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Number of Chinese spies in Britain is ‘unquantifiable’, ex-Army intelligence officer warns – with fears it could run to ‘hundreds of thousands’

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The number of Chinese spies in Britain is ‘unquantifiable’, an ex-Army intelligence officer has warned – with fears it could run to ‘hundreds of thousands’ 

Reports say that the number of Chinese agents employed in intelligence gathering in the UK is reaching new heights.

Col Philip Ingram, a former Army intelligence officer told The Telegraph: ‘Quantifying the number of Chinese intelligence sources in the UK is impossible. 

‘Article 7 of China‘s national intelligence law states that all Chinese organisations should ‘support assist and cooperate’ with the Chinese intelligence efforts, meaning every citizen could be used overtly or without their knowledge by the Chinese state to gather information.’

Intelligence sources believe that Chinese agents are active in academia, among both students and lecturers, and in business and the arts. 

Reports say that the number of Chinese agents employed in intelligence gathering in the UK is new heights. Pictured: Russian president Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese president Xi Jinping on May 16

Reports say that the number of Chinese agents employed in intelligence gathering in the UK is new heights. Pictured: Russian president Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese president Xi Jinping on May 16

Reports say that the number of Chinese agents employed in intelligence gathering in the UK is could reach the 'hundreds of thousands'. Pictured: The MI5 HQ in London

Reports say that the number of Chinese agents employed in intelligence gathering in the UK is could reach the ‘hundreds of thousands’. Pictured: The MI5 HQ in London

Col Philip Ingram (pictured), a former Army intelligence officer told The Telegraph: 'Quantifying the number of Chinese intelligence sources in the UK is impossible'

Col Philip Ingram (pictured), a former Army intelligence officer told The Telegraph: ‘Quantifying the number of Chinese intelligence sources in the UK is impossible’

But in some cases, the people gathering the information may not even be aware that they are being exploited for intelligence by the Chinese state. 

In October the head of MI5 Ken McCallum said an estimated 20,000 Britons had been approached by Chinese state actors on LinkedIn in the hope of stealing industrial or technological secrets.

He said the industrial espionage was happening at ‘real scale’, and he estimated that 10,000 UK businesses were at risk, particularly in artificial intelligence, quantum computing or synthetic biology.

A government source told defence publication National Security News: ‘MI5 has limited resources so resources have to be prioritised. The terrorist threat level remains “substantial” which means an attack is likely but in reality the challenges currently posed by China and Russia are more pressing.’

The source believed that as many as 20 Chinese embassy officials in the UK were likely to be operating as spies.

Ken McCallum (pictured) revealed Beijing has more than doubled its underhand approaches to UK workers on professional networking sites like LinkedIn

Ken McCallum (pictured) revealed Beijing has more than doubled its underhand approaches to UK workers on professional networking sites like LinkedIn

The source believed that as many as 20 Chinese embassy (pictured) officials in the UK were likely to be operating as spies

The source believed that as many as 20 Chinese embassy (pictured) officials in the UK were likely to be operating as spies

Warnings have been issued that Iranian-backed terror attacks in the UK were more likely in the wake of the war between Israel and Hamas. Pictured: The Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham

Warnings have been issued that Iranian-backed terror attacks in the UK were more likely in the wake of the war between Israel and Hamas. Pictured: The Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham

He added: ‘But the numbers of agents, civilians who have been recruited by the Chinese intelligence services may run into the hundreds of thousands.

‘There are probably people in the UK who have no idea that they are supplying intelligence to the Chinese government. These may be Chinese nationals working or studying in the UK or British citizens.’

Meanwhile Iran is also believed to be using organised crime gangs to conduct intimidation operations and plot assassinations in the UK.

Warnings have been issued that Iranian-backed terror attacks in the UK were more likely in the wake of the war between Israel and Hamas.

In August, Home Secretary at the time Suella Braverman warned that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was the biggest threat to the UK’s national security.

She spoke about the group ramping up its activities and amid reports that Iranian spies are trying to recruit organised crime gang members to strike out at regime opponents. 

In February 2023, then-Security Minister Tom Tugendhat told Parliament that Iran’s government has been behind 15 credible threats to kill or kidnap British citizens or people based in the UK people in just over a year. 

The threat from China and Iran comes as the threat from Russia also remains at large. 

In August, Home Secretary at the time Suella Braverman warned that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was the biggest threat to the UK's national security

In August, Home Secretary at the time Suella Braverman warned that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was the biggest threat to the UK’s national security 

Protesters at a march in central London on January 21, 2023 against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

Protesters at a march in central London on January 21, 2023 against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking during a ceremony, in Tehran, Iran, on March 6, 2023

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking during a ceremony, in Tehran, Iran, on March 6, 2023 

After the 2018 Salisbury Novichok attack, Britain expelled 23 Russian spies as part of its ‘full and robust response’ to the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

It meant Russia lost a large chunk of their intelligence officers overnight and has since been trying to recruit new assets to plug the gaps.

Britain’s support for Ukraine in the war against Russia has also led to increased spying activity.

The threats come after Britain’s security services were drafted into a General Election task force to protect MPs and parliamentary candidates from violent attacks, as well as to combat online interference by Russia, China and Iran.

Last week The Mail on Sunday revealed the secret Whitehall Joint Election and Security Preparedness (JESP) unit – which includes MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – will monitor extremist threats candidates may face as they canvass in their constituencies, amid heightened tensions caused by the Israel-Gaza war.

JESP will also act to identify and remove fake videos and social media posts by hostile states, which are weaponising AI to spread disinformation to dupe British voters.

A Government official said at the time: ‘If there are threats against candidates from ideological sources, like extremists, then MI5 and counter-terrorism police will become involved.

‘If hostile states become involved in meddling in the election, then this will be flagged by the security services.’

JESP is part of the Government’s Defending Democracy Taskforce established by Security Minister Tom Tugendhat and which has been given £31 million to protect MPs and electoral processes.

The newspaper also revealed the MoD has drafted in the Army’s 77th Brigade – which specialises in ‘information operations’ – to combat interference and disinformation from abroad.



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