Sunak under mounting pressure over ‘feeble’ response to China after two ‘malicious’ cyber hacks

26 March 2024, 00:00 | Updated: 26 March 2024, 10:37

A number of Tory MPs have called out the Government's stance on China
A number of Tory MPs have called out the Government's stance on China. Picture: Getty
Kieran Kelly

By Kieran Kelly

Rishi Sunak is under growing pressure to adopt a tougher stance on China following two "malicious" cyber campaigns in the UK.

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Deputy PM Oliver Dowden said on Monday that Chinese state-affiliated actors were responsible for two "malicious" cyber hacks which targeted "both our democratic institutions and parliamentarians".

Mr Dowden said the attempts were "unsuccessful" and claimed Britain would not tolerate any further campaigns. Two individuals and a company in Wuhan were sanctioned.

But the Government is under growing pressure to up the ante as calls grow among Tory MPs for the UK to adopt a tougher stance on China.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who is among the 43 British MPs and peers targeted by China, labelled the UK's response "an elephant giving birth to a mouse".

"We need to be tough – appeasement never works," the former Tory leader said.

"If you're strong and you tell them what's wrong, and you tell them that eventually they will probably back down but if you don't they just keep taking advantage of you. That's our biggest problem."

Sir Iain Duncan Smith will be on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast from 7am. Listen live on Global Player.

Sir Iain Duncan-Smith, who&squot;s among MPs being targeted, says we can&squot;t be "bullied" by Beijing.
Sir Iain Duncan-Smith, who's among MPs being targeted, says we can't be "bullied" by Beijing. Picture: Getty Images

Meanwhile, chairwoman of the foreign affairs committee, Alicia Kearns, said: “This is sadly insufficient given the severity of the attack and the intent behind them.

“Two individuals and one firm is not deterrence. We need import controls and a comprehensive sanctions regime now.”

Former immigration minister Robert Jenrick added: “The government clearly is not holding China to account for their attack on our democracy. 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.”

Read more: MPs claim 'harassment, impersonation, and attempted hacking' from China

Read more: Britain to hit China with fresh sanctions over voter hack as rogue nations accused of ‘slurs against Princess of Wales’

Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, Mr Dowden said China's "cumulative attempts to interfere with the United Kingdom's democracy have not succeeded".

He said there was an attempt to compromise the UK Electoral Commission between 2021 and 2022 and attacks against UK parliamentary accounts in a separate campaign in 2021.

Addressing MPs in the Commons yesterday, Mr Dowden said: "I want to reassure people that the compromise of this information whilst it is obviously concerning typically does not create a risk to those affected.

"I want to further reassure the House that the commission has worked with security specialists to investigate the incident and remove the threat from their systems.

"The commission has since taken further steps to increase the resilience of their systems."

Mr Dowden said calling out such behaviour was part of the UK's defence, with allies - including the US - set to issue similar statements to "hold China to account for the ongoing patterns of hostile activity targeting our collective democracies".

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak. Picture: Getty

He said that two people and an entity associated with APT31 have been sanctioned by the UK Government.

"This email campaign by APT31 was blocked by Parliament's cybersecurity measures. In this case it was entirely unsuccessful," Mr Dowden said.

"However, any targeting of Members of this House by foreign state actors is completely unacceptable.

"Taken together, the United Kingdom judges that these actions demonstrate a clear and persistent pattern of behaviour that signals hostile intent from China.

"That is why the United Kingdom has today sanctioned two individuals and one entity associated with the Chinese state-affiliated APT31 group, for involvement in malicious cyber activity, targeting officials, Government entities and parliamentarians around the world."

The Chinese government denied launching cyber attacks against the UK.

CCP spokesman Victor Gao told LBC's Tonight with Andrew Marr that the idea that China had launched cyber attacks on the UK was “completely ridiculous”.

He continued: "If anyone in Britain thinks that the Chinese government or authorities at large would have any interest in hacking into the British politicians accounts to gain information, I think that allegation is ludicrous.

"Anyone in the Chinese government and authorities wanting to do that is completely out of their mind."

But ex-MI6 chief Nigel Inkster told Andrew that China is a threat that should be “taken seriously”.

After China's 'malicious' cyber-attack, Andrew Marr hears from Victor Gao

A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in London said: "The so-called cyber attacks by China against the UK are completely fabricated and malicious slanders.

"China has always firmly fought all forms of cyber attacks according to law. China does not encourage, support or condone cyber attacks.

"At the same time, we oppose the politicisation of cyber security issues and the baseless denigration of other countries without factual evidence.

"We urge the relevant parties to stop spreading false information and stop their self-staged, anti-China political farce."

Earlier on Monday, a number of MPs claimed to have been subjected to "harassment, impersonation and attempted hacking from China for some time."

In his address, Dowden described the targeting of members of the House as "completely unacceptable".

The UK needs to show China 'it means business', says Sir Iain Duncan Smith