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LONDON — The U.K. has realized it is going to need more than James Bond to counter Chinese influence and espionage.

Beijing’s massive state-backed effort to infiltrate British companies and research institutions in the race to develop key technologies is mostly not the stuff of traditional spying. And Britain has realized that its response needs to go well beyond the intelligence services.

Matthew Henderson, a former U.K. ambassador to China and now an associate fellow at the Council on Geostrategy, says the great majority of the information gathering carried out by China in the U.K. “is done in open sight” at institutions such as R&D-intensive companies handling sensitive innovations such as graphene, encryption systems and hypersonic tech.

“If we had been clearer as to whether China was really a win-win partner or actually all the time a very strong systemic competitor, we may have made fewer mistakes,” he said. “They’re doing what they can do because we’ve made it so easy for them.”

Changing that means going beyond the spooks. “The message is starting to percolate now that this is not just a problem that can be left to the intelligence and the security agencies,” said Nigel Inkster, formerly at MI6 and currently a senior adviser on cybersecurity and China at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Foreign influence

One part of that is new legislation on combating hostile states that is due to be unveiled by the government next month with the opening of the new parliamentary session by Queen Elizabeth II. Details are scant, but the proposed new law would mandate British nationals working for foreign countries to register their activities or risk a criminal conviction. A wide range of professions, including lawyers and lobbyists, will be subject to the rules. 

The register is aimed at countering threats from authoritarian states such as Russia and China, and is set to be modelled on the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), passed in 1938 in a bid to counter Nazi Germany’s propaganda in the country. 

Supporters of the reform argue the existing Official Secrets Act is insufficient. To prosecute British agents not working for the civil service who help foreign states requires the government to prove that their disclosures have caused harm — a high legal bar.

Inkster and China hawks in the U.K. parliament want the new rules to have teeth. The former argues all British nationals working for other countries should have to disclose those activities, with the exemption, perhaps, of Britain’s so-called Five Eyes security allies — U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand — since they have signed agreements preventing them from spying on each other. But Bob Seely, a Conservative MP who is hawkish on China, believes treating friendly and hostile countries alike might damage Britain’s diplomatic ties.

Luke de Pulford, coordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, warned that the British government could face opposition from MPs if the proposal is not tough enough.

“If it isn’t tough enough to defend the U.K. against the Chinese Communist Party’s interference, there will be another row in Westminster,” de Pulford said.

In the meantime, the Chinese government is also toughening its laws and regulations against spying and espionage. On Monday, it introduced a new anti-espionage regulation allowing the all-powerful national security apparatus to require specific measures for companies and organizations that the authorities consider to be prone to foreign infiltration.

Under the new regulation, the U.K. is considered a “high-risk” destination, with staff from Chinese companies requiring education ahead of foreign trips and de-briefing on their return.

‘Gravity-bending’

A lot has changed since China emerged as a strategic competitor for the West. The definition of national security, which for most of the last century used to cover military capabilities, has now broadened to any critical infrastructure, from nuclear facilities to the water supply network.

China influence and information gathering reach has expanded great to include commercially sensitive data; huge databases of personal information; healthcare records; technological innovations; and intelligence on human rights’ activists, Inkster said.

In a rare speech last week, Jeremy Fleming, director of GCHQ, the U.K.’s communications intelligence agency, warned China is the biggest threat for Western countries when it comes to cybersecurity and control of future digital technologies underpinning their economies and security.

“The threat posed by Russia’s activity is like finding a vulnerability on a specific app on your phone — it’s potentially serious, but you can probably use an alternative,” Fleming said in this year’s Imperial College Vincent Briscoe Annual Security Lecture. “However, the concern is that China’s size and technological weight means that it has the potential to control the global operating system.”

But the real issue is volume. “The sheer scale and size of Chinese collection efforts is unprecedented and does, I would argue, in and of itself have a strategic dimension which is not normally the case for espionage,” said Inkster. “What China is doing is gravity-bending in its consequences. The information we want to steal from China in this country is a lot less than the information that they want to steal from us.”

The Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure, which is part of MI5, warned earlier this month that foreign spies have used LinkedIn to target 10,000 officials in the U.K. and abroad who have access to sensitive information. These platforms make it very easy for hostile intelligence agencies to identify and recruit nationals working in the areas they are interested in.

They also reveal contact data and clues on potential motivations. Common targets include people working in the defense and security sectors, academia, civil servants, pharma and technological industries. “Professional networking websites collectively do constitute very significant vulnerabilities,” said Inkster.

The motivation behind modern influence operations are also harder to spot, said Seely. “For me the issue is about how nowadays foreign countries, using formal or informal actors and partners, being either companies or individuals, can manipulate and subvert Western democracy and policy,” he said. “It goes beyond simply lobbying. The Soviets didn’t work with big financial actors, they didn’t hire Westerners to sit at the board of Gazprom. They were much more ideological and in that sense they were easier to track.”

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