UK imposes sanctions after Chinese-backed cyber-attacks

The UK government has formally accused China of being behind what it called "malicious" cyber campaigns against MPs and the Electoral Commission.

Two people and a company have been sanctioned over cyber-attacks.

Deputy PM Oliver Dowden said they were behind attempts to access details of MPs critical of Beijing, as well as the data of potentially 40 million voters.

The Chinese embassy in the UK says these are "completely unfounded" claims amounting to "malicious slander".

The two Chinese nationals sanctioned by the UK are Zhao Guangzong and Ni Gaobin and the company is Wuhan Xiaoruizhi Science and Technology Company Ltd, said by the British government to work for the China state-affiliated cyber espionage group Advanced Persistent Threat Group 31 (APT31).

The UK sanctions will freeze assets, barring UK citizens and businesses from handling their funds or resources. A travel ban will also prevent them from entering or remaining in the UK.

"The UK will not tolerate malicious cyber activity," Mr Dowden said. "It is an absolute priority for the UK government to protect our democratic system and values."

The Chinese ambassador is being called in to be held "to account for China's conduct in these incidents", Mr Dowden added.

The US has announced that the same two Chinese nationals are among a group of seven facing criminal charges of conspiracy to commit computer intrusions and conspiracy to commit wire fraud in New York.

Authorities in New Zealand have also accused China of targeting its parliamentary network in 2021, with the country's defence minister Judith Collins saying the Chinese state-sponsored group known as APT40 was behind the hacking activity.

But New Zealand said it would not introduce sanctions, as it was not part of the government's legislative agenda.

The cyber attack on the UK Electoral Commission between August 2021 and October 2022 was one of the most significant in British history.

Not only were databases containing names and addresses of people accessed, but also sensitive emails from its "control systems" and between election officials over six by-elections.

However, Mr Dowden said the security of elections had not been compromised and "typically does not create a risk to those affected".

'Watershed moment'

The MPs targeted are all members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which scrutinises, and often criticises, the activities of Beijing.

Former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former minister Tim Loughton and the SNP's Stewart McDonald all faced harassment, failed hacks and impersonations by groups seeking to influence foreign dignitaries.

Mr McDonald said the response from the UK was like turning up to a "gun fight with a wooden spoon".

All three MPs are calling for the UK to go further and send a clear message, designating China "a threat".

Sir Iain called for more sanctions against Chinese government actors, describing the deputy prime minister's statement as "like an elephant giving birth to a mouse".

But he also called the announcement "a watershed moment where the UK takes a stand for human rights and an international rules-based system".

He said a combative proponent of the Chinese government, known as a "wolf warrior", had been sending emails impersonating him and falsely suggesting he had altered his views on Beijing.

China should be placed in the "enhanced tier" of the new foreign influence registration scheme, which would increase scrutiny on Chinese government-backed operations in the UK.

Sir Iain said: "The West has to wake up to the fact this is a challenge to the very way that we live our lives.

"To our belief in democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of worship. These are the things that we hold dear, but we seem reluctant to want to defend those against the others who hold none of those virtues and values and want to take ours from us."

Sir Iain and Mr Loughton were among among nine UK citizens sanctioned by China over exposing human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority group.

Mr Loughton warned China was "in the business of trying to influence elections and democracies as well".

He said: "We need much more robust action to show China that this is absolutely unacceptable and there are consequences and those consequences will be followed through. But at the moment, they're not."

Government concern

Labour said it would support the government to counter state actors trying to "interfere with or undermine the electoral process".

Mr Dowden credited the Defending Democracy taskforce, a committee that tracks election threats, with pinpointing China-affiliated organisations and individuals behind cyber operations.

Sanctioning groups linked to China, a fellow member of the UN Security Council, is an escalation in the diplomatic tension between the two countries.

This marks a major change from just a few years ago, when British leaders aimed to usher in a "Golden Age" with China.

The prime minister then was David Cameron, who is now the foreign secretary.

On Monday, Lord Cameron briefed about 40 Conservative MPs and peers at a meeting of the backbench 1922 Committee for about an hour, giving what one described as a "tour of the world".

Several MPs suggested the UK's decision to vote for the UN Security Council Resolution on Gaza was discussed to a greater extent than relations with China, at the last session before the Easter recess.

Outside the meeting, one MP told journalists Lord Cameron had suggested that the situation had changed since he had pursued a policy of greater engagement with China as prime minister.

However, Labour said Lord Cameron's role as vice-president of a UK-China investment fund should also be investigated in case he had been chosen "to lend credibility to Chinese investment, as well as to the broader China brand".

Acknowledging the attacks last August, the Electoral Commission said "hostile actors" had gained access to copies of the electoral registers and broken into its emails and "control systems", but added that it had neither had any impact on any elections nor anyone's registration status.

The Electoral Commission has since taken steps to secure its systems against future activity.

In a statement rejecting British claims of Chinese state involvement, the Chinese embassy said: "The UK's hype-up of the so-called 'Chinese cyber attacks' without basis and the announcement of sanctions is outright political manipulation and malicious slander.

"We have no interest or need to meddle in the UK's internal affairs."

China urged the UK to "immediately stop spreading false information" about the country, the statement added.

UK government concern over Chinese espionage and parliamentary interference has been rising.

In September 2023, a parliamentary researcher was arrested under the Official Secrets Act accused of spying for China.

And a year before, an unusual parliamentary interference alert was issued regarding the activities of UK-based lawyer Christine Lee.

The government stresses it has rejected or wound down Chinese investment in infrastructure in recent years on national security grounds.