Beijing tried to hack Stewart McDonald. Here he talks exclusively to our Writer at Large about the threat China poses to a seemingly unaware Scottish Government

CHINA has Stewart McDonald in its sights. But rest assured, the reverse is also true. The SNP MP, who was the party’s Westminster defence spokesman, has continually warned about the risk China presents to the world, Britain, and Scotland. For his troubles, Chinese intelligence tried to hack him.

McDonald, who learned about the attack last month, sat down with The Herald on Sunday for an in-depth discussion about China’s growing menace.

He’s not holding back. The Scottish Government comes in for serious criticism. It’s too over-reliant on China, and failing to take the risks seriously. The SNP must change course, he believes, and realise China threatens Scotland’s security. Our elections will be hit with interference, he warns.


SNP MP Stewart McDonald STY NM for SUNBigRead.. Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times..11/4/24.

SNP MP Stewart McDonald. Photo: Gordon Terris 


McDonald is seasoned when it comes to hostile state attacks. Russian intelligence hacked him last year for his Ukraine support.

China attacked him and many other parliamentarians. However, only McDonald, former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory minister Tim Loughton, and cross-bench peer David Alton revealed they were victims. All four are Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) members, an international network focused on Beijing’s threat to global security.

British parliamentarians including other Scottish MPs and another SNP MP were also targeted, McDonald explains, but they’re not going public. In total, 43 parliamentary accounts were attacked, as were 400 email addresses associated with IPAC (Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China) in democracies around the world.

While the attack on McDonald was unsuccessful, Chinese intelligence did successfully hack Britain’s Electoral Commission.

McDonald was hit with a booby-trapped email, which if opened would have allowed Chinese hackers inside his phone. Luckily, the operation was “intercepted”.

Political acquaintances of McDonald were also victims of Chinese intelligence, including a Czech senator and French senator successfully hacked. An attack on a Belgian MP McDonald knows was stopped by security services.

Successful hacks, McDonald explains, would have allowed Chinese intelligence “to take control of my device, download whatever’s on it, and activate the camera and microphone”.

The British government sanctioned two Chinese citizens and a tech company linked to Chinese intelligence over the hack attempt. McDonald called the response “pathetic”, adding: “The response should be much more muscular. It’s like turning up to a gunfight with a wooden spoon.

“We’re inviting them to come back and do it again. Who’s to say Network Rail won’t be next? Or the NHS? If they’re only getting tickled under the chin, they’ll keep doing this.”

McDonald says the “supine response” proves there’s “no China strategy worth the name. The Chinese are laughing at us”.


Map and Flag of the Republic of China on microchip of a printed electronic card. Concept for supremacy in global microchip and semiconductor manufacturing.

The British government sanctioned two Chinese citizens and a tech company linked to Chinese intelligence over the hack attempt



The Electoral Commission attack worries McDonald. It gave Beijing access to details on 40 million voters. “Aggregated data is enormously valuable to authoritarian states. We know from the Cambridge Analytical scandal just how useful aggregated data can be,” he said.

Voters can be targeted for disinformation on social media. “It’s hugely useful if you’re planning to meddle in future elections – which are coming up this year. Don’t underestimate the value of this to a country which wants to meddle in elections and has a history of meddling in elections.”

McDonald said he was targeted because China “doesn’t like what I’m talking about, especially in the context of Scotland and our economic over-dependence on China, and the need to wean ourselves off that dependence with a proper, robust, long-term strategy”.

He said: “That’s not in China’s interests. So it doesn’t surprise me my name is on a list. When you go after authoritarian regimes, this happens. It happened to me with Russia. Now it’s happened with China. The purpose is to frighten you into silence.

“I’m not going to stop talking about our economic over-dependence, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the genocide of Uyghur Muslims – all the things they don’t like Western politicians talking about.”

McDonald believes “China is the defining challenge every country must face this era”.

He isn’t advocating “no trade with China. Nobody serious believes that. Nor do I believe you can’t engage with China. You must engage – it’s a world power”.

However, McDonald says we must treat China “as it is today” and forget “how we hoped China would be 10-15 years ago”. That “golden era” is over. There was “cross-party” belief then that “more trade would see China open up, change behaviour, act like a normal country. It didn’t happen”.

This policy was “pushed” by the Tory-LibDem coalition under David Cameron, and “bought into by my own party. The Scottish Government bought into it, Alex Salmond bought into it. A new consensus is needed. We must ‘de-risk’ our relationship with China”.

Other European nations and America are already de-risking – but not Scotland or Britain.

What are the risks? “In a Scottish context, it’s the three Es: energy, exports and education.”


Hacker in a dark hoody sitting in front of a notebook with digital Chinese flag background and binary streams cybersecurity concept




FINANCIALLY, Scottish universities are over-reliant on Chinese students. The cash effectively props up universities and maintains the SNP’s free tuition policy. “I’m not saying Chinese students are unwelcome – they’re absolutely welcome. But we’ve got universities where the percentage of international income from one source – China – is far too high. In Glasgow University, it’s about 40%.”

McDonald says if China invades Taiwan or launches maritime or economic blockades, the result would be “reciprocal sanctions” between China and the West. Beijing would target Scottish products like whisky and salmon.

China “hasn’t ruled out war to unify Taiwan”. Global instability means “circumstances couldn’t be better for moves on Taiwan. China says it wants to unify Taiwan and has now stopped talking about doing that peacefully. When authoritarian governments tell you what they plan, believe them. Too many people have their fingers in their ears”.

In the event of war, McDonald says, “imagine if suddenly all that Chinese money flowing into our universities is turned off, all those students recalled, no new students permitted to come and study. That’s a massive problem. It’s the single biggest threat to my party’s free tuition policy”.

Analysis shows invading Taiwan “would cost the global economy $10 trillion – that’s Covid, the 2008 financial crash and the Ukraine war combined, and then some”. Beijing could cut supply chains and starve the West of vital technology produced predominantly by China, causing economic chaos.

China is involved in Britain’s nuclear industry, and Britain and Scotland heavily depend on Chinese goods for the green transition. “We must step back and look at where risk is, and where dependency is high to the point it threatens our economic prosperity, national resilience and values.”


People walking among the cloisters beneath Bute Hall at the University of Glasgow..

The University of Glasgow



CHINESE state-owned companies have become “critical to our green transition”. China “dominates the market” for solar panel materials. “On a Scottish and UK level, we’re in the position where to hit net zero we must import solar panels made by slave labour”.

Around 40% of the global supply of solar grade polysilicon “comes from Xinjiang where slave labour of the Uyghurs is rife. Unquestionably, we’re doing our green transition on the back of slave labour”. America and Europe are much more pro-active on limiting exposure to Chinese power.

China dominates the “cellular module” market – essential technologies in electric cars, fridges, broadband routers, electricity meters, and microwaves. Beijing controls “around 60% of global supply”. How might this over-dependence threaten “critical national infrastructure or the NHS”, McDonald asks.

Cellular modules are needed for “firmware updates” so technology can function. Update denial would render technology useless. Data can be extracted, McDonald says, so car movements can be monitored. “Chinese parts,” McDonald adds, were found in “sweep-downs” of UK Government cars. The Texas energy grid “was hacked via cellular modules”.

China could “switch all Glasgow’s traffic lights to green. Why on Earth would you allow your number one economic threat to have any involvement in nuclear power stations, in critical infrastructure? It makes no sense”.

He added: “China wants to corner the market on green technology, electric batteries, solar panels, turbine assembly.”

TikTok, owned by a Chinese company, is under intense scrutiny in America. McDonald is concerned about it here. “Chinese national security laws require any entity to hand over information to the Communist Party – whether that’s from TikTok or cellular modules.” Chinese Hikvision surveillance cameras are “used in councils across Scotland”.

He warned Scotland not to view the Chinese threat as an issue about “faraway foreign policy. It’s domestic. It’s a threat to energy security and data security. It’s a technological threat. We must be one step ahead to protect citizens”.

McDonald says Confucius Institutes also leave Scottish education over-reliant on China. Glasgow University’s Confucius Institute says it “promotes understanding of contemporary China”.

However, McDonald says they “threaten open information, they discourage and suppress discussion on issues like Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, the Uyghur genocide, so the dialogue on campuses isn’t critical of the Chinese Communist Party”.

McDonald claimed Confucius Institutes can be used “to gather basic information on who’s doing and saying what”. Sweden closed Confucius Institutes. They’re closing in America. Canada is turning against them.

He is also concerned about “intellectual property theft” at universities. “China does this on an industrial scale.” McDonald worries about technologies “for military application”.

Chinese “state entities posing as private business” are involved in university research despite being “controlled by the Chinese military. Greater screening is needed at national security level”.


SNP MP Stewart McDonald STY NM for SUNBigRead.. Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times..11/4/24.

SNP MP Stewart McDonald STY NM for SUNBigRead.. Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times..11/4/24.



CONSULATES are used for “transnational repression” – monitoring and threatening dissidents and intimidating their families in China – as are so-called ‘secret police stations’ like the one uncovered operating from a Glasgow restaurant.

McDonald says “in Scotland, we’ve had Hong Kong students” protesting what’s happening in their home being “spied on, their photographs taken and information sent back to Chinese police. Their families are visited by police and harassed to get the student in Scotland to shut up”.

He added: “The Edinburgh Consulate isn’t just issuing visas and passports.” McDonald knows pro-democracy campaigners in London who have been “attacked and beaten up”.

When it comes to Scotland and de-risking, McDonald believes fear is a factor: “The frustration is that Scotland feels it can sit this out, that it’s too difficult. There’s an element in Edinburgh where people think ‘if we do too much, it might end up causing us more trouble’.”

Lithuania was “monstered” by China for opening Taiwan offices.

“Too often the Scottish Government and MSPs in general don’t think in terms of national security. They think it’s for Whitehall.”

That leaves Scotland exposed as “nobody in London is thinking about the impact of Chinese activity in Scotland. Beijing well understands that huge swathes of financial and legislative power lie outside London. It’s in their interests to navigate that for their own ends”.

He mentions one “very senior official at the heart of UK security policy” who said “nobody in Whitehall, the Cabinet Office, Foreign Office, Scotland Office and certainly nobody in Edinburgh” was thinking about the threat of hostile states to Scotland. More “intergovernmental work is needed”. He said: “The two capitals must work together. Even if Scotland was independent, when it comes to de-risking it would have to be done in concert with other countries”.

McDonald says he “hates the term ‘backdoor’’, but Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are a very much softer entry-point into Britain. China wants to create dependencies and knows [the devolved nations] are easier routes to pursue its goals”.

Chinese spies have physically targeted the UK Parliament. McDonald says that while he won’t go as far as “saying there’s a bunch of Chinese spies creeping around Holyrood, they will be gathering information and intelligence, and building relationships – 100%”.

He said: “China wants to create a high level of economic dependency in Scotland in key areas of strategic interest. They know we want a green transition, that there’s lots of money in that, lots of legislative changes. The more they can latch on to that, the better for them. We need to resist that.

“I’d ask Scottish officials and government ministers: if China turned all the money off tomorrow, how would you replace it? Before we even get a de-risking strategy, we must understand where dependencies are.

“The UK Government has done work on what the war in Taiwan would mean economically. The EU and US have done this. We need to do the same. We can’t sit this out.”


THE Taiwanese don’t talk about “if war happens, they talk about when war happens”. Roughly 40% of global shipping passes through the Taiwan Strait, and 90% of electronic chips are made in Taiwan. “I’m saying to the Scottish and UK governments – what’s the strategy to minimise risk?”

McDonald stresses he doesn’t want his comments to be seen as anti-Chinese, pointing out: “The targets of Chinese transnational repression are mostly the Chinese diaspora.

“We must avoid ‘reds under the bed’ alarmism.”

However, the threat from China must “be taken seriously. In Scotland, people are trying to cling on for dear life to the old consensus”.

Given McDonald and other Scottish MPs were “targeted by China”, he says it “would be perfectly acceptable for the Scottish government in its dealings with the Chinese Consulate in Edinburgh to say ‘this is unacceptable’. But I’d be amazed if that conversation happened”.

He added: It should have, it could have, but I’m 99% certain it won’t have.”

How does he feel about that? “Not good. This is an attack on democracy. It’s a perfect example of where it’s been thought ‘this is a national security incident that will be dealt with by London, we don’t have anything to do’. That’s far too hands-off for a party of government aspiring to statehood. Ministers in Edinburgh should ask themselves ‘how would other capitals deal with this?’.”

Clearly, he acknowledges, Edinburgh doesn’t have sanction powers, “but you can tell the Consul General this behaviour is unacceptable. I suspect none of that will happen. So it’ll keep happening, it’ll get worse, and they’ll keep laughing at us”.

Why isn’t the Scottish Government acting? “There’s definitely an element of thinking too small, that it’s too difficult, too big – largely something for the UK Government. We must anchor any future strategy in acknowledging China as the single biggest economic threat to Scotland’s resilience.”

The “small thinking” problem affects “the Scottish civil service and MSPs of all parties” as well as government. “Nobody has the drive to devise a proper framework.” McDonald is now working on the strategy required, and how Scotland would work “in concert with the UK Government, as the reality is some of the power and institutional knowledge needed resides in Whitehall”.


McDonald was “uncomfortable” with SNP External Affairs Secretary Angus Robertson’s recent China trip. The press release announcing it made “no mention of human rights”. The visit centred around “greater economic integration, trade and more students – it’s the wrong direction of travel. It just speaks to there being no coherent strategy in Edinburgh or London.”


Angus Robertson MSP

Angus Robertson MSP


Scotland must realise that when it comes to China’s geopolitical goals, “we’re part of it, no more than any other part of the world, but no less either. This isn’t a faraway foreign policy, it’s a domestic issue for Scotland”.

Regarding de-risking, McDonald says in Scotland “business is ahead of politics. We’ve some catching-up to do”.

Chinese interference in British and Scottish elections “will happen. We can’t prevent it. What we can do is build up resilience”. Canada suffered intense Chinese electoral interference. Scotland needs “a national strategy countering disinformation”.

The Electoral Commission hack leaves China “tooled up and in a good place” for voter interference. Beijing is “absolutely” exploiting Scotland and Britain’s online ‘culture wars’. They don’t create divisions in society, they look for where we’re divided and ramp that up”.

McDonald believes “China sees Scotland as a more amenable partner for their interests” than Britain.

“The complete absence of political debate about the activity of a hostile state in our public infrastructure and institutions – from renewables, critical industries and our universities – suits them.”

It has emerged that China’s largest wind-turbine manufacturer, Mingyang Smart Energy, intends establishing its first European base in Scotland supplying North Sea windfarms.

McDonald called the move “incredible” and “short-termism posing as strategy”. Norway has “excluded the same company”. As the EU has just launched anti-trust investigations into Chinese wind-turbine manufacturers, the move “sends all the wrong signals to our European partners”.

The Scottish Government “promoted the company to the priority tier in their strategic investment model, just weeks after we learn of a Chinese hack on the electoral commission and attack on parliamentarians. Talk about sending the wrong message. There’s no strategy anywhere to be found”.

He added: “This is about Scotland’s prosperity, resilience and values. By continuing to duck this debate, we’re allowing risk to grow. It’ll come back to bite us.”

McDonald won’t stop talking about China even if it annoys the Scottish Government. “I remember some colleagues in the party rolling their eyes when I’d talk about the threat Russia posed to Ukraine and European security. They’re not rolling their eyes anymore.

“The China threat is a serious one that’s being debated in every Western, democratic capital. The challenge is no greater in Scotland, but we seem to think that we, alone, can uniquely sit the debate out. That simply isn’t credible.”

McDonald turns his fire on London. He’s “cautious about comparisons to the 1930s but what we’re seeing now from the UK Government – who at the end of the day have the greatest responsibility in all this – is a modern-day form of appeasement. They seem to labour under the illusion that if they’re not robust on China, then somehow China will change its ways. That won’t happen”.

A wholesale shift in “political thinking” is required, similar to the shift on “climate change. It’s that big, that urgent”. So is the Scottish Government also guilty of ‘appeasement’? McDonald says he can’t “lay that strong a charge against a devolved government” but the Scottish Government is behind the curve. Our approach to China is out of step with the direction of travel many of our democratic and European counterparts are taking”.