Not just the China spy scandal: 7 flashpoints for Britain’s Tory hawks
The hot-button topics for British backbenchers spooked by Beijing keep piling up.
LONDON — Claims a Chinese spy may have been working at the heart of British democracy have the country’s MPs spooked. But it’s not the only China issue riling up Conservative lawmakers.
From artificial intelligence to Xinjiang, hawkish MPs on the governing party’s benches want Rishi Sunak’s government to take a much tougher line against Beijing. Much of Sunak’s time in Number 10 has, however, been characterized by careful management of the U.K.’s relationship with China.
Let POLITICO walk you through the big China issues that have been getting Tory MPs animated.
The spy claims
This weekend’s bombshell Sunday Times report — claiming that a parliamentary aide to senior Conservative MPs was arrested in a China-linked espionage investigation in March — alarmed lawmakers across the house.
It’s prompted a flurry of questions from Tory MPs, who want to know why they weren’t informed about the arrest sooner and just how many people may have been impacted.
There’s also much focus on a foreign influence law passed last year in a bid to clamp down on lobbying and espionage by foreign states, with some Conservatives keen to press the government on when exactly China will be designated a country of concern under the plan. As they press for change, angry Tories can point to a damning assessment by parliament’s intelligence and security committee from earlier this year which found the British state has taken too long to act against Chinese interference.
The AI summit
Sunak’s made a big play of Britain’s planned artificial intelligence summit in November, a chance to knock global heads together on the emerging technology and the global rules that might govern it.
As part of that outreach to big players, Sunak’s government is considering how it involves China.
But influential backbench MP and former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith is among those demanding a rethink, telling the Daily Mail of Beijing: “They are a threat and until we wake up to that threat, engaging with them only makes us look weak.”
A No.10 spokesperson this week declined to say which countries would attend the summit, but emphasized the need for the U.K. to engage with China on issues including AI. “We do need to be in the room arguing the case for the U.K., with China on issues like climate change, on issues like artificial intelligence, and that’s why it’s important we are making them face-to-face,” the spokesperson said.
Several backbenchers — including Alicia Kearns, the chair of parliament’s influential foreign affairs committee — have lobbied the government to tighten up procurement regulations, aiming to make it easier for ministers to exclude companies deemed a national security risk in the awarding of public sector contracts.
Kearns suggested several successful amendments to the government’s Procurement Bill, which she described as protecting “our country from China’s techno-authoritarianism, and efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to engineer our dependence on them, to weaken us at home and abroad.”
Kearns also led the charge for British government departments to strip out all surveillance equipment made by Chinese companies from government property, saying “We must make sure hostile states cannot embed state-subsidized hostile technologies into our lives.” The procurement bill is currently in its final stages in the House of Lords.
Abuses in Xinjiang
Concerns over how to label human rights abuses in China are also a frequent headache for the government.
Amid a big push from Conservative China hawks, the House of Commons passed a motion in 2021 declaring Beijing’s crackdown on the Uyghur people a “genocide.” But the government has as yet refused to follow suit, saying that such a proclamation is for the international courts.
China denies that its treatment of the Uyghurs constitutes genocide and has sanctioned British lawmakers — including Duncan Smith — over what it calls “lies and disinformation” about the issue.
In what was heralded as a big post-Brexit win, Britain joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade bloc earlier this year.
But there’s a problem: China has thrown its hat into the ring to join the bloc, putting existing members of the tariff-reducing pact in a tricky position should the economic giant meet the criteria for joining.
As a member, Britain could technically veto China’s entry, and — while accession could take years — already some high-profile Conservative MPs want the U.K. to promise to do exactly that. Former Prime Minister Liz Truss has called for the government to block China’s membership, telling POLITICO earlier this year it is “essential” to rule out Chinese accession.
But, speaking to the media on Monday morning, Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch refused to say whether the U.K. would veto any Chinese membership of CPTTP. One to watch.
So far, the government has refused to specifically label China a “threat” in its big foreign policy plan, with ministers instead referring to the state a “challenge.”
That’s causing increasing frustration among China hawks, with Truss asking Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden on Monday if he would agree that China represents “the largest threat both to the world and to the U.K. for freedom and democracy.” Dowden stopped short of endorsing that description, repeating only the government line that China is “the number one state-based threat to our economic security.”
Speaking in May at the G7 summit, Sunak did say “China poses the biggest challenge of our age to global security and prosperity.”
But that won’t be enough for some backbenchers, who want Sunak to toughen up the rhetoric.
Hong Kong crackdown
Conservative hawks continue to keep a close eye on Hong Kong. The former colony was handed back to China from British control in 1997 under a unique “one country, two systems” principle, meant to give its residents civil freedoms and democratic rights that no other part of mainland China enjoys.
But widespread pro-democracy protests — prompted by an extradition bill that could have potentially allowed Hong Kong suspects to be sent for trial in China — were met with a tough new national security law that was deeply controversial in the West.