Two U.K.-based activists have described troubling interactions with a researcher in the British parliament who was arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing.
The 28-year-old suspect, whose name has been withheld by British police because he has not been formally charged, worked in the China Research Group in Westminster as a researcher and had a parliamentary pass. He has insisted on his innocence and is currently free on bail.
Finn Lau, a Hong Kong human rights activist currently in the U.K. and wanted by the Hong Kong authorities, told VOA Mandarin he had an unusual coffee meeting with the suspect, who initially expressed support for Lau’s work.
But when Lau mentioned plans to counter the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in British politics and raised objections to a sister-city partnership between cities in the two countries, the man suddenly said that he was busy and left in a hurry, Lau recounted.
Lau said he made repeated attempts to continue communication with the man but received no response to his emails. “I was very shocked when I saw his name in the newspaper,” Lau said.
The suspect also left a strongly negative impression on Luke de Pulford, the founder and executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), an international cross-party group of legislators that urges their governments to take a tougher approach to China.
Writing on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, de Pulford said the suspect “had an impact upon the China debate in the U.K. Parliament. He made my job harder. He hated @ipacglobal and worked to cleave people away from the IPAC network.”
De Pulford wrote in a series of posts that the suspect “briefed very strongly against some politicians in our network, and against me personally. … Privately, he was vicious – telling journalists that I was ‘dangerous’ and ‘not to be trusted on China.'”
De Pulford described the suspect as “an authoritative and knowledgeable voice” and incredibly clever.
“He hid behind a visage of ‘reasoned hawkishness,'” de Pulford wrote, describing the treatment of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province as “terrible” but then seeking to minimize the horror.
“Using this kind of argument he blunted the unity of the parliamentary campaign,” de Pulford wrote. “You could go as far as to say that he divided the China hawks. He was rhetorically very sophisticated. Never pushed it too far. Used his credentials deftly and reasonably.”
Reports of the researcher’s arrest have prompted questions about the level of security in the British Parliament and whether individuals are adequately vetted before being hired into sensitive positions.
David Moore, a policy researcher in the House of Commons, told VOA Mandarin the vetting process for obtaining a parliamentary pass is “relatively thorough. They ask for your previous addresses, charges and convictions. In theory, it’s quite a strong system. But the question is, how far do they delve into that? My concern is they might just be rubber-stamping applications without a genuine review.”
Moore pointed out potential security threats. “Anyone can walk into the Parliament and go to a committee room. One can easily sneak off, or even worse, personnel can let in visitors, posing national security risks. Anyone with a parliamentary pass has quite a bit of power.”
David Alton, a member of the House of Lords, called it “deeply disturbing” that parliamentary passes had been issued to an alleged Chinese Communist Party spy, enabling him to have full access to the parliamentary estate.
He told VOA Mandarin in an email, “This, in turn, gives them access to confidential information, provides an opportunity to influence Members and staff, and to subvert the workings of Parliament.”
He said, historically, the failure to detect the penetration of spies from hostile states resulted in a dilution of trust by Britain’s allies and deterred them from talking to senior members of Parliament.
However, Isabel Hilton, a Scottish journalist and founder of the China Dialogue Trust, told VOA Mandarin in an email: “We do not have much evidence about the alleged breach, but given that the suspect was arrested in March, then released on police bail, I conclude that he was not regarded either as a flight risk or a national security risk.”
“This researcher had no access to classified information,” Hilton continued. “If he was reporting to Beijing, it would have been information about how [members of Parliament] were thinking about China and what they were doing.
“At best, he could have reported on internal conversations. Clearly all pass-holders should be vetted, as I believe they are, and if these allegations are substantiated, there should perhaps be closer coordination between different branches of the security services.”