The UK is facing the international embarrassment of having to concede that an SRA-regulated lawyer, whom MI5 outed as an agent of the Chinese state, has vanished with the authorities unable to land a proverbial glove on her.
Six months ago, the security services issued an unprecedented warning that Christine Ching Kui Lee, 58, had been working in parliament “to subvert the processes.”
In the blaze of publicity which followed, it emerged that she had poured £500,000 into the coffers of Labour frontbencher Barry Gardiner, and also cosied up to former Tory prime ministers David Cameron and Theresa May, with the latter even presenting Ms Lee with an award.
The money, which was listed at the Electoral Commission as coming from her law firm, Christine Lee and Co, was, according to MI5, really from “foreign nationals based in Hong Kong and China … done covertly to mask the origins of the payments.”
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) announced it was following events closely, and security minister, Damian Hinds, promised a comprehensive review. Tory grandee Iain Duncan Smith, among a string of British politicians placed on Chinese sanctions for criticising its regime, said Ms Lee should be made to leave the UK.
“I think this is clearly a form of spying … Why in heaven’s name is such an agent allowed in the country?” said Mr Duncan Smith.
Now, National Security News has learned Ms Lee is not only free to come and go as she pleases, but that there is ZERO prospect of criminal charges being brought against her, or even that the SRA will take action against either her or the firm which bears her name.
The main difficulty stems from the fact that MI5’s “Security Service Interference Alert” (SSIA) is nothing more than a series of allegations, plus the fact that politicians on all sides have little appetite when it comes to any probes into the extent that they might have been duped.
Mr Gardiner, who gave Ms Lee’s son a job in his parliamentary office, found himself on Sky News having to insist that he had not been taken for a fool. Altogether, Ms Lee donated more than £700,000 to UK parliamentarians, including £5,000 to Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey back in 2013.
Ms Lee has been regulated by the SRA since February 2002 and is required to adhere to its code of conduct. But while the code is explicit when it comes to taking action against lawyers who, for example, abuse their position “by taking unfair advantage of clients or others”, it doesn’t extend to their conduct outside of work.
The married mother of two had not been engaged by any of the politicians as a lawyer, and as there are no criminal convictions, or even charges, the SRA has nothing to go on.
As one party familiar with the SRA disciplinary process put it: “You can be disciplined under the code for failing to act professionally towards a client seeking to sell their house, but there is nothing in it which covers allegedly being a Chinese spy.”
Martin Thorley, a British academic who revealed back in January that he had known about Ms Lee in this shadowy world for so long that she had featured in his PhD thesis on UK-China hidden relations, said that what the saga encapsulated was that “the law and the political landscape in the UK haven’t caught up with the new reality.”
Mr Thorley, who is a post-doctoral research fellow at Exeter University, added ominously that Ms Lee was one of many who didn’t fit a traditional spy mode, but were nevertheless here and active, pointing also to the recent revelations concerning Ehud Sheleg, a major Tory donor and onetime treasurer, alleged to have flooded the Conservative party with dirty Russian money.
“A warning of this nature is unprecedented. I would argue that it reflects the changes going on at international level and domestic attempts to keep up. When we think of the Cold War, we think of a world of spies and intrigue,” he said.
“Though tempting to think of the current developments in geopolitics as a return to the Cold War, much has changed, not least the degree of globalisation. Spies and their world still exist of course, but these days’ adversarial-state-linked actors might be far more visible, mingling with political leaders and donating to political parties.
“That makes things very difficult for the UK’s security services. Lee represents a prominent case but hers is one of many. How should the politically neutral security services react when a wealthy businessman with obvious links to the Russian state obtains a position as treasurer of the Conservative party having made significant donations?
“The law and the political landscape in the UK haven’t caught up with the new reality. I expect the warning about Lee was simply a case of addressing a problem as best as one can, in lieu of the correct tools required to counter this type of danger.”
Ms Lee and her husband Martin Wilkes, who is also a solicitor, moved into a large detached £985,000 five-bedroomed home in a Solihull gated development in July last year, although only his name appears on the Land Registry documents.
She, meanwhile, has not been seen there since the allegations first surfaced. Nor, for that matter, has she turned up at her law offices in London’s Soho or in Birmingham. When we contacted Christine Lee and Co for a comment on our story, her office refused to put anyone on the phone and severed the call within a minute.
The latest annual return for Christine Lee and Co, dated last month, shows Ms Lee transferring all of her shares to two other lawyers at the firm, while her husband Martin still owns the majority shareholding. According to a company announcement, Ms Lee ceased being the person of significant control (replaced by her husband) on 24 May 2022. Full unaudited accounts for the year end 31 March 2021, show that business is good, with the firm netting more than £1.5 million. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on the part of her husband or their sons.
What is perhaps less clear, particularly in the gulf that exists between the allegations from MI5 and any prosecutable evidence, is why the solicitor or her firm hasn’t turned to the law to contest the alert. There is no record of any claim at the High Court, where defamation claims have to be heard within one year of when the action occurred.
There is also speculation as to whether Ms Lee has done a deal with the security services, but such arrangements are never made public.
The Lee case echos of a similar scandal in the US, when there was widespread media coverage of a Chinese spy by the name of Fang Fang who had an affair with Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-CA), who sits on the foreign intelligence committee in the House of Representatives.
The authorities there also failed to bring charges and Swalwell survived the scandal, Mark Toth writes.