Sharing a lunch and a glass of wine like the two old friends they were, this was Labour frontbencher Barry Gardiner and the suspected Chinese spy who bankrolled him to the tune of more than £600,000.
The pair were spotted by another diner in October 2018 in the Northall restaurant at Westminster’s swanky Corinthia Hotel, only a short walk from Parliament.
At the time of MailOnline’s exclusive photo Mr Gardiner was Labour’s Shadow Minister for International Trade, and the hotel is next door to the Department for International Trade in Whitehall Place.
Taking advantage of a set lunch offered with a complimentary glass of Champagne, Mr Gardiner, 64, also appeared to be drinking white wine as he and Ms Lee hunched over the table, deep in conversation.
It is believed the third person may have been Ms Lee’s son Daniel Wilkes, 27, employed as a researcher or diary secretary at the MP’s office for several years, with her law firm, Christine Lee & Co, paying for his salary, and more besides.
The monetary arrangement lasted until June 2020, though Mr Wilkes remained working in the office. That all came to an abrupt halt yesterday after MI5 issued a highly unusual warning about 58-year-old Ms Lee’s ‘political interference’ activities on behalf of Beijing and Mr Wilkes resigned.
In an unprecedented move, spy chiefs yesterday issued a security alert to MPs over solicitor Mrs Lee, 58. She sought to influence a string of politicians and succeeded in establishing powerful links ‘right to the top of the British establishment’, security sources said.
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in London denied the claims today, saying the Asian nation had ‘no need’ to ‘buy influence’ in any foreign parliament.
Barry Gardiner and Christine Lee dining together during a boozy lunch at Westminster’s swanky Corinthia Hotel, only a short walk from Parliament in 2018. It is believed the third person may have been Ms Lee’s son Daniel Wilkes, 27, who was employed by ‘Beijing Barry’ until yesterday
A warning memo was sent to all MPs and Peers in Westminster today by the Speaker’s Parliamentary security team, and no politicians are suspected of any criminality.
Pictures posted to Facebook show Ms Lee with prominent politicians including former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, his deputy Tom Watson (pictured together) and disgraced ex-MP Keith Vaz
Ms Lee, a London-based solicitor and a former chief legal adviser to the Chinese embassy in London, speaking to former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. She is also the secretary of the Inter-Party China Group at Westminster.
Ms Lee is a solicitor with an office in central London. She is a former chief legal adviser to the Chinese embassy in London and a legal adviser to the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.
‘This is not James Bond stuff – why would they chose Barry? He’s an idiot’, says ex-minister, who claims Chinese ‘spy’ is not another of Boris’ ‘dead cats’
She is a west London solicitor who has donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to former Labour minister Barry Gardiner (right, pictured together).
A former Cabinet minister told MailOnline that the Commons authorities would have been alerted to the situation a long time ago.
‘At an early stage I would imagine the Speaker would have been informed. Anything that involves the House of Commons and intelligence or security, there would have been coordination with the Speaker’s office,’ the ex-minister said.
‘They are sending a warning to the Chinese. We know what you are up to and we are not afraid to publicise your attempts to interfere.
The senior Tory said the decision to go public would have been ‘cleared with ministers that this is the way it ought to be handled’.
‘It would have been a political decision taken to make it public. It would be for MI5 to discuss with the Home Secretary and or No10 how this should be handled.’
However, the ex-minister said the idea the warning was a so-called ‘dead cat’ timed to take pressure off Mr Johnson over Partygate was ‘complete cr**’.
‘First of all it doesn’t make the slightest difference to helping or hindering the PM’s personal problems,’ they said. ‘And the announcement came from the Speaker. The Speaker would have determined the timing.’
A senior MP with links to the intelligence community told MailOnline that MI5 were keen to ‘send a message’ and the Chinese operation might have ‘overstepped the mark’ – but also dismissed any connection with Partygate.
‘At the end of the day it is the Speaker who put it out. He did not have to put it out yesterday,’ they said. ‘The idea they said to Ken McCallum you have to do this, that’s just nonsense. Ken’s far too strong for that,’ the MP said.
‘They have been quite happy to allow her to carry on but she has clearly done something that has pushed it up a notch,’ the source added.
The source said that China used huge volumes of information to gain leverage. ‘This is not James Bond spy stuff. What they do is hoover up masses of information which a lot of us would think is not very relevant. But they use it to put pictures together.’
They pointed to the choice of targets as evidence that it was not classic espionage tactics. ‘Let’s be honest, who would pick Barry. He is an idiot,’ the source said.
‘China always adheres to the principle of non-interference in other country’s internal affairs,’ they said.
‘Clearly unacceptable behaviour’: MI5’s unprecedented email to MPs
Lee’s links to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) go deep. She has been chief legal adviser to the Chinese embassy in London and a legal adviser to the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, an agency of the Communist Party’s vast network of influence overseen by its United Front Work Department.
The security services issued a rare warning to MPs and peers amid fears an agent of the Chinese government has been active in Parliament.
On Thursday a Security Service Interference Alert was issued by MI5 containing allegations about Christine Ching Kui Lee after concerns were raised that she was not being open about her connections to the Chinese state and may have ulterior motives for her involvement with parliamentarians.
While it is not the first time such an alert has been issued, official warnings of this nature are relatively rare.
The letter from the Speaker accompanying the alert said: ‘I am writing now to draw your attention to the attached Interference Alert issued by the Security Service, MI5, about the activities of an individual, Christine Lee, who has been engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party, engaging with Members here at Parliament and associated political entities, including the former APPG: Chinese in Britain.
‘I should highlight the fact that Lee has facilitated financial donations to serving and aspiring Parliamentarians on behalf of foreign nationals based in Hong Kong and China.
‘This facilitation was done covertly to mask the origins of the payments.
‘This is clearly unacceptable behaviour and steps are being taken to ensure it ceases.’
In the covering letter, Sir Lindsay said the MPs she contacted included members of the now disbanded Chinese in Britain All Party Parliamentary Group. Chaired by Mr Gardiner, other members included Labour’s Keith Vaz, Stephen Pound, Faisal Rashid and Gareth Thomas, along with Tory David Morris.
‘We have no need and never seek to ‘buy influence’ in any foreign parliament. We firmly oppose the trick of smearing and intimidation against the Chinese community in the UK.’
Mr Gardiner said today that there would be a statement on the Chinese agent affair in the Commons later. As he left his North London home, wearing a suit and red tie, he was asked if he had put his colleagues at risk.
He said: ‘I am quite confident that I did not put my colleagues at risk.’ He declined to answer questions about the alleged spy Mrs Lee or her son who worked in his office until yesterday. He said he had already made a statement and would not comment any further.
A warning memo sent to MPs said her ‘political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party’ have been secretly monitored by the security services for years.
The twice married mother of two from the West Midlands, who came to the UK aged 12 and lives in a £1million mansion in Solihull, has openly given around £670,000 to the Labour Party since 2005, including donating more than £600,000 to Brent North MP Barry Gardiner – who employed her son.
But yesterday it was revealed she also courted a wide range of Tory and Labour MPs, cultivating contacts with cabinet ministers and prime ministers in what was described by MI5 as a deeply sinister campaign of ‘interference across British democracy’.
TV journalist Philip Braund, who took the photo, said he was lunching with a lobbyist contact when he saw Mr Gardiner walk in.
‘I recognised Mr Gardiner, who has quite a high profile, but I’d no idea who the woman was,’ he told MailOnline.
‘During the meal the conversation between Mr Gardiner and the lady was very animated.
‘There was a lot of laughing and joking. He clearly knew her well. I can’t remember why but I felt compelled to take a picture of the luncheon.
‘I was trying to take a photo primarily of him, but ended up getting a better photo of Miss Lee. Looking back, and knowing what we now know, I can’t help wondering if MI5 were also watching the whole scene?
‘We left the restaurant before they did and our bill was around £75 for two, so I guess theirs would have been around £100. I wonder who picked up the bill?’
MI5’s alert against an alleged Chinese spy came because she represented a ‘threat to democracy’ insiders say. There was an accumulation of evidence against the alleged spy operating in parliament that eventually reached a ‘tipping point’, according to security sources.
Christine Lee had been the subject of an MI5 investigation over a number of years but there was no ‘gotcha’ moment that meant they suddenly felt they had to act.
Instead there was an ‘accumulation of risk’ as the security services saw her approach more politicians, which tipped the balance in the favour of intervention, instead of continuing the covert operation.
‘It was not done for messaging purposes, it is because we believe there was a possible threat to parliamentary democracy,’ according to one source.
The security services believe Lee’s aim was to influence policy and policy direction in order to advance the interests of the Chinese state.
She did that by manufacturing opportunities with individuals who believed she represented the Chinese community in the UK.
Lee was believed to be ‘developing access and influence so that she could then lean on her contacts at the time her controllers in the Chinese Communist Party felt it was a priority to act,’ the source said.
MI5 has built an understanding of how the Chinese state operates but there is now more of an appetite across Whitehall to intervene, where previously there may have been concerns around trade deals or diplomatic ties, sources say.
Issuing a Security Service Interference Alert to parliament should not necessarily be seen as a more ‘muscular’ approach to Chinese interference but there is definitely more or an ‘appetite to intervene,’ a source said.
That may now be seen with other states that MI5 has identified as seeking to interfere in the British democratic process such as Russia, Iran and North Korea.
For years, China has used cyber attacks to try and infiltrate technology companies and steal intellectual property.
The National Cyber Security Centre is at the forefront of helping private companies and government to fight off those attacks.
But China is also using agents to try and acquire important technology and to meet important business people and civil servants.
Another source described their approach as ‘bigger, broader, faster with fewer rules.’
MI5 and GCHQ have invested heavily in technology to counter that but they also plan to use legal means to try and prosecute spies.
Unlike the US, which has a law against ‘unregistered foreign agents’ dating back to 1938, Britain has to rely on the Official Secrets Act which means that government officials can be prosecuted for leaking information but allows the spies themselves to go free.
Spies conventionally work under ‘official cover’ which means they are diplomats with thinly disguised titles that allow them to make approaches to individuals who may have information to share.
However, spies who work within organisations with ‘non-official cover’ as ‘undeclared’ foreign agents often pose a bigger risk.
The government plans to introduce a National Security Bill that is likely to involve a ‘foreign agents register’ which would allow unregistered agents to be put through court.
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has said the government is ‘working to look at what measures we can take to strengthen our laws to effectively lead to the type of prosecutions that we currently cannot deliver.’
She warned of more national security alerts to follow, saying the UK had ‘other adversaries’ who would ‘look to interfere or come into our country in some shape and way’.
Former PM David Cameron addresses a British Chinese Project event in a photo posted in 2016
In an extraordinary security scandal, the Communist agent was welcomed into Downing Street in 2019, where she received an award from then-prime minister Theresa May in recognition of her contribution to good relations with China.
In January 2019, she received a Points of Light Award from then premier Theresa May, in recognition of her contribution to good relations with China.
The award was rescinded last night, but Mrs May praised her at the time for ‘promoting engagement, understanding, and cooperation between the Chinese and British communities in the UK’, adding: ‘I also wish you well with your work to further the inclusion and participation of British-Chinese people in the UK political system.’
And she received a Woman of the Year gong from the GG2 Leadership Awards in 2013.
Miss Lee also formed close links with David Cameron when he was prime minister as the only Chinese member of his 2010 business delegation to China.
Last night there were questions about how she managed to get so close to Downing Street, given her prominent position within the hostile state as a photograph emerged of her shaking hands with Chinese president Xi Jinping.
The impeccably connected and alleged Chinese spy hid in plain sight while cosying up to MPs by offering donations, hampers and paying for trips abroad.
Miss Lee has been chief legal adviser to the Chinese embassy in London and a legal adviser to the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, an agency overseen by the United Front Work Department (UFWD), which manages the vast network of influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Yet she was also the secretary of the Inter-Party China Group of the British Parliament.
Since 2005, she has donated large sums to Labour. She gave about £670,000 to the party, mostly to Jeremy Corbyn ally Mr Gardiner, almost all of it for his staffing costs. In 2014 she helped sponsor a Chinese Liberal Democrats’ dinner to support the party’s then-candidate for Somerton and Frome, Sarah Yong.
According to the alert sent to all MPs and peers in Westminster yesterday, she also made covert payments to serving and aspiring MPs on behalf of politicians in China and Hong Kong.
The MI5 message said: ‘The UFWD seeks to cultivate relationships with influential figures in order to ensure the UK political landscape is favourable to the CCP’s agenda and to challenge those that raise concerns about CCP activity, such as human rights. Lee has been engaged in the facilitation of 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.’
In an accompanying letter, Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said among those targeted was the now-disbanded Chinese in Britain All Party Parliamentary Group, of which Mr Gardiner was chairman.
Last night there was no sign of her at the £985,000 home on a gated estate in Solihull, West Midlands, which she shares with her British solicitor husband.
Miss Patel said it was ‘deeply concerning’ that an individual ‘who has knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party has targeted parliamentarians’. But she suggested the activity was ‘under the criminal threshold’.
The Home Secretary warned: ‘We’re speaking specifically right now about the CCP, China, but we live in a world where we have other adversaries, and they all look to interfere or come into our country in some shape and way. We are big players internationally, the United Kingdom, our place in the world is very strong. And so we’re naturally a country of interest. I think it’s fair to say in the future, we’ll see more alerts of this nature.’
It comes at a time of hardening attitudes toward China at the top of Government, culminating most recently in a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who has been involved in helping Hong Kong-Chinese people flee the Communist regime, expressed concern they could now be at risk as a result of Lee’s allegedv activities.
The clues were there for anyone who chose to look: An office INSIDE China’s British Embassy, glad-handing President Xi… how ‘charming lawyer’ Christine Lee hid in plain sight as a Communist spy
It was a landmark moment in the life of the 58-year-old entrepreneur, who arrived in Britain from Hong Kong as a child.
She duly posed for pictures outside No 10 Downing Street, the iconic black door draped with red banners celebrating a ‘Golden Era’ in relations between the two nations.
The symbolism of the image was impossible to miss: Lee had reached the heart of Britain’s Establishment and was being embraced by it.
In a personal letter, Mrs May said – in words that now seem hopelessly naïve – ‘I wish you well in your work to further the participation of British-Chinese people in the UK political system.’
For yesterday the smartly dressed, dark-haired Lee was unmasked by our domestic security service MI5 as a Chinese Communist Party agent ‘engaged in political interference’ of MPs on both the Left and Right of the political spectrum.
Christine Lee poses outside No 10 Downing Street
And Mrs May was not the only person in high places to be taken in by the founder of what was called the British Chinese Project, a non-profit organisation aiming to promote engagement, understanding and cooperation between the Chinese community and wider UK society.
She has been photographed whispering in David Cameron’s ear at the GG2 Leadership Awards, and her links with Labour Party politicians date back to Tony Blair’s premiership.
Apart from her involvement with the British Chinese Project, Lee – a persuasive character, with considerable charm – is a lawyer with offices in London and Birmingham who has cultivated top business people as easily as she has senior politicians. Few appear to have realised the closeness of her affiliation with Beijing’s elite but evidence of it has long been there for those who chose to look.
As a representative of the ‘whole Chinese community in the UK’, Lee told a parliamentary home affairs committee some years ago that her business advising Chinese entrepreneurs on how to invest in Britain had an office with five staff inside China’s British Embassy.
At a committee session on the 2006 Nationality Bill, Lee said: ‘They (China’s embassy staff) are on the second floor, we are on the 17th floor. So every time the British Embassy has a problem, they send the people up to us, and we can explain to them in Chinese what is going on.’
Christine Lee and David Cameron at the ceremony of the British GG2 leadership awards in 2015
There is even a picture on social media of a beaming Lee shaking hands with Xi Jinping, the autocratic Chinese president.
According to the authors of Hidden Hands, a highly respected book on China’s influence in Britain: ‘Her links with the CCP go deep. She has been chief legal adviser to the Chinese Embassy in London… an unmistakable sign of her importance to the CCP.’
The book added that Chinese networks, including those run by Lee as so-called friendship and fundraising groups, have become so deeply entrenched among British elites that they have ‘gone past the point of no return’.
Her elevation into high places with all the influence that brings is a far cry from Miss Lee’s difficult past. Her family emigrated to Northern Ireland in the 1970s when she was 12 and she attended a boarding school in Belfast, where she was the only Chinese girl among ‘66 Irish girls’.
Christine Lee pictured with former London mayor Ken Livingstone in 2012
An interview she gave a few years ago to the China Daily – an English-language newspaper owned by the ruling Communist Party – offers an intriguing insight into her background. ‘It is very difficult for a young girl to leave her home and her beloved grandparents and come to live in a cold place,’ she told the newspaper.
‘My English was poor and I couldn’t really communicate with the other pupils which put me in a weaker position than them. There was not a lot of physical bullying, but a lot of verbal bullying.’
She developed a habit of putting seven teaspoons of sugar into her coffee to neutralise the bitter taste but when she asked an ‘Irish girl’ one day to help her with the sugar, the girl – in an act of malice – substituted salt for sugar.
But if they thought the redoubtable Lee would recoil in surprise and dissolve into tears, they were in for a surprise: ‘The girls who were watching thought I would not drink it, but I told myself to drink the entire cup, and show them I am not weak.’ Lee is certainly not that. She teamed up with other victims of the bullies at the school to practise karate so they could protect themselves.
According to the article, it was the unfairness she experienced in her childhood that propelled her towards a legal career.
As a young lawyer, she specialised in immigration cases, helping migrants from Hong Kong settle in the UK. Over time she got involved in the lucrative world of education, advising Chinese parents how to ‘invest in their children’s education and work experience’ in the UK.
Parents with the capacity to invest £1 million in this country qualified for a visa programme that gave their children the right to not only study over here but find jobs too.
Today Lee lives with her husband, a 71-year-old British businessman called Martin Wilkes, in a £1 million house in an upmarket gated estate in the smart market town of Solihull, West Midlands, where neighbours have seen her coming and going in a Mercedes.
The couple are partners in a Midlands-based property company that rents out housing association and council properties.
But Lee’s real claim to fame, as we have seen, is the British Chinese Project. The charity she founded in 2006 not only aims to make politicians more aware of the needs of their Chinese constituents but campaigns for British-Chinese people to vote in general elections.
It was her success in promoting this ostensibly worthy cause that earned Lee that ‘Points of Light’ award from Mrs May in January 2019. ‘I am humbled that it relates to our work for the well-being of the British-Chinese community,’ she said at the time.
Now we know that this was not the entire truth. Her good works provided her with a passport to the upper echelons of British society and enabled her to spy on them for an increasingly sinister foreign power.