August 1, 2022 - 10:15am

The occasional Opium War aside, China has seldom occupied a very prominent place in British political discourse, even when Britain was literally in China. It thus comes as something of a novelty to find the country turned into one of the key issues of the Conservative Party’s leadership race, as both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss accuse the other of being soft on China.

The Conservative mood shift over China has come at a furious pace. As recently as 2015, Xi Jinping could truthfully say, between toasts to the Queen at Buckingham Palace, that Sino-British relations were entering a new golden age. This was in part thanks to the Cameron-Osborne duo, who were desperately attracted to the prospects of the seemingly unlimited Chinese market. There were dreams of selling China everything from the Downton Abbey lifestyle to British nuclear power plants. But theirs was an attitude shared across the Conservative coalition; even Vote Leave used the prospect of a trade deal with China as one of the reasons to back Brexit.

Now that’s all gone, and luckily for both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, neither was senior enough back in those days to have become associated with the Cameronite China lovefest (though Truss did beamingly announce in 2014 that she would be going to Beijing to “open up new pork markets”).

This hasn’t stopped the energetic mudslinging between the two camps. It is generally acknowledged that Truss has had the upper hand so far; her allies’ leaking of abandoned Treasury plans for economic agreements with China has undoubtedly been more damaging than the Sunak camp’s accusations that Truss “rolled out the red carpet” for China at the Foreign Office.

Sunak then tried to out-hawk her on China, in such strong terms that even traditional China hawks within the Conservative Party showed some disquiet. One might think he was over-compensating because the Global Times had previously described his approach toward China as “more nuanced and pragmatic”, in what was possibly the campaign’s least welcome endorsement.

But great power competition is hard work, and certainly not something a country can do on the cheap. So far, there is no real evidence either candidate has any clue as to what needs to be done.

Let’s start with Sunak. Ideas like pushing back against Chinese IP theft are obviously welcome, though I suspect it would be taken up by any prime minister regardless of party. But his proposal to shut down all Confucius Institutes in the UK (which, as he correctly points out, are a source of soft power for China) is not so far accompanied by any discussion of what should be done to fill the gap in the UK’s Chinese language training capacity. During the Cold War, the British state trained thousands of Russian linguists so that it could at least know what was going on within the Soviet Union; now the number of fluent Chinese speakers in the Foreign Office has actually dropped by nearly 10% between 2016 and 2021, and no one seems very interested to do anything about it.

As for Liz Truss’ half-baked proposal for a beefed-up Commonwealth trading bloc to counter China, the less said the better. Imperial preference did not work at the height of the Edwardian empire, and it certainly will not work now, especially not since the United Kingdom forced its remaining economic satellites to find other markets when it joined the European Economic Community. In any case, Shakespeare and the common law only go so far against the logic of hard, cold Chinese cash, and cash seems to be the one thing the British state isn’t willing to offer to counter China.

Generally speaking, a government has two sorts of policy levers at its disposal. It can either legislate (usually to ban or to regulate things) or it can spend money. Both Truss and Sunak have shown plenty of willingness to use the former against China, but very little of the latter. But next month, one of them will be prime minister, and they will have to face up to the reality that the UK cannot win this one through cheap talk alone.

Yuan Yi Zhu is an assistant professor at Leiden University and a research fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford.