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Espionage and the cost of living crisis

Underpaid and overworked staffers are an easy target for Chinese cash

Artillery Row

There is only one thing surprising about the revelations that a young staffer has been arrested over allegedly spying for China — that it has taken so long. Although the arrest took place in March and the individual concerned has been released and bailed, ministers (including the prime minister) assure us that they knew nothing about this until this last week.

If that is the case, then something is very wrong with the information flow between the police, the security services and the government. James Cleverly visited China, but the possibility that the Chinese were spying on the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Security minister wasn’t even on the agenda.

I have recounted in detail the way in which agents of the Chinese state attempted to engage me to act as a spy on their behalf. The sort of information that they wanted from me mirrors what would have been available to the Chairman of the China Resource Group: documents relating to the UK response to China’s belt and road strategy and the like.

In my case, they offered £750 per piece of work, which I was expected to provide about once a week. Initially, that work would have been studies or briefings on individuals linked to the UK’s foreign policy establishment, both within and without Whitehall and Westminster — briefing notes on the UK end of the China/UK nexus. Then it would be similar detailed pen portraits of people with commercial and academic interests.

All of this work would have been legal and above board with the expectation that after about six months, they would direct my research into policies and policy development. Again, all legal. After six months I would have been flown to Hong Kong again or Kowloon or more likely Beijing. There, I would have been debriefed, no doubt wined and dined again, had a whale of a time, but been given the direction of travel required by my new employers.

Think of just how attractive the near £40,000 would have looked

After a year of this I would have been looking at a near £40,000 supplement to my income, all off the books and untaxed.

In getting this information, through my knowledge of the system and individuals within the system, I would by now have made myself quite the expert in the subject. I would have been known to many of the players about whom the Chinese were interested. I would also be very vulnerable.

I’d have got used to the extra income, but it would have been on the black — and therefore I would now have been compromised. This is where the screws would have been applied. They made it clear at the first meeting in 2018 that their eventual targets for me would have been documents and information from the Foreign Office, the Defence Ministry and the Trade Departments before release. That is where a lucrative side project would become spying.

If this is the process infamously run through LinkedIn, then consider the individual. We are told that the young man arrested (who professes his innocence) worked for the China Research Group — the activist think tank set up by China hawks like the Security Minister Tom Tugendhat and Neil O’Brien. Salaries at the CRG are offered at £35,000 for a senior researcher. Further down the organisation’s food chain, people are offered salaries around the London living wage. Somebody in the director’s role would have been lucky to clear £50,000. Think of just how attractive the near £40,000 would have looked — and remember the offer to me was made in 2018, so the numbers may well have risen since then.

Talking to people who know about these sorts of things, it is assumed that the Chinese have used a blunderbuss scattergun tactic to find possible people to target. Type “Westminster China” into LinkedIn, and you will find 25 people. Hone your search, and you will find many, many more.

Whilst we must be happy that the security services are clearly looking into the problem, I can only assume there are many more people who have been approached. We do not know whether any have been tempted by the money, which as I say is initially for frankly not too onerous work — and generously remunerated.

Of course, we have the ritual denials from the Chinese Embassy, along with the slightly less ritual sight of our own politicians desperately trying to wipe away the stains that have spread across the house. The arrest back in March may be just the tip of the iceberg, even before there are fuller investigations into British universities and the tech and defence sectors.

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