Clutching her handbag and grinning as she poses for a picture alongside then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2016, Christine Ching Kui Lee cuts an unassuming figure. But the 58-year-old lawyer has now been unmasked as an alleged Chinese agent – accused by MI5 of seeking to improperly influence MPs on behalf of the country’s ruling Communist Party.
The photo with Corbyn, taken at a Chinese for Labour group event, is one of a series of images indicating the extent of her links to figures across Westminster over more than a decade – during which she was even singled out for praise by Theresa May when she was prime minister.
Other images show her with David Cameron when he was in Downing Street and standing proudly outside the entrance to No 10. She was also pictured with former Labour deputy Tom Watson, ex-London mayor Ken Livingstone, and Labour MP Barry Gardiner – who received hundreds of thousands of pounds via Lee’s law firm.
Meanwhile, in a 2019 photo, she is seen posing in a group with Chinese president, Xi Jinping.
Lee was thrust into the spotlight on Thursday as the subject of a rare warning, known as a Security Service Interference Alert (SSIA), issued by the UK’s security services and circulated by Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle to parliamentarians.
“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,” Sir Lindsay wrote in a covering letter.
“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.”
The SSIA stated Lee had “acted covertly” in co-ordination with the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). “We judge that the UFWD is seeking to covertly interfere in UK politics through establishing links with established and aspiring parliamentarians across the political spectrum,” it said.
“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.
“Lee has publicly stated that her activities are to represent the UK Chinese community and increase diversity. However the aforementioned activity has been undertaken in covert co-ordination with the UFWD, with funding provided by foreign nationals located in China and Hong Kong.
“Lee has extensive engagement with individuals across the UK political spectrum. including through the now disbanded All-Party Parliamentary Chinese in Britain Group, and may aspire to establish further APPGs to further the CCP’s agenda.”
But who is Lee and how did she seemingly weave her way into the fabric of Westminster?
Lee married Martin Wilkes, who is also a solicitor, in 1990, with the couple going on to have two sons. The pair sold their four-bed detached home in Coleshill, Warwickshire, for £680,000 in 2019 which had an indoor swimming pool and gym. In a brochure for the property sale, a “seller insight” section quoting the then owners details how they first viewed the property in 1996 when they were looking to upsize. “Our ‘wow moment’ came when we saw the indoor swimming pool complex,” it says, adding: “Our children were only young at the time and we knew that this would be the perfect family home for us.”
Lee’s legal firm based in Birmingham, Christine Lee & Co solicitors, was registered with Companies House in 1994. Lee and Wilkes are co-owners and she is listed on Companies House as a British national
Their firm’s website says it has been “serving the British Community for over 30 years and offers a range of legal services specialising in broad areas of legal work for the benefit of private individuals and corporate clients”. A separate profile on a Department for Trade directory website highlights how the legal firm advises the Chinese Embassy in London. “We are trusted by the official channels as professionals of Chinese heritage with strong local knowledge in both the UK and China and give no nonsense practical advice and solutions,” the profile states.
Lee set up a group called the British Chinese project 2006, which describes itself on its Facebook page as “a non-partisan, voluntarily run organisation” which “seeks to promote the interests of British Chinese people through Integration, Representation Participation and Education”. It sponsored the now disbanded all party parliamentary group, Chinese Britain, acting as its secretariat.
When May was prime minister, she personally praised Lee’s work on the British Chinese project, in a commendation still viewable online. “You should feel very proud of the difference that ‘The British Chinese Project’ is making in promoting engagement, understanding, and cooperation between the Chinese and British communities in the UK,” May said, adding: “I also wish you well with your work to further the inclusion and participation of British-Chinese people in the UK political system.”
Analysis of the register of MPs’ financial interests showed Lee’s law firm donated more than £500,000 to Brent North MP Gardiner between 2015 and 2020, mostly through funding for his staff. Her son, Daniel Wilkes, was also employed by the MP as his diary secretary until he abruptly resigned on Thursday.
In a statement, Gardiner said he had been “liaising with our security services” for many years about Lee. “They have always known, and been made fully aware by me, of her engagement with my office and the donations she made to fund researchers in my office in the past,” he said. “Steps were taken to ensure Christine Lee had no role in either the appointment or management of those researchers. They are also aware that I have not benefited personally from those donations in any way. She ceased funding any workers in my office in June 2020.”
The former Labour minister later added to Sky News that he had not personally benefited from the money, adding that he was “deeply distressed” to have been targeted by Lee. “I don’t feel a fool – but I do feel very angry, and I feel very angry someone tried to use me in that way,” he said.
Asked on Sky News whether he had conversations about government policy with regards to China, he said: “No, not in great detail … I think she must have felt it was a very poor investment if she did hope to get something out of it, because I have been critical of the Chinese government on many occasions.”
Meanwhile, the Labour Party said centrally it had received some £5,000 from Lee’s firm in 2016, while several small donations were made to local Labour branches.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey also received a £5,000 donation from Lee in 2013, while he was energy secretary in the coalition government, but said the money was accepted by his local association and reportedly properly.
A Lib Dem spokesperson said Sir Ed was “shocked by these revelations”, adding: “The email from the Speaker of the House of Commons today was the first time he has been given cause to be concerned about a donation to his local party association.”
In 2014, Lee helped sponsor a Chinese Liberal Democrats dinner to support the party’s then candidate for Somerton and Frome, Sarah Yong. And in 2008, she funded flights for a four-day trip to Beijing for then Labour MP for Hendon, Andrew Dismore, who was then chairman of the Chinese in Britain APPG.
As part of her connection to the UFWD, Lee met Chinese president Xi Jinping and was filmed shaking hands with him at a conference in 2019. She was pictured only a few positions away from in an official photo for the 2019 UFWD meeting for overseas Chinese people.
The united front system is a network of Chinese party and state agencies responsible for influencing outside groups, according to analysis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The institute describes the united front as an export of the Chinese Community Party and says that it “influences politics, harms media integrity, facilitates espionage and increases unsupervised technology transfer”.
Scotland Yard has declined to comment on whether officers are investigating after MI5’s alert. However, there are no laws in place at present to bring charges on seeking to exert influence such as the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in the US. In March, the government said in the integrated review of defence and security that it would seek to introduce a foreign agent registration scheme. The Independent has contacted Lee for comment.
As the fallout from MI5’s warning grow on Thursday, home secretary Priti Patel said it was “deeply concerning” an individual “who has knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party has targeted parliamentarians”. The government was looking at “what further measures, actions and steps that we can undertake, and that’s really important”, she added.
Meanwhile, former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith told the Commons: “This is a matter of grave concern”, adding: “Why in heavens name is such an agent allowed in this country?”