Rishi Sunak dismisses Tory fury at ‘feeble’ China hacking response as he says Britain is ‘more robust’ with Beijing than allies who ‘haven’t ditched Huawei kit’ | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #hacker

By James Tapsfield, Political Editor For Mailonline

15:16 26 Mar 2024, updated 15:22 26 Mar 2024

Rishi Sunak dismissed Tory fury at his ‘feeble’ China hacking response today as he insisted Britain is ‘more robust’ than allies.

The PM compared the UK’s stance favourably with that of friendly nations as he swiped that many had not ditched Huawei from comms networks.

The intervention, in an evidence session with the Commons Liaison Committee, came as he struggled to contain Tory tensions over China

The UK publicly identified Beijing as being behind cyber attacks on the elections watchdog and and slew of politicians yesterday.

But the government’s retort, sanctioning just two individuals and a small firm in Wuhan as well as summoning the ambassador for a dressing down, drew condemnation from MPs across parties.

The PM gathered Cabinet this morning, with signs that ministers are at loggerheads on how tough to be in imposing new restrictions on Chinese firms operating in the UK.

Rishi Sunak dismissed Tory fury at his ‘feeble’ China hacking response today as he insisted Britain is ‘more robust’ than allies
China has flatly denied cyberattacks on UK institutions. Pictured, Xi Jinping

Challenged by Labour MP Liam Byrne at the committee session this afternoon, Mr Sunak denied that the UK was merely ‘thinking about’ acting while allies went ahead.

‘Our approach to China is undoubtedly more robust than, I’d say, most of our allies, in fact, actually,’ he said.

Mr Sunak pointed to European countries not removing Huawei equipment from their telecommunications networks, and not placing similar restrictions on exports of sensitive technology to China.

He said the UK’s foreign investment regime was the most recently implemented and therefore the most robust.

‘I am entirely confident that our approach to dealing with the risk that China poses is very much in line with our allies and in most cases goes further in protecting ourselves,’ he said.

Mr Byrne replied: ‘It clearly doesn’t.’

In a dramatic statement to the Commons yesterday, Mr Sunak’s deputy Oliver Dowden said Beijing was responsible for hacking the personal data of up to 40million voters in an attack on the Electoral Commission three years ago. 

The personal emails of MPs and peers critical of the regime were also targeted.  

In a dramatic statement to the Commons yesterday, deputy PM Oliver Dowden said Beijing was responsible for hacking the personal data of up to 40million voters in an attack on the Electoral Commission three years ago
Rishi Sunak (pictured in Barrow yesterday) is struggling to contain Tory tensions over China after a backlash at his ‘derisory’ response to cyberattacks
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a member of the Inter-parliamentary Alliance on China (Ipac) who has faced sanctions from the regime, said the Government needs ‘to show China we mean business’

In a move coordinated with Washington, he said that Britain ‘will not tolerate’ similar activity, although he insisted the democratic system had not been undermined.

Beijing denied claims it had carried out, supported or encouraged cyber attacks on the UK, describing them as ‘completely fabricated and malicious slanders’.

A Chinese embassy spokesman urged London to ‘stop spreading false information and stop their self-staged, anti-China political farce’.

Mr Dowden indicated that ministers discussing a move to put China on the ‘enhanced tier’ of countries deemed a threat to the UK.

The National Security Act 2023 came into force in December after being passed by Parliament last summer.

It updated espionage laws by creating several new offences aimed at making it easier to detect and disrupt potential foreign threats operating on home soil.

It set up a Foreign Influence Registration Scheme designed to create a clearer picture about which individuals or entities may be a risk to Britain’s interests.

There are two tiers, including a ‘political influence tier’ and ‘enhanced tier’.

The former requires individuals or entities who ‘carry out political influence activities in the UK at the direction of a foreign power’ to identify themselves.

The latter gives ministers the power to force people or entities to identify themselves for a broader range of activities, such as working in Britain at the direction of a foreign power.

If they fail to identify themselves they could face up to five years in jail.

Placing Beijing on the enhanced list could result in anyone working in Britain ‘at the direction’ of Beijing having to identify themselves.

However, ministers look to be torn over whether that should cover all Chinese firms, including those that insist they are not controlled by the state.

Security minister Tom Tugendhat is reportedly pushing for a hard line, but others such as Kemi Badenoch are concerns about the impact. 

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a member of the Inter-parliamentary Alliance on China (Ipac) who has faced sanctions from the regime, said the Government needs ‘to show China we mean business’.

‘The reality is sadly, we have looked unprepared to challenge China over their terrible abuses,’ he continued.

‘We need to show China we mean business. There’s no good watching America do that and we don’t do the same.

‘We’re massively dependant on China now, the universities are so dependant on them for their students and students fees. We’ve got huge dependency in what we buy from China.’

Former home secretary Suella Braverman said that it was now ‘absolutely clear that China is a hostile threat’.

Former immigration minister Robert Jenrick said: ‘The Government clearly is not holding China to account for their attack on our democracy.’

Zhao Guangzong and Ni Gaobin, along with the Wuhan Xiaoruizhi Science and Technology Company Limited were those sanctioned.

Foreign Secretary David Cameron described China’s conduct as ‘completely unacceptable’. 

But the peer, who pioneered a ‘golden era’ of closer relations with Beijing a decade ago, was challenged over his own dealings with the country during a meeting with Tory MPs last night. One security source described him as the ‘great panda hugger’.

The Electoral Commission attack was first identified in October 2022 but the hackers had been able to access its systems for more than a year.

Foreign Secretary David Cameron (pictured with Xi Jinping in 2015) described China’s conduct as ‘completely unacceptable’

The registers held at the time of the cyber attack include the name and address of anyone in the UK who was registered to vote between 2014 and 2022.

The National Cyber Security Centre, part of GCHQ, said it was likely that Chinese state-affiliated hackers stole emails and data from the electoral register.

This was ‘highly likely’ to have been used by Beijing’s agents for large-scale espionage and transnational repression of perceived dissidents and critics based in the UK.

The US State Department said it was charging seven suspected Chinese hackers with a series of cyber offences. 

These relate to a 14-year campaign of disruption involving more than 10,000 malicious emails targeting thousands of politicians, journalists, businesses and officials.

The seven were all named as being members of the shadowy APT31 hacking group which the US said is used by China’s ruling communist party to ‘repress critics of the Chinese regime, compromise government institutions and steal trade secrets’. The State Department also said dozens of British parliamentary accounts had been targeted by Beijing.

‘Taking three years to sanction two individuals and a small company is derisory. This feeble response will only embolden China to continue its aggression towards the UK.’ 


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