by Yuan Yi Zhu
Monday, 1
August 2022
Analysis
10:15

Conservatives don’t know how to handle China

Hawkish rhetoric will only get Sunak and Truss so far
by Yuan Yi Zhu
Talk is cheap. Credit: Getty

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.

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stephen archer
stephen archer
18 days ago

Does anyone know how to handle China? Even Putin’s attempts are doubtful in the long term.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
17 days ago
Reply to  stephen archer

Not so much doubtful as doomed. Once China saw how inept the Russian Army actually is, Russia was immediately the junior partner in that relationship. Russia is now reduced to selling its oil to China (and India) at rock-bottom prices.
Next, watch as China replaces the western oil and gas majors as part owners of Russian natural resources.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
17 days ago

I suggest that politicians in the UK (and West in general) are so ignorant of China that they are unlikely to enact sensible policies.
If you listen to them (or the MSM) all they know about is Tianamen Square, Hong Kong democracy and Uyigars internment.
The fact that China is the producer of much of the non-food products we consume is treated as though it’s ‘just there’ (rather as a child assumes that food appears on the table).
Based on almost no knowledge and endless repetition of these three issues, I will probably receive many ‘dislikes’ for even saying something positive.

  • They’ve got a rover on the far side of the Moon.
  • They brought 500 million people out of poverty.
  • They have more high-speed rail than Europe and plans to double it.
  • They switched factories to PPE in weeks – something we could not do in 2 yrs.

Wake up.

Graham Strugnell
Graham Strugnell
17 days ago
Reply to  Mike Bell

And they brutally suppressed the doctors and citizens who tried to warn about COVID in Wuhan. They are efficient because they drive a tank through human rights and have more CCTV monitoring their citizens than anywhere on earth. Wake up.

William Adams
William Adams
17 days ago
Reply to  Mike Bell

Yes, and look what all that PPE achieved: endless, draconian lockdowns of major cities in pursuit of the chimera of zero covid. Not helped, of course, by the fact that China’s innovative wizardry has produced no effective vaccine.

Aaron James
Aaron James
17 days ago

Quisling?

M. M.
M. M.
18 days ago

Yuan Yi Zhu wrote, “[Rishi] Sunak then tried to out-hawk [Liz Truss] on China, in such strong terms that even traditional China hawks within the Conservative Party showed some disquiet.”

China is not worse than India.

Consider their handling of Russia. Beijing expressed support for Russia in its war against Ukraine but actually did nothing to actually help the Kremlin. A Chinese company (in which Beijing is a stakeholder) that manufactures drones actually exited Russia after the war began. 

By contrast, New Delhi has been helping Russia to evade sanctions since 2014, the year in which the Kremlin seized Crimea. 40% of Indians support the Russians’ military brutality in Ukraine. (See the reference.)

The culture of India is not Western. The presence of Indians in the West will make its culture more barbaric. Indeed, 30% of the Australian population were born in another country. The majority of these foreigners come from non-Western countries: the plurality of the non-Westerners come from India.  Not coincidentally, Australia had the harshest lockdown during the pandemic; Fox News has video recordings of Australian police brutally assaulting protestors in a manner that reminds us of the Russian police.

Get more info about this issue.

Last edited 17 days ago by Matthew M.
Dominic London
Dominic London
17 days ago
Reply to  M. M.

How many of those police officers were Indian?

Simon Johnson
Simon Johnson
17 days ago
Reply to  M. M.

Your post is utter nonsense. Citizens of Indian origin comprise around 3% of the Australian population. They are not even close to the largest migrant community.

Nor did Australian police brutally assault protesters. They arrested a small number of anti-lockdown protesters who destroyed property and attacked police.

You are simply making things up.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
17 days ago
Reply to  M. M.

Most police forces in the world have at least a smattering of thugs. Some protesters deserve a good kicking.