The Metropolitan Police confirmed that two men, one in his 20s and another in his 30s, were arrested in March under the Official Secrets Act.
The police did not release names, as is custom here, as neither suspect has been charged. Both were given bail until October. They are being investigated by the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command, which oversees espionage inquiries.
The arrests were reported over the weekend by the Sunday Times of London, which said the younger man worked as a researcher for senior lawmakers from the Conservative Party in the British Parliament, and so would have full access to the Houses of Commons and Lords, as do staff and journalists.
The newspaper said the researcher under suspicion worked for Alicia Kearns, chair of Foreign Affairs Committee, and her predecessor, Tom Tugendhat, now security minister.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he confronted China’s Premier Li Qiang on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in India on Sunday.
He told British broadcasters in New Delhi that he’d expressed his “very strong concerns about any interference in our parliamentary democracy, which is obviously unacceptable.”
Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said on Monday that Sunak needs to say when his government first challenged China on the matter — in March after the arrests or after embarrassing news broke.
For its part, China called the charges “fabricated.”
Mao Ning, spokesperson from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said: “The so-called claim that China is conducting espionage against the U.K. is completely fabricated and China firmly opposes it. We urge the U.K. to stop spreading false information, anti-China political manipulation and malicious slander.”
The British law firm Birnberg Peirce issued a statement from the parliamentary researcher, without using his name, who said, “I am completely innocent.”
“I feel forced to respond to the media accusations that I am a ‘Chinese spy,’” the statement said. “It is wrong that I should be obliged to make any form of public comment on the misreporting that has taken place.”
He continued: “It is vital that it is known that I am completely innocent. I have spent my career to date trying to educate others about the challenge and threats presented by the Chinese Communist Party. To do what has been claimed against me in extravagant news reporting would be against everything I stand for.”
In a briefing with reporters on Monday, Sunak’s officials spokesman was asked why the prime minister was not prepared now to categorize China as a “threat.”
“We’ve set out our approach to China. We are always very clear-eyed about the risks. They do represent an epoch-defining challenge to the U.K. We do not think it is right to reduce the approach to just one word given we need to take the opportunity to engage with China, not to just shout from the sideline,” said the official spokesman, who by tradition, is not named.
Lawmakers from Sunak’s own party appeared to be the most angry, asking aloud why they had to learn of the arrests first in a newspaper. Other members said the allegations about spying meant that a harder line should be taken against China.
Later on Monday, the House of Commons is scheduled to discuss the matter.
Christian Shepherd in Taipei contributed to this report.