I was 'political football' says UK woman branded a Chinese spy

FILE PHOTO: A view of the Houses of Parliament in London

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) - A woman publicly branded a Chinese spy and a threat to the nation's security by Britain's intelligence agency MI5 says the "politically-motivated" decision had destroyed her life and left her a prisoner in her own home.

In January 2022, the domestic spy agency MI5 sent out an alert notice (IA) about lawyer Christine Lee, alleging she was "involved in political interference activities" in the United Kingdom on behalf of China's ruling Communist Party.

The unprecedented warning, circulated to lawmakers, said Lee had "facilitated financial donations to serving and aspiring parliamentarians on behalf of foreign nationals based in Hong Kong and China".

Lee, along with her son, is now suing the spy agency, arguing it had acted unlawfully. Since the alert was issued she has not spoken publicly, but in a witness statement submitted to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal in London, she said it had ruined her reputation and career.

"In short, I can summarise the issuance of the notice by the Respondent has totally destroyed my life, my family's lives, my business and my business colleague's lives," she said.

Amid a deterioration in relations in recent years, British security chiefs have regularly warned of the threat posed by China, while both London and Beijing have traded spying accusations, with Lee's case one of the most high-profile.

Two Britons, including a former researcher for a prominent British lawmaker, face trial next year on charges of spying for China, while Beijing in June accused a married couple of being British spies.

In her statement, Lee, a British citizen who moved to Britain from Hong Kong in the early 1960s, says she was given no advance warning or details about the allegations against her. She said she had been used as a "political football" to divert attention from the woes of then Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

"I maintain my claim that the IA was only issued against me as a political diversionary tool," she said.

She said her work involved close dealings with both British parliamentarians and Chinese officials, and had included a private meeting with former British prime minister Theresa May in 2019.

MI5 said the alert about Lee been issued on the grounds of national security to protect parliamentary democracy from foreign interference, and had been the most effective means of addressing the risk.

"We dispute and deny that there was any (political) interference," the agency's lawyer Victoria Wakefield told the tribunal.

Lee left the public gallery in tears on Tuesday, the second day of the hearing which has mostly focused on whether MI5 had the authority to issue the alert notice and if it had breached her human rights. The tribunal said it would give its judgment at a later date.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Christina Fincher)