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Neighbourhood Watch: The Chinese Security Dilemma

Be careful not to sign any pro-Tibet petitions near Regents Park in London.  The Chinese Embassy is on the corner of Portland and Weymouth, and if you don’t think the ‘pro-Tibet activists’ head back inside after a day collecting names, you haven’t been reading enough of Ben Macintyre’s espionage books.

Huawei’s main UK offices in Reading
Huawei’s main UK offices in Reading. Image source.

Espionage from an ‘increasingly authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’ is the ‘most game-changing challenge’ we face, according to the Director General of MI5, Ken McCallum.

The UK Government is still addressing recent revelations of Chinese espionage.  There is the traditional spy stuff like theft and access agents, but increasingly soft espionage, like research that is used for ulterior purposes.  A report from CIVITAS found that British universities are, or have been, unintentionally generating research that may be of use to China’s military conglomerates, including those with activities in producing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and hypersonic weapons.

There are close to 140,000 Chinese students in UK universities.  This is an issue because of China’s National Intelligence Law.  The law allows the CCP to compel cooperation from Chinese citizens in intelligence matters.  You can ignore MI5 if they ask you to spy on others in the UK.  You are not legally obligated to help them.  But this is not possible for the Chinese population even outside of China.  Nations must not eye Chinese students with suspicion. Still, they should not pretend that the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) will not force some students to cooperate in international espionage.

When we combine an understanding of the Chinese national intelligence law with recent revelations of Chinese overseas police stations, we can build a picture of how serious this is.  The report reveals how overseas police track families in China to exert pressure on their citizens abroad.  Chinese students in the UK can be press-ganged into becoming access agents, where they are used to find long-term potential sources for intelligence benefit.

Map of publicly documented Chinese overseas police service centres
Map of publicly documented Chinese overseas police service centres.1

Previous US administrations quizzed the UK about its relationship with China and its critical national infrastructure.  Chinese firms are large investors and owners of the UK’s future nuclear power solution and have been since a 2014 policy of cooperation.  Whilst in recent years, the UK has tried to distance itself from the state-owned China General Nuclear (CGN), this is a slow tide to turn.

The telecom infrastructure of the UK has been a hot topic over the past three years.  Clouds of suspicion around the Chinese telecom giant Huawei led to the UK Government planning to phase them out of its telecom infrastructure by 2027.  Chinese technology is so pervasive that two companies, Hikvision and Dahua, account for most of the British Government’s CCTV cameras.  UK agencies are removing this tech from their operations, but worryingly, this is a recent move. 

The UK’s overall change in posture towards China has attracted criticism from the Chinese Government, but enforcing national security does not have to be hostile.  China remains the UK’s third largest trading partner, and the value of this trade has grown 99% from £47bn in 2012 to £93bn in 2021.  The UK economy does not have the depth required to ostracise China by responding to their intelligence collection as dramatically as other nations.  Poor implementation of any new counter-China policies could sour relations, so this must be done with thought and, where possible, evidence.

Map of AWE Burghfield and Huawei UK HQ showing 2km distance between them
Chinese-owned telecommunications and UK nuclear development : like peas in a pod

In the US, Chinese citizens and businesses have been revealed to be purchasing farmland next door to a US military base that flies the Global Hawk UAV.  Signal and imagery intelligence can be collected easily from such close locations.  Huawei’s HQ in the UK is just down the road from Thames Water, Cisco, Thales and other organisations that are woven into the fabric of defence, healthcare, and national infrastructure.  Also, it overlooks the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the site where the UK makes and stores its nuclear weapon components.  This is to say nothing of the Chinese investment properties that overlook Faslane or planned Chinese integration into HS2.

This does not mean that anything is going on or that the people who work there are trying to spy on the UK, but there is a concern that companies like Hikvision or Huawei legally must aid Chinese intelligence agencies when told to do so.

So What?

In response to espionage fears, the Texas Senate is voting on two laws that would ban people with ties to four countries (China, Iran, North Korea and Russia) from purchasing real estate or property in the state.  This proposed regulation has come across as racist fearmongering to many, but it is also inevitable when such issues remain unaddressed at the national level.  James Palmers at Foreign Policy comments that this could be solved with careful regulation, but countries must start to make these regulations.

The British Government acknowledges this, and despite not publicly opposing CGN’s involvement in UK nuclear energy, it has taken policy steps to reduce it.  However, global academic and intellectual property theft by China remains a significant problem, as do persistent cyber threats.  If untreated, the UK will see a continued erosion of its academic and scientific capability, which the government has placed an enormous reliance on.

A way forward

The UK must be careful to mitigate espionage in its institutions and society but also not make an enemy who remains an increasingly important economic and trade partner.  It is not practicable to cut China out of the UK, but it is possible to:

  • Maintain tighter control over approved government contractors, 
  • Conduct due diligence on investors, and;
  • Have a security-first mindset. 

In general, education is the first step in mitigating this issue, but it must also be officially acknowledged and addressed.  China is heavily targeting industrial secrets and intellectual property across the West, to say nothing of other obtuse spycraft mechanisms — like balloons. 

This is not racial prejudice; it is a security reality.

The British Government may have forgotten what it already knew in 2013.  A decade ago, the Intelligence and Security Committee warned of China in an analysis of all Foreign Direct Investment and the risks of building our adversaries into our critical national infrastructure.  It is time to reexamine this assessment. 

China is a part of the economic puzzle, perhaps more so today than in 2014— when we viewed them as partners in nuclear energy—instead of adversaries in national security.  No one could predict how China-UK relations would develop over the past ten years, and we must avoid criticism of optimistic international agreements.  There is nothing wrong in principle with making friends and international cooperation as we all strive towards prosperity.  Still, when it comes to national security, perhaps this is best done only with our trusted friends, or by ourselves. 

Cover photo by Lianhao Qu on Unsplash


1.  Safeguard Defenders (2022). Available at https://safeguarddefenders.com/sites/default/files/pdf/110%20Overseas%20%28v5%29.pdf. Accessed 18 February 2023.

Author Alex Archer
Alexander Archer

Alexander Shane Archer is a former Intelligence Officer who now works in geopolitical consulting in the Middle East. He still offers intellectual and nuanced insight into military and international issues to anyone at the till in Waitrose who will listen. Connect with him on Linkedin and check out some of his articles on medium.

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