China ‘targeting current and former civil servants’, ministers admit

Report accepts more resources are needed to combat Beijing’s “prolific” intelligence collection

By Jim Dunton

18 Sep 2023

Ministers have acknowledged the scale of the threat posed to UK security by Chinese intelligence-gathering – and in particular attempts to target civil servants and former officials.

A report to members of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee said security service MI5 is now running seven times as many investigations into Chinese activity compared with 2018 “and plans to grow further”.

The report said China poses a “systemic challenge” to the UK’s security, prosperity, and values and described Beijing’s human-intelligence collection as “prolific”.

“The intelligence community is acutely aware and vigilant regarding China’s targeting of current and former civil servants and a range of mitigations are in place in order to minimise the risk,” the report to the ISC said.

“A robust personnel vetting regime is in place to ensure the identification and management of risks arising from staff with access to sensitive government assets and intelligence. Those with security clearance are re-vetted throughout their careers.

“This re-vetting aims to ensure that those who may be susceptible to pressure or improper influence – or who may even actively seek to act on behalf of a foreign intelligence service – are identified.”

The observations came in a 15,000-word response to the ISC’s China report, which was published in July. They also came just days after it emerged that a parliamentary researcher had been arrested on suspicion of gathering intelligence for China earlier in the year.

The ISC report said government and the security community had been slow to act in countering the multi-faceted threats posed by China and that focus was still “dominated” by short-term or acute threats.

Committee members said there appeared to have been a “revolving door” between the government and telecoms giant Huawei. They also voiced “serious concerns” about the opportunity for espionage posed by Chinese involvement in the UK’s civil nuclear sector.

Members said the UK was now “playing catch-up” and the whole of government had its work cut out to understand and counter the threat from China.

“The government must adopt a longer-term planning cycle in regards to the future security of the UK if it is to face Chinese ambitions, which are not reset every political cycle,” committee members said.

They added: “Responsibility for addressing the more overt aspects of the threat seems to rest with Whitehall policy departments: however, there is no evidence that those departments have the necessary resources, expertise or knowledge of the threat to counter China’s approach.”

The official response to the report, which was published on Thursday, said ministers recognised that “further investment in capabilities” was needed to ensure the UK has the tools, expertise and knowledge to respond to the “systemic challenge” that China poses the nation’s security, prosperity, and values.

It said this year’s refresh of the Integrated Review – known as IR2023 – had taken “the first steps towards this” through increased funding funding for a government-wide programme, investing more in Mandarin language training and “deepening diplomatic, and wider, expertise”.

The response said “decisive steps” were being taken to stop active targeting and recruitment of British individuals with sensitive knowledge and experience.

"The government recognises that Chinese recruitment schemes have tried to headhunt British and allied nationals in key positions and with sensitive knowledge and experience, including from government, military, industry and wider society,” it said. “As the committee notes, there is more work to be done.”

The response added: “Civil servants are educated on the risks posed by hostile intelligence services, so they can best protect themselves and identify suspicious behaviour.

“A strong security culture is ingrained across the civil service through regular training and awareness campaigns on good security practice. Safeguards are in place to ensure sensitive material is protected and only accessed by those who need to see it.”

The official response cited the Cabinet Office’s GovAssure cyber-assurance regime, Advisory Committee on Business Appointments rules for former officials and ministers, and an app created to help users of networking sites identify fake profiles as other safeguards.

The “Think Before You Link” app was launched last year and makes it easier for users of sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook to spot fake profiles used by so-called “malicious actors”, including those from the Chinese intelligence services.

On Friday, Home Office minister Chris Philp told Times Radio there was a need for extreme vigilance in relation to job offers from some Chinese organisations.

He said: “I think individuals who have worked in the public sector, whether a civil servant, in the military, or frankly people who have been involved in politics as well, need to be, I would say to put it mildly, exceptionally cautious, and frankly should not really, in my view, be working with sort of organs of the Chinese state after they leave public service.”

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