Beijing strikes back as UK leadership contenders step up rhetoric on China

Both former finance minister Rishi Sunak and rival foreign secretary Liz Trouss have spoken out tough for the top role, saying the UK needs to protect its values ​​from Chinese influence, something Beijing has taken notice of.

“I want to make it clear to some British politicians that irresponsible speech about China, including inflating the so-called ‘China threat’, cannot solve their own problems,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday, in response to a common question. news briefing on comments made by Sunak.

Sunak stated in the statement on a day when China and its ruling Communist Party posed “the greatest threat to Britain and world security and prosperity this century”.

He vowed to “turn to face China” if elected, including by shutting down the Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes in the UK. In 2020, the chain was designated a foreign presence by the United States, saying it was a vehicle for Chinese influence on campuses. The institute’s operators have denied these accusations, saying they focus on the Chinese language and culture.

Sunak also said he would create a NATO-style “free nations” alliance to fight Chinese cyberthreats, a project that would require support from other countries that might be wary of such a direct approach.

However, the UK has found itself in a growing alliance with the US over China – earlier this month the heads of the FBI and British security agency MI5 said in a joint statement that the Chinese Communist Party posed “the most decisive challenge.” .”

Truss, considered a China hawk in the Conservative Party, tried to portray Sunak’s position on China as the opposite, pointing on Monday to “the desire for closer economic relations with China” on the part of the Treasury Department when Sunak was in charge. . Last year, in his capacity as Chancellor, Sunak urged “mature and balanced relationship” with Beijing.

In the first face-to-face debate between the two on Monday, Truss said the UK should limit technology exports to “authoritarian regimes.” She also said she should crack down on companies such as social media platform TikTok, owned by Chinese media giant Bytedance, when asked if she would take action specifically against the platform, as some MPs called for.

‘I do not think that China will become the world’s largest economy inevitable.’ In fact, we’re letting it happen,” Truss said at a debate hosted by BBC News.

Both hopefuls are looking to build their reputation with their fellow Conservative Party members, who will choose between them in a vote that runs from next month to early September.

It remains unclear how the eventual winner will shift the rhetoric to China’s politics and trade relations after a winner emerges on September 5.

Beijing is watching

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao’s comments on Monday were not the only sign that Beijing is watching the election, the outcome of which could further harden Britain’s line on China.

That relationship has been strained in recent years by British concerns about Beijing’s crackdown on civil society in Hong Kong, Violation of an individual’s rights in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang and a perceived national security threat from Chinese-funded domestic infrastructure. China and its companies deny the existence of such a threat and warn Western countries that comments about its rights are tantamount to interfering in internal affairs.
This reinforced the Chinese hard line within the Conservative Party and ended what previous Conservative governments had characterized as a “golden” age between China and the UK, but Johnson remained keen to keep economic ties open.

An article about the election in the Chinese state-run nationalist tabloid Global Times on Tuesday quoted Chinese analysts as warning that the UK would “definitely suffer more” if it “further worsens” its relationship with China and “affects bilateral trade relations.”

The article stated that “politicians can say whatever they want to get votes” during an election, “but they also need to remember what their priorities are once elected and what happens if they actually keep their promises.”

When asked during Monday’s debate whether they were prepared to damage those trade relations, China UK’s single largest importer and its sixth-largest export partner last year — both candidates provided few specific details but framed their responses in terms of values.

Truss said European countries should learn from the “mistakes” they made by relying too much on Russian oil and gas prior to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We cannot let this happen to China. Freedom is a price worth paying,” she said.

Sunak pointed to legislation he backed to allow the government to block investment from countries and companies deemed incompatible with British values ​​and interests or attempting to “infiltrate” his organisations.

“As Prime Minister, I will be very firm in our view that we uphold our values ​​and protect ourselves from these threats,” he said.

Jorge Engels of CNN contributed to this report.

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