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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, February 23, 2023


Chinese State Surveillance

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-07832, in the name of Alex Cole-Hamilton, on Chinese state surveillance.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the reported shooting down of a Chinese state surveillance balloon over the United States on 5 February 2022; understands that this is not the first occasion that such a balloon has been deployed over the sovereign territory of another state; considers this to be a worrying expansion of attempts by the People’s Republic of China to monitor and gather information in a covert way; expresses concern about the reported implications of China’s National Intelligence Law regarding the ability of the state to gather private data and information from within the UK, including through those companies required to cooperate; notes the reported call by Alicia Kearns MP, Chair of the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, for UK citizens to delete the TikTok app from their phones; further notes the reported remarks of the UK Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, who likened the use of Hikvision technology in public surveillance infrastructure to “digital asbestos”; understands that such technology is used by public bodies across Scotland, including in Edinburgh; notes the reports of the intimidation of dissidents, challenges to freedom of expression and the existence of unofficial so-called “Chinese police stations”, including in Glasgow, and notes the calls for both the Scottish and UK governments to undertake a comprehensive investigation into the reach of Chinese surveillance in Scotland.


Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I am pleased to rise for my party to speak in this members’ business debate in my name.

The People’s Republic of China is a huge player on the world stage. It is the second-largest economy in the world. Although its belt and road initiative has funded massive infrastructure projects in more than 150 countries around the globe, China has projected its influence in an unprecedented fashion. Its huge economic clout means that we, too, are heavily reliant on China as a trading partner and as a supplier of the tech that we increasingly rely on to help run our lives. However, there are serious question marks over the influence that China, in the coming months and years, might seek to exert over the many countries that rely on it. Recent events suggest that its intentions might not be entirely benign.

A fortnight ago, a Chinese spy balloon, which was fitted with an array of cameras and solar panels, was shot down over America. The incident took social media by storm, but it should give us all pause and should be treated with the utmost seriousness. It was just one of several surveillance balloons that US officials say have been spotted over no fewer than five continents. That represents an alarming development by a Chinese state whose rhetoric, particularly in relation to Taiwan, has become increasingly concerning.

There is also reason to be concerned about matters much closer to home. It is a point of fact that Chinese national intelligence law requires every Chinese company to co-operate with state intelligence services. That is a fact. That raises huge questions about potential intrusion and misuse of the data that Chinese companies collect through domestic technology that we readily deploy. Many companies operating in the United Kingdom, some of them household names, fall into that category.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

That disparity of data protection also includes things that we add to our mobile phones and computers. There are very serious questions to be asked about how that data is handled and—as Alex Cole-Hamilton said—who has access to it.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

I am grateful to Martin Whitfield for paving the way to the point that I am about to make.

In recent weeks, the chair of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Select Committee advised UK citizens to delete the app TikTok from their phones, given the weight of evidence showing that the Chinese Communist Party could use it, and has used it, to harvest private information. There is even evidence to suggest that people working for TikTok in China have hacked into European data to track down journalists’ sources. That is deeply worrying, and should perhaps prompt us all to consider whether the continued use of TikTok is prudent. That is just the tip of the iceberg.

Hikvision is a Chinese state-owned manufacturer that supplies video surveillance equipment for civilian and military purposes. Last year, Liberal Democrat research revealed that at least 11 local authorities in Scotland are using Hikvision cameras. Those cameras, which are used in the detention centres holding Uyghur Muslims against their will in Xinjiang, are also used by Police Scotland.

Just last week, the UK Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Fraser Sampson, spoke of our having created a network of dependencies on Chinese surveillance technology without sufficient regard to risk. He also likened Hikvision in particular to “digital asbestos”.

Not only are those cameras a threat to our privacy and security, their continued use across Scotland flies in the face of the liberal principles and human rights that we as a nation claim to champion. I have raised the alarm on this numerous times, but little action has been taken. Indeed, Scottish Liberal Democrats have led the way in identifying the threat that those devices pose. Liberal Democrat councillors in Edinburgh in particular have been successful in their calls to have Hikvision removed from the capital’s local government estate.

It is time that the Scottish Government showed some leadership, too. It should echo the warnings of experts and issue an alert advising local authorities and public bodies against the use of such surveillance equipment, particularly equipment that is manufactured by companies linked to the Chinese state and in the orbit of its intelligence legislation. That would be a positive step forward, but Chinese state surveillance runs worryingly deeper than that.

The United Kingdom shares a proud history with the people of Hong Kong, and I led the first debate in this Parliament on the plight of the people of Hong Kong. It is why the former leader of my party, Paddy Ashdown, was the first politician to seek and secure British passports for the Hong Kong Chinese. International solidarity with people who we may never meet is the core liberal principle, and we have offered the people of Hong Kong, who are threatened by the ever-increasing authoritarianism of the Chinese state, safe harbour on our shores.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

We should all reflect on the words of the Sino-British joint declaration back in 1984. However, Scotland’s obligation to the people of Hong Kong runs deeper than that, given this country’s shameful legacy with regard to the opium wars. Does the member agree with me that we have a deep sense of duty and obligation to the people of Hong Kong that runs back many decades and centuries?

Alex Cole-Hamilton

I am grateful to Daniel Johnson for that excellent reminder of Britain’s historical complicity with regard to the plight of the people of Hong Kong and our duty of care to them. That is why I am proud that we have offered them safe harbour on our shores, and visas to get here if they need them. However, the reach of Chinese Communist Party intelligence services touches them even here, under the auspices of, again, that national intelligence law. There are even reports of a secret Chinese police station operating out of a restaurant in Glasgow. I have had direct discussions with Hong Kongers living in Edinburgh who say that their public meetings and events are often disrupted by agents of the Chinese state right here in Scotland.

We have a duty to take that issue seriously and to safeguard Hong Kongers and their allies and supporters from such interference. The danger that is posed by those covert activities is real. Unaddressed, those actions threaten to undermine our liberty, our privacy and even our national security.

We are about to commemorate the anniversary of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and I fear that, in the near future, we will look back on this time with an understanding that we were living in the early years of a new cold war. That is also grimly evident in the Chinese Communist Party’s apparent friendship with Vladimir Putin and its aggressive posture towards Taiwan.

The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has even warned that China could be on the brink of supplying weapons to Russia for use in Ukraine. We must take a stand now. We must be firmly on the side of human rights and international law. As a Parliament and as a country, we cannot and must not be complicit in human rights violations, nor can we be complacent in the face of such a national security threat. That is why the Scottish Government and the UK Government must now undertake an immediate and comprehensive investigation into the reach of Chinese surveillance in Scotland.

There might be some people who think that I am being alarmist or who believe that the surveillance that I am describing is benign. However, I ask them to consider how they would view the situation if companies such as Hikvision and TikTok were run by the Kremlin or if Russian operatives were operating unchecked in our largest cities. If 2022 has taught us anything, it is that we must not take for granted the peace, stability and security that we have been fortunate to enjoy for the better part of the century.


Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

I thank Alex Cole-Hamilton for bringing this debate to the chamber. It offers us a real opportunity to discuss an issue that we should be debating a lot more: our national security. I want to reflect on what the Chinese balloon incident means for us all going about our daily lives and enjoying the freedom of living in a democracy.

There has been much commentary about that recent incident in the context of the wider threat that is posed to the west by China. Last summer, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned that China is

“increasing in their aggressiveness in their rhetoric, but also in their activity”,

noting that Chinese intercepts in the air and at sea have increased drastically over the past five years. Further, John Bolton, former US security adviser, recently described China as

“the existential threat in the 21st century”.

Other observers acknowledge that surveillance in the 21st century is an expected and everyday part of international relations. A recent commentary piece by the Royal United Services Institute described the event itself as

“neither new nor particularly notable”,

although it accepted that the balloon

“stayed in the country’s airspace for a longer period of time than its predecessors.”

Scotland is a safe place to live in, but the United Kingdom is not immune from the threat that is posed by bad actors. Many of us will recall the tragic terrorist murders of Jo Cox MP and David Amess MP, and the radicalisation of British citizens and their recruitment to Daesh during the Syrian conflict.

The current threat level for the UK is “substantial”, which means that an attack is likely. In his recent annual threat update, the director general of the Security Service, Ken McCallum, reiterated that

“No-one should be under any illusion about the breadth and variety of the threats we face”.

He said that those threats include

“Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine bringing war to Europe”


“an increasingly assertive Chinese Communist Party using overt and covert pressure to bend other countries to its will.”

He described how the

“Chinese authorities use all the means at their disposal to monitor ... and ... intimidate ... the Chinese diaspora”,

“from ... forcibly repatriating Chinese nationals to harassment and assault.”

Recent media coverage has focused on so-called overseas Chinese police stations, including one that was reported in Glasgow—a matter that Ross Greer raised with the First Minister late last year. I also note Alex Cole-Hamilton’s comments on his interaction with local students on their experiences.

The reach of the Chinese state also extends to using organisations such as the United Front Work Department to apply pressure on anyone who challenges the regime’s core interests, whether on democracy or human rights abuses. According to the director general,

“We can expect it to increase further as President Xi consolidates power on an indefinite basis.”

I welcome the establishment of the UK Government’s defending democracy task force, which will focus on protecting the democratic integrity of the UK from threats from foreign interference, including that of China. I ask the minister to provide an update on the task force’s engagement with the Scottish Government on its work.

In the meantime, I value and cherish the fact that we live in a nation in which police officers are not routinely armed; in which we can walk around our communities safely; and in which we can speak freely on the things that matter to us. We will not and must not be complacent as we maintain our focus on China’s growing sphere of influence in a volatile international environment, while defending our freedom and democracy.

I again thank Alex Cole-Hamilton for bringing forward an important motion for debate today.


Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I, too, thank my friend Alex Cole-Hamilton for bringing this debate to the chamber. I also thank the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation for the briefing that it has provided. I have worked closely with the committee over the past year to ensure that those who have come to Scotland from Hong Kong are safe and free to live their lives without fear of persecution. I look forward to taking that initiative forward and I encourage colleagues from all parties to join those efforts.

Deputy Presiding Officer, I know that I will not be alone among members in saying that I have found the events in North America over the past couple of weeks very disturbing. It is extremely worrying to see a nation’s sovereignty being so blatantly challenged—and there are worrying signs at home as well as abroad.

I will refer to three areas that cause me concern: Taiwan, illegal police stations and the infiltration of churches in Scotland.

I hope that all members will stand with Taiwan over its independence. I am proud to be a member of the cross-party group on Taiwan, and I visited that country a few years ago. I am interested in whether the minister—either in her summing up or, perhaps, in writing to me after the debate—could let me know what engagement the Scottish Government has had with Taiwan over the past number of months.

As Alex Cole-Hamilton and Audrey Nicoll have alluded to, all of us were shocked to hear of the existence of a secret Chinese police station in Glasgow last year. A report from civil liberties group Safeguard Defenders goes into detail about the working of such stations, which are found around the world. The group found that local Chinese residents are used to do the bidding of the Chinese police.

The situation has caused a great deal of stress to Hong Kongers who live in Glasgow after fleeing their home for fear of persecution. I have spoken to people who say that they do not feel safe walking the streets in case they are accosted by someone representing the regime from which they have fled.

I hope that all parties in the Parliament can commit to ensuring that no foreign nation is unlawfully policing people in Scotland and to doing everything in our power to make those who have chosen to settle in Scotland feel welcome and safe.

Finally, I want to refer to something that I have a special interest in—the apparent infiltration of CCP propaganda in some churches in Chinese communities. On one occasion, a Hong Konger expressed his pro-democracy view in church. That immediately led to a heated debate between him and other churchgoers who were pro-CCP. In the sermon that the priest gave a few days after the incident, he said:

“Hong Kongers should be grateful for what China has done for them and should not be ‘rebellious’. It is great to be Chinese and we should be proud of it. Even ... here in Scotland, we will always be Chinese and should support the country’s policies.”

I call on all church leaders across Scotland to honour their positions, foregoing political allegiances in church and simply pointing people to Jesus, rather than to any earthly authority.

We must stand strong against foreign operations in our country. I hope that members of this Parliament can come together and agree to stand against tyranny and for those in our country who are fleeing persecution.


Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

I, too, thank Alex Cole-Hamilton. It is really important that we use the events of recent weeks and months, in terms of the obvious and explicit use of Chinese state surveillance apparatus over North America, to reflect on what that means and the actions that we should take.

Some of those actions will be very much geopolitical, but some of them are practical and immediate and that is what I want to talk about. As Alex Cole-Hamilton was speaking, I remembered that I had been advised to install a Hikvision camera in my constituency office. I did not install one, because I thought that the quote was too high but, in retrospect, I am quite pleased that I did not.

I also thank Jeremy Balfour for organising the meeting that took place in the Parliament with Hong Kong refugees. I was really struck by their experiences. We are in danger of forgetting the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which took place just a couple of years ago and are the reason why we are seeing an influx of people from Hong Kong seeking refuge in this country.

The events of Covid and subsequently the events in Ukraine have overshadowed the fact that people in Hong Kong have been persecuted by the Chinese authorities. They were protesting against an extradition law that would have seen people from Hong Kong extradited for trial in mainland China, in direct contravention of the Sino-British agreement in 1984. Article 13 of that joint declaration stated explicitly that the rights of civil liberty and freedom of speech would be upheld in Hong Kong in the future.

The protests resulted in 10,000 arrests of protestors and there are now 1,200 political prisoners, according to the White House, which announced the figure on 26 January as it extended the ability of people to seek refuge in the US. Let us just understand the scale of that figure of 1,200 political prisoners. In 2019, there were less than 8,000 prisoners in totality in Hong Kong’s jails, meaning that more than 10 per cent of those in Hong Kong’s jails are political prisoners. I find that statistic horrific and I think that we must seek to fulfil our duties and obligations both through that agreement in 1984 and through our more historical ones that I alluded to in my earlier intervention, because we should have a real sense of obligation and duty.

As a nation, we should not be proud of Scots’ role in Hong Kong, and I do not think that enough Scots are fully aware of that. Our role in the opium wars and the unfair treaty ports system was shameful. In reflection of that, we in this country should have a deep sense of duty to welcome people from Hong Kong.

The main point that I took away from the meeting that Jeremy Balfour organised was just how scared people were to speak in an open forum. They were prepared to speak about their experiences only one to one, because they were not sure who they were speaking to and who else was in the room. They were scared to speak their minds and their truth in this building, which struck me quite profoundly. When they spoke privately, they told stories of having been followed, watched, approached and questioned by people acting on behalf of the Chinese state and others holding academic positions at institutions in this country.

I draw three points from my experience. First, as members of this Parliament, we have a role to ensure that people feel safe, that they can approach us and that if they do so they will be treated with integrity and confidentiality.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

I am sorry to interrupt Daniel Johnson’s raising of his three important points, which are excellent. Would he agree that there are Chinese citizens living here in Scotland for whom the Chinese state and the Chinese Communist Party do not speak, and who share our revulsion and concern about the outreach and the efforts to surveil peaceful activities, particularly those of Hong Kong Chinese people here in Edinburgh?

Daniel Johnson

It is extremely important to make the point that, as China is such a huge country, its people will hold a diversity of views. Anyone who thinks that the Chinese state acts and speaks for all Chinese people is severely mistaken. We should defend people who hold different views to those of the Chinese state, whether they be Chinese or otherwise.

I thank Alex Cole-Hamilton for saying that all three of my points are excellent, given that by that point I had stated only one of them. I will continue with the remaining two.

Secondly, we need to recognise the role that our institutions might have had in facilitating such situations. We should note that Australia and Canada recently reviewed their academic relationships, particularly those with the Confucius institutes. Some aspects of such relationships are welcome, but we need to review those that we have in Scotland.

Finally, we should reflect on the role of other countries and the actions that they might be taking. For example, MI5’s director general disclosed that Iran has made 10 attempts to either kidnap or kill its own citizens in the UK. In March 2022, the Turkish embassy was found to have been carrying out surveillance on its citizens here.

Above all else, we must ensure that Scotland is a safe haven for people who seek refuge from despotic and oppressive regimes, whether they be in China or anywhere else in the world.

I invite Elena Whitham to respond to the debate.


The Minister for Community Safety (Elena Whitham)

I, too, am grateful to Alex Cole-Hamilton for providing the Parliament with an opportunity to debate such an important and wide-ranging topic. I am devastated that there are not more members here in the chamber to discuss it.

As members will appreciate, national security and data protection are reserved matters, so we are constrained in the laws that we can make on them. However, as the motion highlights, recent activities are timely reminders of the many continuing threats that we face. As has been mentioned, such developments are further signs of how the global threat picture is changing. Ensuring the security of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom and of their data is a priority for the Scottish and UK Governments.

As members raised earlier, although such matters are reserved, their impacts can be felt across the devolved sectors in Scotland. Ministers take security matters extremely seriously, and the Scottish Government keeps all such policies under review. Members will also be aware that Police Scotland is currently inquiring into reports of an undeclared Chinese police station in Glasgow. It is upsetting to hear about people’s experiences that they have reported to parliamentarians. However, as the inquiry is an operational matter for Police Scotland, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on it in the debate.

In addition, we expect our institutions and businesses to be fully aware of the risks of any international engagement, do proper due diligence and take steps to protect their assets and people. I hope that in my contribution I will be able to provide assurance on those matters.

Daniel Johnson

One of the most key ways in which we in Scotland have an explicit relationship with China is through our academic institutions. Although we would not want that to be treated in a binary fashion, does the minister think that we need to review our academic institutional links with China?

Elena Whitham

It is important that we always look to other countries around the world where such reviews have been carried out. Our educational institutions have close relationships with China, but we must bear in mind that a review of those should not be off the table.

Turning first to what happened in the United States, as Alex Cole-Hamilton will be aware, the US assessment points to a deliberate violation of its sovereign territory and airspace. We stand four-square behind the decisive action taken by the United States and are following the investigation into the incident closely.

The UK Government has indicated that it will conduct a security review to assess the dangers posed by the balloons, and we support its review to protect UK airspace from that type of intrusion. The review will be used to decide whether any changes need to be made to the surveillance of British airspace, and the Scottish Government stands ready to engage in the process when appropriate.

The Parliament will be aware of the efforts of the Chinese Central Government to strengthen its security legislation, as referred to in today’s motion. According to that legislation, everyone is responsible for state security, which is in line with China’s state security legal structure as a whole. The legislation includes articles that could compel businesses that are registered in China, including those that operate overseas or that have operations in China, to hand over information to Chinese intelligence agencies. That has data protection and data security implications in Scotland, as it does globally. Data protection is reserved. The UK Government will continue to monitor the threats to our data and it will not hesitate to take further action if it is necessary to protect our national security.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

I understand entirely the landscape of reserved and devolved competence in this complex issue, which is why I have called on the Government to conduct an audit of the reach and influence of Chinese surveillance potential in our daily lives here in Scotland, and to make local authorities and public bodies such as Police Scotland, which is still using Hikvision surveillance cameras, aware of the potential danger of data breaches that could result from so doing.

Elena Whitham

I am going to come on to that issue in a moment.

As highlighted in today’s debate, the UK Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner’s recent report provides an insight into the extent and potential reach of the national intelligence law of the People’s Republic of China. In response, the UK Government announced that companies that are subject to that legislation should not be able to supply surveillance systems to sensitive UK Government sites.

I repeat the assurances that have been given through recent parliamentary answers to Alex Cole-Hamilton that the Scottish Government takes seriously the threats that this situation poses and is taking action within its powers to expose those issues. The Scottish Government is in the process of a multiyear improvement programme that commenced in 2018, and all existing CCTV kit and equipment is being replaced with a new integrated system, which will have data protection and security keenly at the forefront of our minds.

We are also aware that the CCTV systems in local authorities and Police Scotland include equipment that was supplied by Chinese-owned companies. The document “A National Strategy for Public Space CCTV in Scotland”, which was published in March 2011, is not quite up to date on the world that we live in today and the “digital asbestos” that is in front of us. We must look to improve on that in future, and I will keep the Parliament up to date on how we do that.

The Scottish Government continues to keep in close contact with the UK Government on developments in response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recent recommendations, and we will act accordingly, including consulting with Police Scotland and local authorities on what measures they might take in response to these steps.

Next week marks the start of cyber Scotland week, which is a series of events to make people and organisations more cyberaware and resilient. I encourage all members to consider attending events, to tell their constituents about the week, to visit the portal and to share it on their social media channels. That will give people a chance to pause and think about what apps they might have on their phones and computers. Both the National Cyber Security Centre and websites are useful sources of information, advice and guidance. The NCSC also has social media guidance that covers most major platforms, including advice on digital footprints and privacy settings.

Before I close, I want to comment on human rights and China. We have heard a lot about that today. The Scottish Government’s China policy supports the economic, cultural, educational and social relationships with the people of China in keeping with the values of Scotland. We cannot forget that the majority of people in China want to foster good relations around the world. That means working constructively on global priorities such as tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, as well as challenging China in areas of grave concern such as human rights.

I echo concerns that we have heard around the chamber. We have particular concerns regarding the situation in Xinjiang. There are other situations that we need to raise, such as that of people in China who are being persecuted for their religious beliefs. Perhaps we should also keep at the forefront of our minds the situation in Taiwan and in Hong Kong.

We are clear eyed about our international engagement, including with China. As I previously stated, we expect our institutions and businesses to understand and manage the reputational, ethical and security risks that are associated with their international partnerships.

13:20 Meeting suspended.  

14:00 On resuming—