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U.K. Parliament researcher arrested on suspicion of spying for China. What we know

Click to play video: 'LeBlanc explains decision to include countries outside China in foreign interference inquiry'
LeBlanc explains decision to include countries outside China in foreign interference inquiry
WATCH - LeBlanc explains decision to include countries outside China in foreign interference inquiry – Sep 7, 2023

British police have arrested a U.K. Parliament researcher on suspicion of spying for China as accusations of Beijing’s interference in Western nations continue to swirl.

Over the weekend, London’s Metropolitan Police said two men were arrested in March under Britain’s Official Secrets Act and had been released on police bail until early October.

Neither has been charged, but The Sunday Times reported that the younger man was a parliamentary researcher who worked with senior Conservative Party lawmakers and held a pass that allowed full access to the Parliament buildings.

Click to play video: 'Former Canadian Conservative leader targeted by China'
Former Canadian Conservative leader targeted by China

The spying allegation is the latest blow to relations with Beijing that have been strained by tensions over security, investment and human rights.

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Here is what we know so far.

Reaction swift

While not much is known beyond The Sunday Times report, reaction to the development has been swift.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Sunday he had raised his concerns during a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Qiang at a G20 summit in India.

Sunak said he was limited in what he could say about an ongoing investigation, but told reporters he had raised “his very strong concerns about any interference in our parliamentary democracy, which is obviously unacceptable,” with Li.

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Trudeau reacts after China expels Canadian diplomat in retaliation amid alleged threats to MP: ‘We will not be intimidated’

Sunak said he raised areas where there are disagreements, but the meeting showed the value of the strategy of engaging “where it makes sense.”

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A Chinese readout from the meeting did not mention the spying allegation but welcomed Britain’s expanded practical co-operation with China, adding Li had said that “the two sides should properly handle their differences.”

However, the Chinese embassy in the U.K. responded to the arrests, saying the allegations were made up and that China firmly opposed them.

Click to play video: 'Canadians being ‘coerced’ by China into spying on community members'
Canadians being ‘coerced’ by China into spying on community members

“The so-called claim that China is suspected of ‘stealing British intelligence’ is completely fabricated and malicious slander,” the embassy said on its website, urging relevant parties to stop anti-China political manipulation and “self-directed political farce.”

The researcher, whom police have not publicly named, maintained in a statement released by his lawyers Monday that he is “completely innocent.”

“I feel forced to respond to the media accusations that I am a ‘Chinese spy’. It is wrong that I should be obliged to make any form of public comment on the misreporting that has taken place,” the man said.

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Canada talked with U.K. about interference: LeBlanc

Canada, which will begin probing allegations of foreign interference through a public inquiry, has had talks with the U.K. over the issue, Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said last Thursday.

LeBlanc justified the conversation for the scope of the public inquiry, which will examine not only China, but also Russia as well as other state and non-state actors.

“This is a global challenge for democracies. China is not the only country that seeks to interfere in an inappropriate way,” he said.

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Canada’s military on ‘downward spiral’ as China, Russia threats loom: MacKay

China’s embassy in Canada did not welcome the news of the inquiry.

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“On Sept. 7, the Canadian Government announced the launch of a public inquiry into foreign interference by China and other countries, and continued to hype up the lies of the so-called ‘China’s interference in Canada’s internal affairs.’ China strongly deplores and firmly opposes this,” an embassy spokesperson told Global News last Friday.

“China urges the Canadian side to abandon its ideological bias, stop hyping up China-related lies and false information, stop misleading the public and stop undermining China-Canada relations. Otherwise, Canada will have to bear the consequences.”

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U.S. recovers key sensors from suspected Chinese spy balloon

Foreign interference has been a persistent issue in Ottawa this year amid reporting on allegations of Chinese meddling in Canada from The Globe and Mail and Global News.

As stories broke, so did revelations that Beijing attempted to target sitting politicians, including Canadian Conservative MP Michael Chong.

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In May, the federal government confirmed a Globe and Mail report that CSIS had information in 2021 that Beijing was looking at ways to intimidate Chong and his relatives in Hong Kong.

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China says U.S. flew more than 10 high-altitude balloons over Chinese airspace

China has denied the allegations that it targeted Chong after the MP voted in February 2021 in favour of a motion in the House of Commons condemning China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority as a genocide.

The spat led to both nations expelling diplomats in a tit-for-tat move and prompted a policy change for CSIS to inform MPs of threats, no matter how serious.

Chong will testify about the matter to the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China on Tuesday.

U.K. spy services wary of Beijing

U.K. spy services have sounded warnings about Beijing’s covert activities.

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In November 2022, the head of the MI5 domestic intelligence agency, Ken McCallum, said “the activities of the Chinese Communist Party pose the most game-changing strategic challenge to the U.K.”

Foreign intelligence chief Richard Moore of MI6 said in July that China was his agency’s “single most important strategic focus.”

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In January 2022, MI5 issued a rare public alert, saying a London-based lawyer was trying to “covertly interfere in U.K. politics” on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.

The agency alleged attorney Christine Lee was acting in coordination with the Chinese ruling party’s United Front Work Department, an organization known to exert Chinese influence abroad.

Alex Younger, the former chief of British foreign intelligence agency MI6, has said the U.K.’s relationship with China is complicated.

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Why is China using a spy balloon in the age of advanced technology?

“We’ve got to find ways of engaging with it, and find ways of co-operating with it in important areas like climate change, and sometimes we have to be absolutely prepared to confront it when we believe that our security interests are threatened,” Younger told the BBC.

“In my experience, just being nice to them doesn’t get you very far,” he added.

— with files from The Associated Press and Reuters

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