UK invites China to AI safety summit despite parliamentary spying row

19 September 2023, 15:33 | Updated: 19 September 2023, 15:39

China has been invited to a British AI summit
China has been invited to a British AI summit. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

The UK has invited China to an artificial intelligence conference, despite accusing Beijing of running a spy in the British parliament.

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The AI safety summit is being held from November 1-2 at Bletchley Park, with politicians, tech leaders and academics set to attend. The conference is part of the UK's push to become a leader in AI regulation.

The government said earlier that it would continue to engage with China despite accusing its intelligence services of employing a British parliamentary researcher as a spy.

Announcing that China had been invited on Tuesday, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said: "We cannot keep the UK public safe from the risks of AI if we exclude one of the leading nations in AI tech.

"That's why China has been invited to our AI Safety Summit in November.

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James Cleverly
James Cleverly. Picture: Getty

"The UK's approach to China is to protect our institutions and infrastructure, align with partners and engage where it is in the UK's national interest."

Bletchley Park, in Buckinghamshire, is the site of the Enigma codebreaking programme in World War Two.

Relations between Britain and China have been strained since news emerged of the spying allegations. Rishi Sunak confronted Chinese premier Li Qiang at the G20 summit in India over "unacceptable" interference in democracy.

The parliamentary researcher arrested on suspicion of being the spy said he was "completely innocent".

Tory MP Tobias Ellwood warns, "China is the biggest geopolitical threat that we face this century"

Mr Sunak said the UK must speak with China "directly and frankly".

He told MPs: "I have been emphatically clear in our engagement with China that we will not accept any interference in our democracy and parliamentary system.

"We will defend our democracy and our security.

"So I was emphatic with Premier Li that actions which seek to undermine British democracy are completely unacceptable and will never be tolerated."

A spokesperson for Downing Street insisted the UK "must be in the room" with China.

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Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch also warned against breaking ties with Beijing to achieve net zero. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has also backed a constructive relationship with China.

But there is disquiet among some Tory MPs over the government's approach to China, with some calling for the country to be labelled an official threat.

The former prime minister, Liz Truss, had signalled such a move was likely during her short stint in Number 10, but Mr Sunak has taken a more conciliatory approach.

Other Tory MPs, including former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, have warned about a potential "espionage cell" in Westminster on behalf of China.

Meanwhile China itself said the spying claims were a "witch-hunt".

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official Victor Gao also told LBC's Andrew Marr that the UK government should not, ‘overestimate its impact on the global scene and view Britain as a rival of China".

"Let's make peace rather than agitating for war," he added.