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China Trying to ‘Headhunt’ Powerful Brits, UK Government Claims

LONDON — Chinese spies are actively trying to recruit Brits “with sensitive knowledge and experience,” the U.K. government claimed Thursday, as it defended its efforts to clamp down on interference by Beijing.

In a long-awaited response to a piercing report about the U.K.’s efforts to take on Chinese spying, Rishi Sunak’s government said some of Beijing’s work “crosses the line from influence into interference” — and accepted it needs to up its game.

The report came as Westminster continues to digest news that a British parliamentary researcher with links to senior Conservatives had been arrested in March on suspicion of spying for China, as first reported by the Sunday Times.

The researcher, who has not been charged with an offense, has insisted he is “completely innocent” in a statement issued by his lawyers.

Parliament’s cross-party intelligence and security committee warned in July that Britain has so far proven “completely inadequate” in countering Chinese interference.

But, responding Thursday, the British government said U.K. intelligence services are “acutely aware and vigilant regarding China’s targeting of current and former civil servants,” and insisted “a range of mitigations are in place in order to minimize the risk.”

It defended Britain’s vetting regime for government staff as “robust,” and stressed that civil servants with security clearance “are re-vetted throughout their careers.”

“This re-vetting aims to ensure that those who may be susceptible to pressure or improper influence — or who may even actively seek to act on behalf of a foreign intelligence service — are identified,” the government response said.

The committee’s report argued that U.K. ministers were putting trade and economic considerations above national security concerns. It had urged the government to be wary of attempted Chinese recruitment of those in senior positions in the U.K.

In their response, the government said it “recognises that Chinese recruitment schemes have tried to headhunt British and allied nationals in key positions and with sensitive knowledge and experience, including from government, military, industry and wider society.”

“The government is taking decisive steps to stop active targeting and recruitment of British individuals with sensitive knowledge and experience, including serving and former military personnel,” the response added. “As the committee notes, there is more work to be done.”

‘Glacial pace’

The response may prove more grist to the mill for Conservative China hawks, who feel the governing party under Sunak is not doing enough to take on Beijing.

ISC chairman Julian Lewis, a senior Conservative MP, welcomed the government’s “substantial attempt to respond to our report.” But he blasted the government for arguing that the committee’s work was “outdated.”

“Until two months before publication, we monitored all relevant developments and noted them throughout the report,” he added. “This was not difficult to do given the glacial pace at which the government’s China policy developed.”