Three years ago, Christine Lee received a special award from then prime minister Theresa May in recognition of her pioneering work in fostering close relations between China and Britain.
It was a landmark moment in the life of the 58-year-old entrepreneur, who arrived in Britain from Hong Kong as a child.
She duly posed for pictures outside No 10 Downing Street, the iconic black door draped with red banners celebrating a ‘Golden Era’ in relations between the two nations.
The symbolism of the image was impossible to miss: Lee had reached the heart of Britain’s Establishment and was being embraced by it.
In a personal letter, Mrs May said – in words that now seem hopelessly naïve – ‘I wish you well in your work to further the participation of British-Chinese people in the UK political system.’
For yesterday the smartly dressed, dark-haired Lee was unmasked by our domestic security service MI5 as a Chinese Communist Party agent ‘engaged in political interference’ of MPs on both the Left and Right of the political spectrum.
Christine Lee poses outside No 10 Downing Street
And Mrs May was not the only person in high places to be taken in by the founder of what was called the British Chinese Project, a non-profit organisation aiming to promote engagement, understanding and cooperation between the Chinese community and wider UK society.
She has been photographed whispering in David Cameron’s ear at the GG2 Leadership Awards, and her links with Labour Party politicians date back to Tony Blair’s premiership.
Apart from her involvement with the British Chinese Project, Lee – a persuasive character, with considerable charm – is a lawyer with offices in London and Birmingham who has cultivated top business people as easily as she has senior politicians. Few appear to have realised the closeness of her affiliation with Beijing’s elite but evidence of it has long been there for those who chose to look.
As a representative of the ‘whole Chinese community in the UK’, Lee told a parliamentary home affairs committee some years ago that her business advising Chinese entrepreneurs on how to invest in Britain had an office with five staff inside China’s British Embassy.
At a committee session on the 2006 Nationality Bill, Lee said: ‘They (China’s embassy staff) are on the second floor, we are on the 17th floor. So every time the British Embassy has a problem, they send the people up to us, and we can explain to them in Chinese what is going on.’
Christine Lee and David Cameron at the ceremony of the British GG2 leadership awards in 2015
There is even a picture on social media of a beaming Lee shaking hands with Xi Jinping, the autocratic Chinese president.
According to the authors of Hidden Hands, a highly respected book on China’s influence in Britain: ‘Her links with the CCP go deep. She has been chief legal adviser to the Chinese Embassy in London… an unmistakable sign of her importance to the CCP.’
The book added that Chinese networks, including those run by Lee as so-called friendship and fundraising groups, have become so deeply entrenched among British elites that they have ‘gone past the point of no return’.
Her elevation into high places with all the influence that brings is a far cry from Miss Lee’s difficult past. Her family emigrated to Northern Ireland in the 1970s when she was 12 and she attended a boarding school in Belfast, where she was the only Chinese girl among ‘66 Irish girls’.
Christine Lee pictured with former London mayor Ken Livingstone in 2012
An interview she gave a few years ago to the China Daily – an English-language newspaper owned by the ruling Communist Party – offers an intriguing insight into her background. ‘It is very difficult for a young girl to leave her home and her beloved grandparents and come to live in a cold place,’ she told the newspaper.
‘My English was poor and I couldn’t really communicate with the other pupils which put me in a weaker position than them. There was not a lot of physical bullying, but a lot of verbal bullying.’
She developed a habit of putting seven teaspoons of sugar into her coffee to neutralise the bitter taste but when she asked an ‘Irish girl’ one day to help her with the sugar, the girl – in an act of malice – substituted salt for sugar.
But if they thought the redoubtable Lee would recoil in surprise and dissolve into tears, they were in for a surprise: ‘The girls who were watching thought I would not drink it, but I told myself to drink the entire cup, and show them I am not weak.’ Lee is certainly not that. She teamed up with other victims of the bullies at the school to practise karate so they could protect themselves.
According to the article, it was the unfairness she experienced in her childhood that propelled her towards a legal career.
As a young lawyer, she specialised in immigration cases, helping migrants from Hong Kong settle in the UK. Over time she got involved in the lucrative world of education, advising Chinese parents how to ‘invest in their children’s education and work experience’ in the UK.
Parents with the capacity to invest £1 million in this country qualified for a visa programme that gave their children the right to not only study over here but find jobs too.
Today Lee lives with her husband, a 71-year-old British businessman called Martin Wilkes, in a £1 million house in an upmarket gated estate in the smart market town of Solihull, West Midlands, where neighbours have seen her coming and going in a Mercedes.
The couple are partners in a Midlands-based property company that rents out housing association and council properties.
But Lee’s real claim to fame, as we have seen, is the British Chinese Project. The charity she founded in 2006 not only aims to make politicians more aware of the needs of their Chinese constituents but campaigns for British-Chinese people to vote in general elections.
It was her success in promoting this ostensibly worthy cause that earned Lee that ‘Points of Light’ award from Mrs May in January 2019. ‘I am humbled that it relates to our work for the well-being of the British-Chinese community,’ she said at the time.
Now we know that this was not the entire truth. Her good works provided her with a passport to the upper echelons of British society and enabled her to spy on them for an increasingly sinister foreign power.