While the focus of the international community has been on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is China that poses the most dangerous long-term threat to the security of the West, MI5 and FBI leaders have warned.
They have accused Beijing of conducting a vast, secret economic and political offensive that is looting billions of pounds’ worth of advanced technology, trying to influence elections, and infiltrating academia.
Ken McCallum, director-general of MI5, said that while the US and UK “strain every sinew to support Ukraine in resisting appalling aggression” another great threat is looming.
“The most game-changing challenge we face comes from an increasingly authoritarian Chinese Communist party. It’s covertly applying pressure across the globe… We need to talk about it. We need to act,” he declared.
Mr McCallum revealed that his service has had to double operations investigating China’s illicit activities while being stretched by threats from the Kremlin, and both Islamist and far-right terrorism.
“Today we are running seven times as many investigations as we were in 2018. We plan to grow as much again,” he said.
Speaking alongside FBI director Christopher Wray, Mr McCallum also disclosed that 50 Chinese students linked to the country’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) have been forced to leave Britain in the last three years after being suspected of exploiting “research” to gain “cutting edge national security advantage”.
He continued: “The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) doesn’t just use intelligence officers posing as diplomats. Privileged information is gathered on multiple channels, in what is sometimes referred to as the ‘thousand grains of sand’ strategy.”
He referred to an ‘Interference Alert’ earlier this year warning that an alleged Chinese agent had infiltrated parliament to interfere in the political system. The service said Christine Ching Kui Lee, who ran a legal firm, had “established links” for the CCP with current and aspiring MPs.
Mr McCallum said the United Front Work Department (UFWD) – part of the CCP and once described by Mao Zedong as a “magic weapon” – ran “patient, well-funded, deceptive campaigns to buy and exert influence… aiming to amplify pro-CCP voices and silence those that question the CCP’s legitimacy or authority.”
Giving an example of individuals being targeted, Mr McCallum spoke of a British aviation expert who had been approached online and offered an attractive job opportunity. The man travelled to China twice to be ‘wined and dined’ before being asked for technical information on military aircraft by a company that was actually a front for Chinese intelligence officers. “That’s where we stepped in,” said Mr McCallum.
Mr Wray said China “has for far too long counted on being everybody’s second-highest priority,” adding: “They are not flying under the radar anymore.”
He described the challenge from Beijing as “immense” and “breathtaking”.
China’s military threat, he said, could lead to global commercial meltdown. “There’s been a lot of discussion about the potential that China may try to forcibly take over Taiwan,” he said. “Were that to happen, it would represent one of the most horrific business disruptions the world has ever seen.”
Beijing is drawing “all sorts of lessons” from Russia’s war in Ukraine, he said, including attempting to insulate itself from the impact of any future sanctions. If China did invade Taiwan, Western investments in China would be seized and supply chains disrupted.
“I don’t have any reason to think their interest in Taiwan has abated in any fashion,” Mr Wray stressed.
There is also massive covert aggression, Mr Wray said, from China’s “lavishly-backed hacking programme that’s bigger than that of every major country combined,” adding: “The Chinese government sees cyber as the pathway to cheat and steal on a massive scale.”
While Russia was accused of interfering in the US election to secure victory for Donald Trump, US intelligence agencies have also stated that China has also been actively involved in political interference.
Mr Wray described how Beijing had directly interfered in a Congressional election in New York this spring because they did not want a former protester at Tiananmen Square to be elected. The regime hired a private investigator to dig up derogatory information about the candidate and, unable to find anything, there were efforts to manufacture a controversy using a sex worker and even suggestions of a physical attack by staging a car accident.