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Rishi Sunak has conceded that “further investment” and more government action is needed to help the UK combat the challenge China poses to Britain’s security, prosperity and values.
The prime minister’s admission came in a government response to a damning report published in July by parliament’s intelligence and security committee, which found Britain’s approach to China’s “increasingly sophisticated” spying operations in the UK was “completely inadequate”.
The government acknowledged in the response there was more work to be done to tackle “Chinese recruitment schemes” that have tried to “headhunt” Britons with sensitive knowledge and experience in government, the military and industry.
The government also said ministers will “consider strengthening the business appointment rules” that bind UK officials who have worked on intelligence and security matters when they leave the public sector.
Sunak said in a written statement that he was “acutely aware” of the “threat to our open and democratic way of life”, highlighting recent government legislation to tackle foreign state espionage and interference that ministers have brought forward, including the National Security Act, alongside the creation of a defending democracy task force.
The prime minister added it was an “absolute priority” for the government to protect the UK from interference from Beijing and elsewhere.
His comments came after it emerged a British parliamentary researcher was arrested by police in March on suspicion of spying for China. He has denied the espionage allegations.
The government said in its response to the intelligence and security committee report that some Chinese action “crosses the line from influence to interference”.
It accepted more money was needed to fund capabilities that ensure the government “is equipped with the tools, expertise and knowledge to respond to the systemic challenge that China poses to the UK’s security, prosperity and values”.
The government vowed to “continue building expertise across the system to better address the long-term challenge that China poses”, while pointing out changes already implemented since the committee commenced its inquiry in 2019.
This included a commitment made in Sunak’s refresh of the government’s integrated review of defence and security policy, published in March, to double funding for a state programme on China, including more cash for Mandarin language training for UK officials.
The government said it shared the committee’s concerns about the “prolific, sustained and irresponsible cyber threat activity” emanating from China.
It added Beijing’s cyber, surveillance, data and analytical capabilities are “rapidly advancing” and the “enormous” scale of China’s intelligence and counter-intelligence operations present a “significant challenge”.
After the committee raised concerns about Chinese interference in UK academia, the government said “there remains more to do to support and to defend the higher education sector” and cited ministers’ vow in March to conduct a security review.
However, the government also stressed that it expects universities to “carry out due diligence to ensure compliance with regulation and consideration of reputation, ethical and security risks”.
While the committee raised concerns about Chinese-backed Confucius Institutes across the UK, the government said it would be “disproportionate” to ban the organisations, which have the stated aim of promoting Chinese language and culture.
However, the government committed to keeping the risks posed by the institutes “under regular review”, having already blocked state funding for them.
The Chinese embassy was approached for comment by the Financial Times.