Minister calls China ‘security threat’ after Britain and US blame Beijing for hacking

A government minister has described China as a “security threat” as the government faces demands to officially label the country a “threat”.

The government currently describes China as a “game-changing challenge” but has faced pressure from MPs in the House of Commons to formally improve its assessment of Beijing.

These calls increased in volume on Monday after confirmation that Chinese spies were behind “malicious” cyber attacks on the election commission and individual MPs and colleagues.

Former ministers Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Suella Braverman were both among prominent backbench voices calling for China to be labeled a threat.

When asked on Tuesday morning whether she would feel comfortable describing China as a threat, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan told Times Radio: “As I have said before, I am not in the diplomatic service or in the ministry of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but it is clearly a threat to security. .”

Ministers have previously resisted calls to change their language on China, sticking to their description of the country as a “challenge”.

But Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, who formally blamed Beijing for the cyber attacks in a House of Commons statement, appeared to suggest China could soon be declared a “threat”.

He told MPs that “we are currently in the process of reaching a collective government agreement” on the issue, and that “the behavior I have described today will clearly have a very strong influence on the decision we make”.

Cabinet tensions over the issue have reportedly surfaced, with some ministers pushing for tougher action against Beijing while others push back against concerns it could damage economic and trade ties.

In his statement, Mr Dowden said a group known as APT31, believed to be under the control of China’s Ministry of State Security, was behind the attacks.


Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden told the House of Commons that Beijing was responsible for a cyber attack on the Electoral Commission (UK Parliament/Andy Bailey/PA)

He announced sanctions against a front company, Wuhan Xiaoruizhi Science and Technology Company, and two individuals, Zhao Guangzong and Ni Gaobin, associated with APT31.

The Chinese ambassador has been summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to answer for his country’s actions.

Chinese spies are likely to use stolen data through hacking to target dissidents and critics of Xi Jinping’s government in Britain, British intelligence services believe.

Monday’s announcement was part of a joint move by Britain and its allies to expose the extent of China’s cyber espionage activities.

US officials said the hacking group APT31 has targeted the sensitive data of politicians, journalists, academics, dissidents and US companies for more than a decade.

The “prolific global hacking operation” backed by the Chinese government aimed to “suppress critics of the Chinese regime, compromise government institutions and steal trade secrets,” US Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said.

The hackers sent more than 10,000 “malicious” emails to the targets to gain access to personal information, US prosecutors said, adding that the criminals threatened to “undermine democracies and threaten our national security.”

The US on Monday indicted seven of the alleged Chinese hackers.

On Tuesday, New Zealand suspected hackers linked to the Chinese government launched a state-sponsored operation that targeted the country’s parliament in 2021, but said it did not have the legal powers to impose sanctions.

Britain said Beijing-linked hackers were behind the attack on the electoral commission, which exposed the personal data of 40 million voters, as well as 43 people including MPs and peers.

Some lawmakers targeted by Beijing said the response did not go far enough.

Conservative former minister Tim Loughton told Sky News: “We are going to impose sanctions on two people, two fairly modest officials, and a private company, which employs 50 people. That’s just not good enough.”

The Electoral Commission attack was identified in October 2022, but at that point the hackers had already had access to the commission’s systems containing the data of tens of millions of voters for more than a year.

The registers kept at the time of the cyberattack included the name and address of everyone in Britain registered to vote between 2014 and 2022, as well as the names of those registered as overseas voters.

The National Cyber ​​Security Center (NCSC), part of GCHQ, said it was likely that Chinese state-linked hackers had stolen emails and electoral register data.

Combined with other data sources, this was most likely used by Beijing’s intelligence services for large-scale espionage and transnational suppression of suspected dissidents and critics in Britain.

There is no evidence the hack has had any impact on Britain’s largely paper-based electoral system.

Mr Dowden stressed that the local elections in May and the general election later this year would be safe from Chinese cyber attacks.

He told the PA news agency: “Yes, I can guarantee that our election processes will be secure.”

The Chinese government strongly denied that it had carried out, supported or encouraged cyber-attacks on Britain, describing the claims as “completely fabricated and malicious slander”.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in London said: “China has always vigorously combated all forms of cyber attacks in accordance with the law.

“China does not encourage, support or tolerate cyber attacks.

“At the same time, we oppose the politicization of cybersecurity issues and the baseless denigration of other countries without factual evidence.

“We urge the relevant parties to stop spreading false information and put an end to their self-staged anti-China political farce.”

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