Many of the debates inside the Conservative party about how western democracies should handle China are entirely common across Europe and the US, but somehow they have been conducted in a more heated and personalised way.
One reason may be the confused and slow leadership on China shown by the government, symbolised by the refusal to follow Germany in publishing a China strategy. Others blame the entrenched factionalist political culture created by Brexit, and the narcissism of small differences. But the revelations that someone under investigation for allegedly being a Chinese spy was operating at the centre of Tory debates will only make the atmosphere worse. The person in question has insisted he is completely innocent.
In the Commons statement on the arrest of the parliamentary aide, all sides assailed ministers for being behind the curve, but especially the Tory benches, many of them aggrieved that they had been kept in the dark.
The broad China-watching scene in the UK has always been a crowded landscape, including Hong Kong Watch, UK-China Transparency, Beijing to Britain, the China Strategic Risks Institute, the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, the all-party parliamentary group on China and the China-Britain Business Council.
Two groups – the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and the China Research Group – dominate the Conservative politics on China. Both are Sino-sceptic and back the pendulum swing away from the golden era of economic relations favoured by David Cameron in 2015. But it has been an open secret that the two groups have descended into rivalry.
The IPAC is a large, global, cross-party coalition in which Iain Duncan Smith plays a prominent role in the UK, but which has managed to help persuade Labour to take a tough human rights-related stance on China including calling the treatment of Uyghur Muslims a genocide.
The CRG was initially led by Tom Tugendhat as foreign affairs committee chair, and after his elevation to security minister he was succeeded by Alicia Kearns, also his successor as committee chair. Setting up the CRG, Tugendhat said the aim was educational as much as factional, admitting he feared most Tory MPs would struggle to name a Chinese politician beyond the president. Its initial small membership was centrist and leaning to the 2019 intake.
From the backbenches, Tugendhat made the broad case for the UK to wake up to the changed threat from authoritarian regimes, and specifically to follow Australia and screen British national infrastructure from Chinese investment. Similarly, he wanted the UK shot of Huawei.
He is now in office overseeing many of the reforms he advocated. CRG members think they have been “bloody effective” in quietly changing government policy on TikTok, the Chinese takeover of a Newport microchip plant, Chinese covert police stations and the procurement bill.
But the CRG had intended to become the chief reasoned authority on China analysis at Westminster, only to discover that the inter group, backed by the tireless campaigner Luke de Pulford, made more waves tabling amendments to government bills that often tied the Foreign Office in knots for months.
The two groups’ analytical disagreements about the nature of Chinese threat, worthy of a Foreign Affairs double issue, were often reduced to tabloid headlines. Should one decouple or derisk? Is China a threat or a systemic challenge? Was a genocide being committed in Xinjiang, or was it a crime against humanity? Could trade with Xinjiang be banned? The CRG was accused of being naive about the Chinese Communist party. The inter-parliamentary group of misunderstanding the realities of geopolitics.
A foreign affairs select committee report on China published last month under Kearns’ chairship tore into the government’s confused China policy, including the absence of a published China strategy. “Some people seem to be on a personal mission to ruin the CRG,” complained one FAC member.
Ministers had been hoping the publication this week of their response to the magisterial intelligence and security committee report on China would be a golden opportunity to show how the engagement strategy, and recultivation of Chinese business ties, does not mean they are naive about China’s methods. But this week’s revelations are hardly the perfect launchpad.