MI5 and FBI join forces to warn against 'game-changing' threat posed by China

MI5 head Ken McCallum (left) and FBI director Christopher Wray (right) made an unprecedented joint appearance in Thames House, London. Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

MI5 will double its investigations into China in the face of the “game-changing” threat posed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the head of the security service said in an unprecedented speech about the espionage risk presented by Beijing.

MI5 head Ken McCallum said the agency is running seven times as many probes into China as it was four years ago, and plans to “grow as much again” to tackle the widespread attempts at inference.

The director general mentioned the security alert issued to parliament earlier this year over Christine Lee, a suspected Chinese spy accused of targeting MPs, as he said operations which aimed to amplify pro-CCP voices and silence those which question its authority “need to be challenged”.

FBI director Christopher Wray said China was the "biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security", adding that the country has interfered in politics, including recent elections.

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The first ever joint public appearance by the two directors came at MI5 headquarters in Thames House in central London.

Despite Russia's unprovoked war in Ukraine posing a significant threat to global security, the two chiefs chose to focus on the CCP and its covert operations against their countries, allies and the wider world.

The audience of business leaders and academic chiefs heard warnings that if China invaded Taiwan, as feared, this could “represent one of the most horrific business disruptions the world has ever seen”.

China, which has an estimated population of 1.4 billion, claims its self-ruled democratic neighbour Taiwan as its own territory, and has vowed to take it back, with force if necessary.

Mr McCallum said they were speaking for the first time in public together to “send the clearest signal we can on a massive shared challenge: China”, adding: “The most game-changing challenge we face comes from the Chinese Communist Party.

“It’s covertly applying pressure across the globe. This might feel abstract but it’s real and it’s pressing. We need to talk about it. We need to act.”

He said MI5 had “already more than doubled our previously-constrained effort against Chinese activity of concern.

“Today we’re running seven times as many investigations as we were in 2018. We plan to grow as much again, while also maintaining significant effort against Russian and Iranian covert threats.”

MI5 director general Ken McCallum Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Later he told reporters: “We plan to double again,” adding: “China is the most game-changing threat in the sense that it pervades so many aspects of our national life.”

Describing the CCP’s use of clandestine, coercive or corrupt methods to launch “deceptive” plots to buy and exert influence as well as the use of “sophisticated interference efforts”, Mr McCallum added the threat was a “co-ordinated campaign on a grand scale”.

In January, security concerns were raised after it emerged that senior Labour MP Barry Gardiner had received more than £500,000 in donations from Ms Lee – mainly to cover office staffing costs – over a period of six years, and employed her son as his diary manager.

The disclosures came after MI5 took the rare step of issuing MPs and peers with a warning about Ms Lee’s cultivating of British politicians to secure a “UK political landscape” that was “favourable” to China.

Christine Lee was given the Points of Light award by former Prime Minister Theresa May for her organisation the 'British Chinese Project'. Credit: British Chinese Project

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in London denied the claims at the time.Over the last year the UK has shared intelligence about Chinese cyber threats with 37 countries and in May disrupted a “sophisticated threat” against aerospace companies, Mr McCallum said.

He cited a series of examples of Chinese interference.

This included the case of a British aviation expert who was approached online and offered an “attractive employment opportunity” which saw him twice travel to China to be “wined and dined” before being asked, and paid for, technical information on military aircraft by a company which was a front for Chinese intelligence officers.

“That’s where we stepped in”, Mr McCallum said.

He told how engineering firm Smith’s Harlow was forced into administration in 2020 after it entered into a deal with a Chinese company which abandoned the partnership once it shared vital technology.

Meanwhile, the FBI boss said that If China was to try to “forcibly take over Taiwan” it would “represent one of the most horrific business disruptions the world has ever seen”.

But he added that he was “confident in saying that China is drawing all sorts of lessons from what’s happening with Russia and its invasion of Ukraine”.

The FBI has substantially increased its investigations into China in recent years, with about 2,000 probes at present and a new one opened every 12 hours on average, Mr Wray told reporters.

He described the threat as a “complex, enduring and pervasive danger” to “innovative businesses” which was “getting worse” and was “even more serious” than many realise.

In the US, the FBI director said the Chinese government had directly interfered in a congressional election in New York this spring as it opposed the candidacy of a critic of the regime who was a former protester at Tiananmen Square.

Mr Wray went on to tell the audience that Beijing’s administration is “set on stealing your technology, whatever it is that makes your industry tick, and using it to undercut your business and dominate your market”.