Sarah Owen – considered a rising star in Keir Starmer’s party – was among a 20-strong delegation with Christine Ching Kui Lee, whose group, the British Chinese Project (BCP), organised the visit in 2013.
The 58-year-old solicitor is the subject of a security services warning issued to parliamentarians, which alleges she has been seeking to improperly influence MPs on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. Owen, then a 30-year-old prospective parliamentary candidate, visited both China and Hong Kong as part of the group, meeting the British consul general among others.
Pictures unearthed by The Independent show Owen posing with the delegation on the trip, which also featured one of Lee’s sons, Michael Wilkes. It is understood Owen paid for her own flights, but that her accommodation and food costs were covered by the Chinese Embassy. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on her part.
It comes as Downing Street said on Friday that it was “deeply concerning” that Lee “targeted” MPs, with a No 10 spokesman saying that ministers remained committed to strengthening anti-espionage legislation. Meanwhile, in Beijing, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin dismissed the allegations, labelling them “groundless”.
Owen, a shadow minister in Lisa Nandy’s Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government team, as well as being a Labour whip, is the latest politician to be linked with Lee. Fellow Labour MP Barry Gardiner accepted over £500,000 in donations via Lee’s law firm – mostly through funding his staff – as well as employing her other son, Daniel Wilkes, as a diary manager before he abruptly resigned on Thursday.
Lee has been pictured with a host of politicians, including David Cameron when he was prime minister, as well as then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, she was personally praised by Theresa May when she was in No 10 for her BCP work.
A Security Service alert issued to parliamentarians stated Lee had “acted covertly” in coordination with the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Chinese Communist Party. “We judge that the UFWD is seeking to covertly interfere in UK politics through establishing links with established and aspiring parliamentarians across the political spectrum,” it said.
“Lee has been engaged in the facilitation of financial donations to political parties, parliamentarians, aspiring parliamentarians and individuals seeking political office in the UK, including facilitating donations to political entities on behalf of foreign nationals.
“Lee has publicly stated that her activities are to represent the UK Chinese community and increase diversity. However, the aforementioned activity has been undertaken in covert coordination with the UFWD, with funding provided by foreign nationals located in China and Hong Kong.”
Set up in 2006 by Lee, the BCP describes itself on its Facebook page as “a non-partisan, voluntarily run organisation” which “seeks to elevate the presence of the UK Chinese community through Integration, Representation Participation and Education”.
A picture uploaded to the group’s Facebook page in December 2013 shows Owen posing on the visit with other delegates, including Lee, and the then consul General to Hong Kong and Macao, Caroline Wilson, who is now the British ambassador to China. A post alongside it reads: “The twenty member strong delegation is the British Chinese Projects’ first visit to Guang Dong Province and was primarily formed of The British Chinese Project Core team, including Christine lee, Joseph Wu, Michael Wilks [sic], Cohan Chew, Mandy Huang, Edwin Wu.”
It lists other individuals from the three major political parties, including potential candidates for the 2015 general election such as Owen. The post added: “All these individuals constitute passionate individuals who are committed to furthering the political representation of British Chinese in UK Politics. We wish them every success in the future.” Separately, a picture of the group was also tweeted by Wilson, who tagged Owen in her post.
A Chinese for Labour newsletter in February 2014 includes mention of the visit from the group’s then vice-chair, Ash McGregor, who also attended. He wrote: “Along with the British Chinese Project, Sarah Owen (Hastings and Rye Labour PPC) and I visited Guangdong Province and Hong Kong in December. Coming just a few weeks after China’s Third Plenum which committed to key social and economic reforms we met with a number of officials working in economic development as well as political advisors in Guangdong, Dongguan and Shenzhen. It was a great introduction to China and brought home how vast and diverse the country is, the cultural familiarity as well as differences, and the opportunities there are for British business and how we are failing to take advantage of them.”
Meanwhile, Alex Payton, a former Liberal Democrat candidate, wrote a blog about the visit, thanking for BCP for organising the “study tour” – highlighting how the group’s staff were “enthusiastic”. The barrister described the trip as a “real-eye opener”, adding: “It was made clear to us that China intends to continue its economic expansion for the foreseeable future: I very much hope that the UK as a potential trading partner will benefit greatly from that, and let us hope that in China it is the population as a whole who will also see some of the benefits.”
Owen, the first female MP of South East Asian descent, was elected to represent Luton North in 2019. A spokesperson for Owen said: “Sarah joined this cross-party trip to learn more about her own heritage, a number of years before becoming an MP. Sarah has never received any donations from Christine Lee, her businesses or the British Chinese Project.
“Since being elected, Sarah has been vocal in her criticism of the Chinese Government’s human rights record in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and has, as a matter of record, called for the use of sanctions.”
BCP has been contacted for comment. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by McGregor or Payton. McGregor said: “I paid for return flights from London to HK and a single train journey to Guangzhou from HK. The return to HK from Guangdong was by coach and was part of… the itinerary so I expect that was paid for by the regional government.”
He added: “I was not directly invited by Lee. BCP notified Chinese for Labour of the trip and asked that interested individuals come forward.” He said he had not had any contact with Lee for several years. Payton was contacted for comment.
Gardiner has said he did not personally benefit from Lee’s donations and that he had been “liaising with our security services” for many years about her.