Tory MPs urge tougher action against China after cyber attacks

Tory MPs have urged ministers to take a tougher line on China after security services confirmed Beijing-backed hackers were responsible for a cyber attack targeting Britain’s election watchdog and a surveillance operation on British politicians.

China’s ambassador will be called to explain his country’s actions, which have led to Beijing gaining access to the personal data of about 40 million voters held by the electoral commission.

The National Cyber ​​Security Centre, part of GCHQ, also found that four British parliamentarians critical of Beijing were targeted in a separate attack.

Two individuals and a front company linked to the cyber espionage group APT31, which has ties to China’s Ministry of State Security, have been hit with sanctions by Britain as a result.

Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister, told MPs that Beijing’s attempts to interfere in British democracy and politics had been unsuccessful, and that the government had strengthened its cyber defenses since the attacks.

“We will not hesitate to take swift and strong action where the Chinese government threatens the interests of the United Kingdom,” he said. “The United Kingdom assesses that these actions demonstrate a clear and persistent pattern of behavior indicative of hostile intent from China.”

The revelation marks a new low in relations between Beijing and London. Conservative MPs urged the government to take tougher action against Beijing and add top Chinese officials to a register of hostile state actors.

The lawmakers whose email accounts were targeted in the hacking attempt, which is believed to have involved sophisticated spear phishing, were prominent critics of China.

All four were members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, an international network of lawmakers with an aggressive stance toward Beijing. They included former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, former minister Tim Loughton, Scottish National Party MP Stewart McDonald and David Alton.

At a press conference after a meeting with the head of Parliament’s security service on Monday, the three MPs called for China to be formally declared a threat to British security.

Duncan Smith said he and his colleagues had been “facing harassment, impersonation and hacking attempts from China for some time” but MPs would not be “silenced by Beijing”.

He added: “We must now enter a new era of relations with China, dealing with today’s Chinese Communist Party as it really is, and not as we would like it to be.”

Robert Jenrick, the former immigration secretary, said: “The government is clearly not holding China to account for their attack on our democracy. Taking three years to punish two individuals and a small business is ridiculous. This weak response will only embolden China to continue its aggression against Britain.”

Another Tory MP, Alicia Kearns, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “This is sadly insufficient given the severity of the attack and the intentions behind it. Two individuals and one company are not a deterrent. We now need import controls and a comprehensive sanctions regime.”

The government was also criticized for responding too slowly to the cyber attacks, which took place between 2021 and 2022.

Duncan Smith described the British response as “like an elephant giving birth to a mouse”, while McDonald accused ministers of “showing up to a gunfight with a wooden spoon”.

Luke de Pulford, executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, said the government was “a bit reluctant to say that China had actually done this”.

David Cameron has raised the cyber attacks on Britain’s democratic institutions directly with Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister. The Foreign Secretary addressed Tory MPs about the issue at a meeting of the backbench 1922 committee on Monday evening.

The former prime minister, who was deeply involved in the ‘golden era’ of Britain’s relations with China, has faced questions about his own role in a Beijing-backed development program in Sri Lanka. He was criticized by Labor on Monday for meeting only Tory MPs.

In a statement, Cameron said: “It is completely unacceptable that organizations and individuals affiliated with the Chinese state have targeted our democratic institutions and political processes.

“While these attempts to disrupt British democracy have been unsuccessful, we will remain vigilant and resilient in the face of the threats we face. We will always defend ourselves against those who seek to threaten the freedoms that underpin our values ​​and democracy.”

The two Chinese nationals were named Zhao Guangzong and Ni Gaobin and the company was named as Wuhan Xiaoruizhi Science and Technology. Under the sanctions, British citizens and companies will have their assets frozen and barred from handling their money or resources, while they will be subject to a travel ban to the United Kingdom.

Pat McFadden, the shadow cabinet minister, said he “supported efforts to prevent attempts by China or any other state to interfere with or undermine the democratic process, or attempts to prevent elected representatives from having their say, expressing their views to express their views or to cast their vote. without fear or favour.”

Labor has warned China it will crack down on interference in British democracy if it wins the next election, the Guardian has learned. Catherine West, the shadow secretary of state for Asia, traveled to Beijing last week for the first meeting between the opposition and the Chinese government since Keir Starmer became leader.

China has denied the claims. “China’s so-called cyber attacks against Britain are completely fabricated and malicious slander. We strongly oppose such accusations,” said a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Britain.

“China has always vigorously combated all forms of cyber attacks, according to the law. China does not encourage, support or tolerate cyber attacks.”

A parliamentary researcher, Chris Cash, who worked for the China Research Group, an organization co-founded by Tom Tugendhat, now the security minister, was arrested last year on espionage charges.

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