, which he blames on supporters of the Chinese Communist Party. Earlier this year, Hong Kong authorities issued a bounty of $128,000 for his arrest, along with several other exiled activists.

Lau told VOA he has repeatedly requested meetings with the British government to discuss the security threat but has so far been refused.

“I would say that there is some kind of lack of coherent approach, or even China policy at the moment — especially regarding national security or some kind of threat overseas,” Lau told VOA.

That view has been echoed by several British lawmakers. Former Prime Minister Liz Truss is among Conservative Party members calling on the government to officially recognize China as a threat to Britain.

“These are extremely worrying reports about the level of infiltration of Chinese-supported forces into our democracy. … What we need to do is to recognize that China is the largest threat, both to the world and to the United Kingdom, for freedom and democracy,” Truss told lawmakers Monday.

Economic ties

The British government describes China as a challenge to its interests, but not a threat.

Speaking to reporters Monday during a visit to the BMW Mini car factory in Oxford, Britain’s business secretary, Kemi Badenoch, said economic ties could be at risk.

“We cannot describe China as foes. They are our fourth-largest trading partner. There are many businesses, not least of all the very one I’m standing in, which are integrated with the Chinese economy. Many jobs are reliant on it,” Badenoch said.

Activist Finn Lau says that reliance is overstated. “China only accounts for 6.1% of total trade volume in the U.K. We should focus on diversifying our trading relationships, starting from today,” he told VOA.

Both of the suspects arrested in March were released on bail. The police investigation is continuing.