Prominent Conservatives have launched a campaign group to debate policy towards China, underlining growing concerns in the governing party about the UK’s relationship with the regime in Beijing.
The formation of the China Research Group, modelled on the influential European Research Group of Brexit-supporting MPs, comes after senior Tories called for a rethink of Sino-British relations, accusing the communist state of a cover-up over the coronavirus outbreak.
Rightwing Conservatives in particular have long been concerned about Beijing’s growing influence in the UK, epitomised by deep unease over the role of Chinese telecoms manufacturer Huawei in the UK’s 5G cellular network. There are also concerns about expanding the role of Chinese state companies in long-delayed plans to build a new generation of nuclear power plants in the UK.
The increasingly hawkish stance on China stands in stark contrast to the approach over most of the last decade when the Tory party regularly tapped up Beijing for inward investment.
Former prime minister David Cameron, together with his chancellor George Osborne, wooed Beijing in what the pair heralded as a “golden era” in relations. Incumbent Boris Johnson has also taken a pro-China approach.
The CRG will be led by centrist Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the foreign affairs select committee, and Neil O’Brien, a backbench MP who was previously director of the Policy Exchange think-tank.
The group said it would promote “fresh thinking about issues raised by the rise of China” as well as providing a “trustworthy source” of news. It plans to hold public seminars on British-Sino relations and host events with “leading thinkers and politicians” from other western countries. Like the ERG, it will also produce policy research on China for its members.
Mr Tugendhat, who will chair the CRG, said the coronavirus crisis had underlined an “urgent need for a better understanding of China’s place in the world” and the UK’s relations with the country.
“Beijing’s long pattern of information suppression has contributed to the unfolding crisis. The [Chinese communist] party are now using the current emergency to build influence around the world,” he said. “Along with our allies, we must be part of this global conversation, and to begin it we need to understand what China’s leaders are saying and doing.”
Mr O’Brien, who will be the group’s secretary, added that the UK now had to see China as a state that is “growing in power, but no longer seems to be on a road to reform”.
This week, Chris Patten, a former Tory party chairman and the last British governor of Hong Kong, joined a number of other Tory grandees urging the government to change tack. He said Beijing’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak had proven the regime was “dangerous for the whole world”.
One MP involved in the new group said the idea of a research group on China had been “in a lot of people’s peripheral vision for some time” and the coronavirus crisis had brought matters to a head.
The CRG’s initial make-up is notably centrist given that China hawks have traditionally been on the right of the Conservative party. Another MP involved in the group said it was a concerted effort to ensure that “the mainstream of the party is leading the big debate on China”.
The nine-person steering committee of the CRG includes some notable moderates in the party, including former Cabinet minister and de facto deputy prime minister Damian Green, and Andrew Bowie, who served as Theresa May’s parliamentary secretary.
Several new MPs from the 2019 intake are also on the CRG committee, including Bishop Auckland’s Dehenna Davison, former political adviser Laura Trott, ex-civil servant Alicia Kearns and Anthony Browne, who advised Boris Johnson during his time as mayor of London.