It’s been revealed that two people – including a parliamentary researcher – have been arrested on suspicion of spying for China. Why is the news causing so much trouble for the government?
In March a Conservative parliamentary researcher and director of an influential policy group on Beijing stopped coming to work in Westminster. Now, thanks to a report in The Sunday Times, we know why. The 28-year-old, named by The Times as Chris Cash, was one of two men arrested on suspicion of spying for China.
Cash is claimed to have links with senior Conservative MPs including Alicia Kearns and the recently-appointed Security Minister Tom Tugendhat, although it is understood that Cash only had contact with Tugendhat before he took on his new role.
The other man is in his thirties, but has not yet been named. Neither man has been charged and both are on bail until October.
They have been arrested under the Official Secrets Act, a 100-year-old piece of legislation which is designed to stop people trading confidential information. But it’s understood that neither of them had access to that sort of information, because they didn’t have security clearance.
What Cash did have access to was senior politicians who are known to be sceptical about China. The suggestion is that he could have used that position to influence them or interfere in some way, which he denies.
He said in a statement: “I feel forced to respond to the media accusations that I am a ‘Chinese spy’. It is wrong that I should be obliged to make any form of public comment on the misreporting that has taken place. However, given what has been reported, it is vital that it is known that I am completely innocent. I have spent my career to date trying to educate others about the challenge and threats presented by the Chinese Communist Party. To do what has been claimed against me in extravagant news reporting would be against everything I stand for.”
Beijing has also rejected the allegations, telling the UK to “stop spreading false information”.
Whatever the truth, it has prompted outrage from MPs who feel they should have been told about the arrests, rather than finding out about them in a newspaper.
China-sceptics are also using the arrests to push for a more cautious relationship with the world’s second largest economy at a delicate time for UK-China relations.
We are yet to see where the story about the two arrested men will lead. They may never be charged. But it’s a headache for a government that is trying to balance concerns about human rights abuses and potential interference with the need to do business with a global power.