UK’s MI5 spy agency may have issued Chinese alert to distract from Partygate, tribunal hears

A former opposition lawmaker in Britain’s House of Commons has alleged that the UK’s domestic spy agency MI5 may have issued a rare alert notice in 2022 about an alleged Chinese agent as a distraction from the so-called Partygate scandal, according to testimony before a tribunal looking into the alert.

In the alert issued back in January 2022, MI5 alleged Christine Ching Kui Lee had “acted covertly in coordination” on behalf of China’s ruling Communist Party and was “judged to be involved in political interference activities in the UK.”

The alert was issued a day after former Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologized to the House of Commons for the Partygate scandal. Johnson’s premiership came crashing down in 2022 after it emerged that numerous social gatherings took place on his watch – some of which he personally attended – at a time when Britons were living under strict rules due to Covid-19.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal in London heard on Monday that Barry Gardiner, former lawmaker from the opposition Labour Party to whom Lee donated over £500,000 (more than $600,000) between 2014 and 2020, said in a text that he had heard that the MI5 alert had been issued to “detract attention” from Johnson’s Partygate scandal, PA news agency reported.

In a text forwarded to Lee by a friend, Gardiner said that “many people” had told him “they believe the reason for putting out the story when they did was to detract attention from Boris’ Partygate apology,” according to PA’s report. Gardiner did not specify exactly who these people making the suggestion were. Nor was any evidence provided to the tribunal Monday to back the allegations. The hearing will continue on Tuesday.

The Christine Lee & So Solicitors office on Wardour Street, London, on January 13, 2022. - Rob Pinney/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
The Christine Lee & So Solicitors office on Wardour Street, London, on January 13, 2022. - Rob Pinney/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images

CNN reached out to Gardiner’s office but did not receive an immediate response.

“I had never believed that the Security Services would be overtly party political in that way […] What has also been suggested to me is that the Security Services may have wished to ‘pick a fight’ or to ‘detract attention’ from something else and that we were simply collateral damage,” read a portion of a text from Gardiner that Lee’s lawyer read out to the hearing, according to PA.

CNN has also reached out to the UK’s Home Office and Boris Johnson’s office for comment.

The MI5 alert in question also alleged that Lee had been facilitating “financial donations to political parties, Parliamentarians, aspiring Parliamentarians and individuals seeking political office in the UK, including facilitating donations to political entities on behalf of foreign nationals.”

“Ms Lee denies the allegations and is taking legal action against the Security Service with her son, Daniel Wilkes, who lost his job with Mr Gardiner following the alert, arguing that issuing the alert was unlawful and interfered with their human rights,” PA reported.

Gardiner served as a Labour MP between 1997 and 2024. He was the chairman of the now-disbanded Chinese in Britain All-Party Parliamentary Group, on which Lee sat.

It was not illegal for Lee to make the donations as the UK did not have a foreign agents registration act at the time, nor was it illegal for a British citizen or foreign national working in the UK to be affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party. Lee is listed as a British national in the UK’s corporate registry. The UK has since introduced a foreign agents registration act, which is expected to come into force later this year.

In a statement to CNN in 2022, Gardiner said he had not benefited personally from Lee’s donations in any way, adding that the money had been properly reported and its source verified.

CNN’s Andrew Raine contributed to this report.

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