Looking back, not for a moment did it occur to me that my friend Liu from the Chinese Embassy was an agent of any description, let alone a spymaster.
For one thing he seemed, well, too genial. And sometimes almost childlike. Whenever he took a sip of his drink, beer usually, he would shoot me a mischievous grin and declare ‘Cheers’. For some reason this always made him giggle, as though there was a similar sounding word in Mandarin, but with an altogether fruitier meaning.
We always met in a Chinese restaurant and we laughed a lot. Mainly silly things due to misunderstandings caused by language. His English was poor but somehow we muddled along. He promised to help set up some interviews in China, or so he said. Cheerful, gentle, bespectacled, a bit overweight, Liu was likeable.
And then one October morning, Richard from MI5 rang and I never saw Liu again.
We met every few months for lunch, a chance for me to question him about the inner workings of the security services and maybe elicit a juicy nugget that might make a story
As a defence journalist, I had many dealings with Richard, a smart and trusted contact, one of the few in the organisation officially authorised to speak to the press.
We met every few months for lunch, a chance for me to question him about the inner workings of the security services and maybe elicit a juicy nugget that might make a story. In truth, Richard was unfailingly clam-like, but at least he made me feel I was pushing in the right direction.
‘Hi Richard. What’s up?’
‘Hi Sean. What are you up to today? Free for lunch?’
Something about the cadence in his voice betrayed urgency. ‘Sure,’ I replied.
‘Great. I’m bringing someone along I’d like you to meet.’
I arrived ten minutes early but Richard and his guest, a petite blonde woman in her early 30s, were already there. It was a quiet, unfussy restaurant in Mayfair and they were sitting at a corner table at the back. They clocked me first. Of course they did.
Normally my verbal sparring with Richard began with small talk. ‘What have you been working on, Sean?’ or ‘How’s the family?’ Not this time.
‘Sean, this is Jane. She’s from counter-intelligence. We’d like to talk to you about a Chinese Embassy official we know you’ve been meeting.’
‘What? Hang on,’ I spluttered. ‘Counter-espionage? What’s this about?’
Leaning forward, Jane laced her hands together, resting them between her cutlery on the white tablecloth. ‘You’ve been meeting with a colonel in the Chinese Army,’ she said.
To my ears, this brief statement managed to convey a kind of triumphant accusation. As I formed a response, she cut across me. ‘The man you have been meeting is the head of intelligence at the embassy. That means he’s a spy and a threat to national security and he seems to be particularly interested in you. ‘So we’d like to know how you met and what the two of you have been discussing.’
Everything about Jane seemed efficient and economical, even the way she crossed her arms as she awaited my reply. My gut instinct was to tell them both to get lost. What they were saying seemed absurd. Liu, a spy? It was difficult to believe.
‘How do you know I’ve been meeting with him? Have you been following me?’
‘We can’t tell you that,’ said Jane.
An internal drama played in my head: agents tracking me across London; anonymous men in parked cars capturing my meetings with Liu on film; my entire life dissected. Suddenly the intensity of our conversation was deflated by a solicitous waiter, eager to take our order for starters.
When he disappeared, Richard picked up where Jane left off. Sensing my anxiety and confusion, he said: ‘Look Sean, we just want to know what you two have been talking about. This is for your own protection. There will be a reason why you have been approached. The Chinese intelligence service believe you will be useful to them. They will try to compromise you, then exploit you.’
And so I recounted the story of my dealings with Liu, while simultaneously reappraising every facet of our relationship, looking for clues I missed at the time.
Some 18 months earlier, I was in the office feeling restless, having not long returned from Afghanistan where I was embedded as a reporter with the British Army.
I yearned for another adventure and hit on the idea of writing a series of articles about the Chinese military. The People’s Liberation Army was growing exponentially. It comprised more than one-and- a-half million troops and enjoyed a defence budget of about £100 billion. The Chinese Navy had just built one aircraft carrier and was planning to build a further three and fill them with stealth jets invisible to radar, a first-strike weapon. This was back in 2012, and although the focus of the West was the threat posed by Islamist extremism, China was militarily ambitious. In those days, Anglo-Sino relations were decidedly better than they are now. China’s economy was booming and the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was making overtures to Beijing. The message was that the UK wanted to be part of China’s future.
Without much hope, I applied to the embassy for a visa. Perhaps I might get to visit some Chinese military bases and interview some of their top brass. Wildly ambitious, I know, but there’s no harm in thinking big, and if you don’t ask you don’t get. I followed up my application with a phone call and left a message for the military attaché.
To my surprise, he returned the call within a few hours and we arranged to meet for lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Swiss Cottage in North-West London.
Arriving by taxi, I found a nondescript, curious little place, its most notable feature being a colourful fish tank. Liu – suited, late 40s – rose to welcome me. Save for a Chinese couple at another table, we were the only diners. Looking back, I recall that Liu (I never knew him by any other name) was treated with some reverence by the waiters, who seemed rather subdued around him. ‘Don’t worry, we have our own account here,’ he would later tell me when I tried to settle the bill.
I explained that I wanted to get a visa to China to research my stories and outlined what I had in mind. ‘Is it possible?’
Liu smiled like an eager-to-please child. ‘It’s possible,’ he said.
At our second meeting, I told him about my time in Afghanistan and I tried to get him to talk about China and the military. Usually I resorted to pidgin English and progress was slow. Sometimes he was clearly following my conversation and would smile and nod and make some observation of his own.
At other times he seemed more distant. But he was never anything less than friendly. I was aware that he was a colonel – I assumed a regular soldier – and I told him I too had a military background. Before I became a journalist, I was an officer in the British Army in Northern Ireland, although I neglected to mention that sometimes the work involved counter-terrorism.
He explained he was talking to Beijing, but that I would have to be patient. At our next meeting, months later, he suggested that I might visit Beijing for the big annual military parade. Politely, I said this wasn’t really what I had in mind – this would be covered by the foreign correspondents. I needed a story of my own.
Liu nodded thoughtfully. He would see what he could do, but warned it might take time.
Sitting in the Mayfair restaurant, Richard and Jane listened to my story without interruption but suddenly Richard interjected: ‘Did he ever give you anything?’
I began to feel ever more uneasy. I explained that at our second meeting, I had given Liu a copy of Bomb Hunters, a book I wrote about being embedded with a Bomb Disposal Unit in Afghanistan. Liu seemed thrilled. When we met for lunch the next time, he gave me a Chinese military magazine and attached to it a DVD about Chinese bomb disposal experts. ‘Did you play it?’ Jane asked, and I noticed that she was discreetly making notes in a pocket notebook.
‘No. It’s still at home unwrapped.’
‘Get rid of it,’ Tony added. I sighed and continued my story, wondering what they would seize on next.
For our third or fourth meeting, we switched, at Liu’s suggestion, from the Swiss Cottage venue to another Chinese restaurant in Piccadilly, far more upmarket and glitzy in comparison. This time, the conversation turned to education.
Liu told me about his eight-year-old son, how he worried whether the school he attended was pushing him hard enough. He explained that his boy received extra maths tuition before and after school. Poor kid, I thought.
I told him I was very happy with the independent school my children attended and he was interested and asked lots of questions. I explained it was fee-paying and that the cost was ridiculous. Oddly, Liu seemed particularly fascinated by this.
At this point, Richard glanced quickly at Jane and with a knowing half-smile said: ‘That is something they could exploit. You tell them your school fees are too expensive and they offer to pay them if you are willing to hand over your defence and security contacts.’
‘But what use are my contacts to him or anyone else?’ I replied. ‘It’s taken years for me to build up a decent contacts book. They’re unlikely to speak to someone with a Chinese accent or anyone else for that matter.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Richard insisted. ‘You have to understand that the Chinese intelligence service are after everything that can possibly be of use to them. Any intelligence gets swept up or stolen and fed back to Beijing, where it is analysed and fed into a vast global picture. They are stealing material now which may not be any use to them at the moment but could be in the future. In their eyes, everything has a value.’
Chastened, I spoke then of my last meeting with Liu only a few days earlier. He had invited me to a party at the defence section of the Chinese Embassy in Hampstead, a red-brick three-storey house in Lyndhurst Road, once the preserve of intellectuals, artists, actors but now taken over by the super-rich. Some years earlier, I read that a Putin crony had bought a mansion on the road for £40 million. Apart from an abundance of security cameras, there was little about the embassy building that indicated its true function.
Once inside, I was among a sea of military types, many of them in uniform, including a small number of British officers. Pictures of Chinese dignitaries hung on the walls. We gathered in one large room, spilling out into the garden. As I surveyed the gathering before me, I couldn’t help noticing how ill-fitting the Chinese officers’ uniforms seemed in comparison to the made-to-measure British. I sought out Liu and found him looking flustered. He had been talking to a Chinese general and seemed under pressure.
‘How are you?’ I enquired warmly. He smiled and we exchanged more pleasantries but, for reasons unclear, he shuffled off. Over the next hour and a half I made several attempts to engage him, but each time he politely fobbed me off. Later, I introduced myself to some of the British officers, who raised their eyebrows when I said I was a journalist. It was interminably dull. I found Liu and made my excuses.
As I detailed all this to Richard and Jane, it struck me that perhaps this was where I was spotted with Liu. Had someone seen our exchanges and reported back to MI5? Was one of their own people mingling among the guests? Or perhaps the Swiss Cottage restaurant – used by Chinese spooks as a sort of canteen – was under observation. I suppose I’ll never know.
With our main courses completed, along with my story, the table fell briefly silent, my MI5 companions deep in thought. ‘Did you ever leave your phone or computer unattended?’ asked Richard.
‘Good. If you do go to China, you have to assume you will be followed, your room will be bugged and if you take a phone, make sure it’s one you can leave behind – same goes for a computer. Any electronic device you take with you will be tampered with the moment it is left unattended.
‘If you continue to meet with this colonel, you must assume that everything you say will be reported back to Beijing. You need to be very careful.’
The meeting then ended. Jane turned to me and said: ‘Thanks for your time, Sean. Hopefully you’ll never see me again.’
Then she stood up, straightened her jacket and left.
Richard, now more relaxed, stayed for coffee and settled the bill. ‘One last thing’, he said as we he got up to leave. ‘Don’t take this personally, but if you do go to China and you’re sitting at the hotel bar one night and suddenly a twentysomething beautiful Chinese girl starts making small talk, the chances are she’s not after your body.’
I never did make it to China. And when I recently contacted the embassy to check if Liu was still the defence attaché, an official said he had long since moved on.