Inside the Tory party's China split

20 February 2021

8:00 PM

20 February 2021

8:00 PM

Back in 2005, Boris Johnson wrote that among geopolitical gloomsters, China was becoming the ‘fashionable new dread’. They were obsessed with the idea that this ‘incubator of strange diseases’ was angling to become ‘the next world superpower’ — ‘China will not dominate the globe’ he concluded.

The China question is now the most fashionable new dread in Boris Johnson’s Tory party. Within the space of a few short years, the country has gone from a mid-level concern, via Cameron and Osborne’s ‘golden era’ to becoming an existential rival. And where once the country was of interest only to a few dusty old Sinologists, now it is the cause célèbre for ambitious backbenchers hoping to make a name for themselves.

The latest showdown with the government is the so-called genocide amendment — an attempt by backbenchers to use the London High Court to torpedo any trade deal with a country ruled to have committed genocide. The aim is clearly to send a message to China over its treatment of Uyghur Muslims. The amendment is set to return to the Commons next month after the whips managed to see off a vote earlier this year using obtuse parliamentary procedure, averting a government defeat with just 15 votes to spare.

There was more than a hint of frustration in the briefings that followed. Senior MPs, Foreign Office officials and the whips office were all accused of unpleasant behaviour. One of those involved suggested that the whips had told young MPs that they would have resources withdrawn at the next election if they failed to back the government. Another told how a disagreement between two senior China hawks became so heated that one of them burst into tears.

One hawkish MP was less than impressed: ‘If your principles collapse because you have a telephone call with a whip or are told it may harm your career, I’m pretty sure you’ve not got much in the way of principles in the first place.’

Beyond the grumbling, the vote exposed two things. The first is that the UK faces a conundrum to which there is no clear answer. On the one hand, the UK wants to counter Chinese aggression in Hong Kong, its human rights abuses in Xinjiang and its weakening of the global rules-based order. There is also international pressure on Britain to toughen its stance on China. Both Joe Biden and his predecessor have pushed their Western allies to adopt a less friendly tone towards Beijing. On the other hand, China is a fundamental global economic player. UK businesses need access to China’s productive capacity and, increasingly, its intellectual and technological heft. ‘China is not the Soviet Union’ has become a stock phrase among Tory MPs — the People’s Republic is already too ingrained in global trade and international politics for any attempts to cut it off the world. Unlike the USSR, we have to deal with China for our own prosperity.

The second point that the genocide amendment exposed is a more subtle one: that the rank and file of Conservative MPs are adopting a more hardline position while at the same time those China hawks are fracturing. ‘The genocide amendment was a bruising experience for us’, one of those involved behind the scenes tells me, ‘it was all getting a bit too hot’. The briefings have been intense. And not just from the China hawks against the government but among themselves too.

The Sinosceptics have two main groups: the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and the China Research Group (CRG). The former is essentially a whipping operation, encouraging members across the House of Commons to maintain their position on whichever China curtailing policy comes before them. Headed up by Iain Duncan-Smith, the group is seen by some as the more hardline of the two. One long-term China watcher described IPAC as ‘evangelical’, with all the fundamentalist implications that term brings. Labour, too, has proven just as hawkish when it comes to holding Beijing accountable for human rights abuses. One insider explained: ‘What’s interesting to see is that within IPAC, the Tories and the opposition parties pretty much work in unison to form an effective internal opposition to the government.’

Then there is the China Research Group, led by Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs select committee. It may sound as if it’s modelled on the Spartan Brexiteers of the ERG, but that would be a misreading of the group’s aims. ‘Because of the name we’re often seen as quite hardcore,’ explains one of those involved, ‘actually it’s far more balanced and more moderate. The emphasis is on the research’. The co-founder of the group, Neil O’Brien, is a former Osborne adviser while Laura Trott, an ex-SpAd to David Cameron, is on the steering committee. Their involvement shows how far some of those involved in the ‘golden era’ have come. By contrast to IPAC, the group sees itself more as a resource for MPs to learn about China rather than a campaign to secure votes on certain topics. One of the MPs involved stressed how members of the CRG were happy to split into different voting lobbies.

But while the two groupings might differ in tactics, others feel the differences have far less to do with principle. ‘It’s a distinction without a difference’ says one of those involved, ‘it is largely a matter of personality and not ideology.’ Some even suggest Tugendhat is using his position to curry favour with the government — ‘he’s trying to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds’, as one MP put it.

Others are more sanguine, noting the difficulty MPs face in making that trade-off between countering China’s behaviour while engaging economically. Supporters of Tugendhat instead argue that he’s been one of the most effective voices within parliament when it comes to highlighting Chinese overreach while at the same time engaging constructively with the government. What he’s trying to do, one ally explains, is inform the debate — the idea being that the more you know about China, the more concerned you’ll be about it.

While disagreement between the hawks remains, all agree that the government has much further to go. That isn’t to say the leadership hasn’t moved. Just before taking office in 2019, the PM was quoted as saying his administration would be ‘pro-China’ and ‘enthusiastic about the belt and road initiative’. Such praise for Xi Jinping’s flagship foreign policy (said by some to amount to a form of debt-trap diplomacy) would now be unsayable for a Tory party leader.

There is an expectation too that next month’s integrated review of foreign and security policy will see a reassessment of the UK’s relationship with China. It remains to be seen whether or not it will constitute the major reset in Chinese relations that many hawks are hoping for. ‘With Covid and Brexit they haven’t had time to formulate a fully thought out position,’ explains one respected China watcher, ‘I think the government will take a position that will offend most parties which if they do means they haven’t done too badly.’ One insider suggested the UK’s China policy was ‘in a holding pattern’ while another criticised the UK’s attempt to steer a course between principle and pragmatism as ‘grand geostrategic bullshit’.

Despite Johnson’s slowly toughening position, many aren’t convinced that the man himself is fully invested. ‘The biggest China advocate in the government is Boris Johnson,’ suggests one MP, ‘If you’re the Prime Minister and the only time you’ve been to China was a PR coup to go and pick up the Olympic Games, you don’t see it as a systemic threat’.<//>

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