How Beijing uses its billions to buy political influence

How Beijing uses its billions to buy political influence around the world: From £685bn invested in the Commonwealth, building 5G ‘spy’ networks to ‘take-overs’ through Latin America and Africa… as China’s British ‘spy’ is revealed

  • The Chinese government has long used its billions to buy up political influence in countries around the world 
  • It has invested £685billion in Caribbean countries including Barbados and Jamaica since 2005
  • Beijing struck a deal with Latin American states to build 5G networks and share nuclear technology 
  • MI5 has warned MPs about Christine Ching Kui Lee, a suspected spy for China’s Communist Party 

Allegations that a suspected Chinese spy has donated more than £500,000 to a senior Labour MP in Britain appear to fit part and parcel with Beijing’s modus operandi — using its billions in cash to buy political influence across the planet. 

Barry Gardiner, who was a member of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, received the donations from Christine Ching Kui Lee — mainly to cover staffing costs in his office — over a period of six years, and employed her son as his diary manager.

MI5 took the rare step of issuing MPs and peers with a warning today about Miss Lee’s cultivating of British politicians to secure a ‘UK political landscape’ that was ‘favourable’ to China’s authoritarian government. 

In recent years, Beijing’s ruthless bid for world power has seen the Communist Party make more aggressive interventions in the internal affairs of smaller — and often poorer — sovereign states in Latin America and the Caribbean.

China last month struck deals with a string of countries across Latin America to build up ‘civilian’ nuclear technology, develop space programmes and build 5G mobile networks which the US says could be used to spy on millions of people.

Beijing has even pledged to build schools and fund classes teaching Chinese language and ‘culture’, though such institutions have been criticised elsewhere for pushing state propaganda and limiting academic freedom.

According to Mateo Haydar, a researcher at the Heritage Foundation, China has ambitions to become ‘the dominant influence in Latin America’.

Meanwhile, Beijing has invested more than £685billion across 42 Commonwealth member states since 2005. Security experts argue that by ploughing huge sums of money into countries such as Barbados and Jamaica, the Chinese government hopes to saddle them with such big unpayable debts that they are forced to hand over the assets used as security.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said it is ‘deeply concerning’ the Chinese Communist Party was targeting British parliamentarians.

However, anti-China hawks in the Conservative Party have long warned of China’s growing influence in Britain — from its attempt to build the UK’s 5G network to its infiltration of universities and involvement in the Hinkley Point nuclear power station.

More recently, Tory backbenchers including Sir Iain Duncan Smith have condemned Beijing’s international behaviour including its treatment of the Uighur Muslim population of Xinjiang province, suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, intimidation of Taiwan, and alleged cover-up of the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Allegations that a suspected Chinese spy has donated more than £500,000 to a senior Labour MP appear to fit part and parcel with Beijing’s modus operandi — cash for political influence (pictured, Chinese president Xi Jinping)

China has pumped cheap money into Latin America and the Caribbean for years, indebting governments and effectively buying influence. Where it has been unable to loan or buy, it has used armies of cheap workers to build key infrastructure projects, giving it outsized influence. And those ties are set to deepen with the signing of a new cooperation pact 

China has invested more than £685billion across 42 Commonwealth member states since 2005 as the Communist Party’s extraordinary bid for global power continues unimpeded 

The new deal includes broad pledges for countries in the region to deepen ties with Beijing in a huge variety of sectors including trade, which has already seen China overhaul the US to become the region’s biggest trading partner (left and right) 

China has used a similar pattern of cheap loans, construction projects and purchases of key infrastructure to buy up influence in Africa which it hopes will help it out-compete the US. Beijing has now built its first overseas military base in the region (marked on the map) and is thought to be scouting a site for a second

Laos, Sierra Leone, and Guinea having received more than their entire GDP in investment from China

MI5 took the rare step of issuing MPs and peers with a warning today about Miss Lee’s cultivating of British politicians to secure a ‘UK political landscape’ that was ‘favourable’ to China’s authoritarian government

Barry Gardiner, who was a member of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, received the donations from Christine Ching Kui Lee — mainly to cover staffing costs in his office — over a period of six years, and employed her son as his diary manager

Chinese investors have spent at least £134billion on UK assets, including private schools, infrastructure businesses and top ranked British firms.

Investors and businesses based China or Hong Kong now own stakes in key infrastructure businesses such as Thames Water, Heathrow Airport and UK Power Networks, according to the Sunday Times.

As much as £57billion is also invested in FTSE 100 companies, according to the paper.

And, as previously reported by the Mail on Sunday, Chinese firms have also invested heavily in prestigious private schools – including Thetford Grammar School and Bournemouth Collegiate College – to the tune of around £10billion.

The Chinese spending spree has boomed since 2019, according to the paper.

Almost half of the purchases uncovered in its investigation with data provider Argus Vicker are said to have taken place in the last two years.

And at least £44billion of the purchases are by Chinese state-owned businesses, the paper reports.

It warns that, due to the difficulty in tracing some investments, the total investment figure could be far higher than the £134billion calculated.

The schools backed by China-owned firms include: 

  • Bournemouth Collegiate School
  • St Michael’s School in Llanelli, Carmarthanshire
  • Bosworth Independent College in Northampton
  • Bedstone College in Shropshire
  • Ipswich High School
  • Kingsley School in Bideford, Devon,
  • Heathfield Knoll School
  • Thetford Grammar School in Norfolk
  • Wisbech Grammar in Cambridgeshire
  • Riddlesworth Hall Preparatory School in Norfolk
  • Adcote School for Girls near Shrewsbury, Shropshire 
  • Myddelton College in Denbigh, Wales
  • CATS Colleges – Campuses are in London, Cambridge and Canterbury
  • Chase Grammar School
  • Abbotsholme School, Derbyshire
  • St Bees School, Cumbria 

In some cases, this has included ports in crucial waterways that allow Beijing to challenge rival superpowers such as the Americans and the Indians.

Figures compiled by the American Enterprise Institute show that China has invested almost £500million into roads, homes, sewers and a hotel in Barbados, which recently shook off the last of Britain’s imperial influence and became a republic.

In nearby Jamaica, Beijing has invested around £2.6billion against a gross domestic product of £16.4billion, making the country the biggest recipient of Chinese money in the Caribbean.

When China wanted UN members to back its draconian Hong Kong National Security Law, it received support from Papua New Guinea and Antigua and Barbuda — two out of the 16 remaining Commonwealth realms. The former has received £5.3billion in Chinese investment (21 per cent of its GDP), while the latter receiving £1billion (60 per cent of its GDP).

Other Commonwealth members that supported Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong have included Sierra Leone, where Chinese investment since 2005 amounts to 145 per cent of its GDP, Zambia, Lesotho, Cameroon and Mozambique.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has announced plans to replace the Commonwealth Development Corporation with a new body, British International Investment, to provide ‘up to £8billion’ of investment per year in Commonwealth countries by 2025. However, China hawks have slammed the Government’s late response to Beijing.

Alan Mendoza, executive director of the Henry Jackson Society, told The Telegraph: ‘They would like to undermine whatever they can internationally, so they can pick off countries and prevent anti-Chinese resolutions in the Commonwealth and elsewhere.

‘It is a very clever move and we have come late to the party by not really understanding the extent of this challenge.

‘China is commercially preying on the Commonwealth. The question is, can we respond with a better offering? Can the UK steer western investment funds into these places?’

Baroness Helena Kennedy, a prominent human rights barrister, added: ‘What China is doing is a way of making friends and it impacts on votes in the UN. Attempts to get a collaborative approach to things can be undermined so you end up with client states.

‘It has a serious impact, it starts being a return to the old Cold War scenario and that’s not a healthy way for us to be going forward. The money they are investing does start to penetrate our areas of influence.

‘One wants to strengthen the Commonwealth, not find it undermined.’

Pakistan, which is the biggest recipient of UK Overseas Development Assistance, has received £60billion of investment from China, more than a fifth of its GDP, since 2005, and now buys 70 per cent of its arms from Beijing.

The Americans believe that the Pakistani government passes on those arms to the Taliban, which used them to defeat coalition forces in Afghanistan and destabilise the economy.

This has since provided China the pretext to move in and exploit the country’s vast mineral deposits, including coal, copper, iron ore, oil and gemstones.

When recipient countries such as Sri Lanka cannot afford to repay the high interest loans, they are forced to hand over the assets used as security — which in this case was the Hambantota container port and 15,000 acres of land around it on a 99-year lease.

Chinese ‘spy’ at heart of Westminster: How ‘lawyer’ targeted an ex-energy secretary and shadow secretary during at least five years of manoeuvring in UK’s corridors of power 

Christine Lee’s penetration into the heart of the British political establishment has been breathtakingly successful.

The Chinese lawyer consorted in plain sight with Prime Ministers, peers and senior MPs, pumping hundreds of thousands of pounds into both Labour and Tory coffers as, according to MI5, she sought to extend Beijing ’s influence.

Her law firm, with offices in London, Birmingham and China and Hong Kong, bankrolled former Labour front-bencher and Corbyn ally Barry Gardiner MP’s office, to the tune of over £500,000 over five years and her son Daniel Wilkes worked in the same office as his diary secretary with his own Parliamentary pass for several years – at least, until his sudden resignation today.

A long line of politicians from all sides of the House have also been happy to be associated with Ms Lee until MI5’s damning assessment of her ‘interference’ – covertly seeking to gain influence – was issued in a bombshell alert.

She has donated £5,000 to the Liberal Democrats in 2005 and another £5,000 to now party leader Ed Davey in 2013, when he was energy Secretary in the coalition government.

So popular was she in Westminster that just two years ago Lee received glowing praise from Theresa May as she was given a Points of Light award for making a difference in her community.

This has given China a foothold in a shipping lane dominated by rival power India.

Last month, China struck a deal with CELAC, an alliance of Latin American and Caribbean States that encompasses almost all the countries in the region including major players such as Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Uruguay and Chile.

While light on specifics, it sets out a broad roadmap for relations between China and countries in the region up to 2024 — committing them to deepening ties between governments, banks, companies and educational institutions.

Most of the commitments appear routine — such as pledges to preserve the environment, develop green tech, and promote equality and sustainability — but some will certainly give minds in the Pentagon pause for thought.

The first is a commitment to exchange nuclear technology and promote ‘relevant practical projects’ including the training of nuclear scientists to ‘bring into play advantages offered by nuclear technology and nuclear energy’.

The deal specifies that this will be ‘peaceful’ and elsewhere commits the parties to pursuing ‘nuclear disarmament’, but will almost certainly cause concern because the technology used to enrich nuclear fuel can be repurposed to make weapons-grade material for use in bombs.

Washington has also been issuing increasingly frequent warnings about Chinese firms providing assistance to the military in recent months, and is likely to fear that any civilian nuclear firms which establish themselves in South America are being used for a dual purpose.

Likewise, China’s pledge to help develop space programmes for the ‘peaceful exploration of space’ is also likely to be a cause for concern.

In the past, Beijing has tried to pass off the launch of spy satellites as ‘communication’ craft, and recently pushed back on accusations that it had tested a hypersonic orbital nuke by saying it was actually a civilian spacecraft meant for the ‘peaceful exploration of space’. 

China has been particularly generous with nations that have agreed to cut relations with Taiwan — a country in the East China Sea which Beijing claims as a province — and establish ties with Beijing instead.

In 2005, China rewarded the island of Grenada, which has an annual turnover of just $1.8billion, with a brand new $55million cricket stadium after it cut relations with Taiwan.

Similarly, in 2018, the Dominican Republic received Chinese investments and loans thought to have topped $3billion after it also cut ties with Taipei.

Beijing has largely stepped away from vote-buying projects in recent years, however, and now largely focuses on economic deals aimed at providing work for its citizens, acquiring resources such as rare earth materials and food, and providing long-term trading and economic benefits.

As part of the agreement, China will help to develop the space programmes of Latin American nations including the ‘construction of ground infrastructure’ in the region (pictured, China launches a satellite from its territory on December 30)

China is in talks with Argentina to build a new nuclear reactor at its Atucha complex (pictured), and has pledged to share more nuclear technology with South American countries over the next two years

China will also establishing a growing number of Confucius Institutes in the region – schools that teach Chinese language and ‘culture’, but which the US says actually push state propaganda on children

In 2018, leaders from the region and South America — as part of a trading bloc known as CELAC — signed up to a 2019-2021 roadmap with China that aimed to deepen political and economic ties, including in trade, agriculture, infrastructure and science and technology, among other areas.

More recently, a Chinese firm took full control of Jamaica Kingston Freeport in April this year, the island’s largest container port and one of the largest in the Caribbean.

China has also invested heavily in Cuba, helping to modernize the country’s second-largest port — Santiago de Cuba — with a new shipping terminal opening in 2019.

Chris Bennett, managing director of The Caribbean Council, a London-based trade organisation, told MailOnline: ‘Over the last 15 years, China has steadily acquired control of strategic assets necessary for its trading interests across the wider region.

‘It controls two of the largest container ports in the region, has acquired large amounts of land in Jamaica, Guyana and Suriname, multiple oil and gas blocs and large-scale mineral deposits of bauxite and gold.

‘By tying concessional finance to the use of Chinese contractors and Chinese imported labour, China has forced out many Western contractors who cannot compete with the cheap Chinese credit being offered.’

Christine Lee:  Twice married-mother, lawyer and ‘spy’: How ‘Tiger woman’ was lauded for promoting China’s interests in the west … so were MPs her ‘useful idiots’?

To the casual observer, Christine Lee, 58, would appear to be a respectable British solicitor whose firm also has offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, London and Birmingham.

But she was described two years ago by eminent authors Professor Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg as one of a number of so-called ‘Tiger Women’ with Anglo-Chinese heritage devoted to promoting China’s interests in the west.

Hidden Hand: how the Chinese Communist Party covertly influences the West, revealed in 2020 that officials had for years been cultivating contacts at the top of British politics and business.

The book claimed senior politicians – on both the Right and the Left – were acting as ‘useful idiots’ to push the Chinese line at the top of government.

And it seems little has changed since then.

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.

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.

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.

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.

These positions are, the authors argued, unmistakable signs of her importance to the Party. Yet she was also the secretary of the Inter-Party China Group of the British parliament.

Many are also in the 48 Group Club, nicknamed the ‘icebreakers’, a networking hub set up in the 1950s by members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Hamilton Ohlberg claimed this group is one of the most glaring examples of the way ‘Beijing courts Britain’s elites’.

Lord Heseltine and Lord Prescott are both listed as patrons of the group but Lord Heseltine said he did not think anyone would believe he was part of a Communist conspiracy.

The book’s authors stated: ‘In our judgement, so entrenched are the CCP’s influence networks among British elites that Britain has passed the point of no return, and any attempt to extricate itself from Beijing’s orbit would probably fail.’

In 2006 Lee founded the British Chinese Project (BCP), whose stated aim is to ’empower the UK Chinese community, making them aware of their democratic rights and responsibilities, whilst ensuring the needs and interests of the community are heard at a political level’.

It sounded a very worthy multicultural enterprise But its Chinese name has different echoes. It translates as ‘British Chinese Participation in Politics’, linking it to the huaren canzheng infiltration policy of the CCP to maximise political influence in democracies by promoting trusted people of Chinese heritage.

Lee had apparently been married five years earlier in Birmingham before she wed British solicitor Martin Wilkes in Solihull, West Midlands in 1990.

Their elder son Michael, 30, – now also a solicitor – was born in 1991 and his brother Daniel, 27, in 1994 and the family lived in the leafy Birmingham suburb of Coleshill. Both sons were born in Birmingham.

Martin Wilkes is listed, along with Ms Lee, as a director of Christine Lee & Co (Solicitors) Ltd. Other solicitor directors named in Companies House documents are David Tat Wai Ho and Jennifer Ho.

Political website Guido Fawkes reported that Lee ran BCP alongside her son Michael and in 2015 the pair congratulated Tory MP Alan Mak for his victory in the General Election, referring to ‘our Chinese candidates’.

Mr Mak – now a government whip – told Guido he had ‘never met [and] never spoke with [Lee]’, adding the BCP were a ‘bad bunch’ who he’d ‘always stayed away from’.

Lee’s involvement in British politics began during the prime ministership of Tony Blair, when she formed an alliance with Labour MP and minister Barry Gardiner, more recently Labour’s shadow international trade secretary.

Her law firm donated more than £500,000 to the MP and his constituency party. In 2007, while a Blair government minister, Gardiner became the chair of her British Chinese Project and the two of them embarked on a programme of making friends in Westminster, boosted by Gardiner’s formation in 2011 of ‘an all-party group to represent Chinese citizens in Britain’.

One of Lee’s children, Michael Wilkes, became its vice chairman while another son, Daniel, worked in Gardiner’s parliamentary office, with his salary paid by his mother’s firm.

The firm defended these political links in 2020, saying: ‘Christine Lee & Co is proud of its record of public service and the support it has provided to the democratic process. We have never sought to influence any politician improperly or to seek any favours in return for the support that we have provided.’

Mr Gardiner said at the time her son had volunteered in his office before securing employment through an open appointment process and that he had never been ‘improperly requested by, or influenced by’ the firm in his political work.

He issued a similar statement today, though adding this time that Daniel Wilkes had resigned from the MP’s office this morning.

The MP has been a strong advocate of closer Sino-British relations. and investment in Britain by China’s sovereign wealth fund. He backed the construction of a nuclear power station at Hinkley Point by a state-owned Chinese corporation, which Theresa May’s government put on hold due to concerns about national security.

He is also reported as having strongly opposed internal party criticism of Chinese involvement in the Hinkley Point project.

Lee appeared to develop a good relationship with David Cameron while he was prime minister. In January last year, she received a Points of Light Award from Prime Minister May, in recognition of her contribution to good relations with China.

A photo of Lee in front of 10 Downing Street showed the iconic door draped with red banners displaying New Year couplets in Chinese characters and announcing the ‘Golden Era’ of Sino-British relations. The symbolism is blunt and powerful: Lee at the heart of Britain’s government, being embraced by it.

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