Rishi Sunak accuses Liz Truss of ‘rolling out the red carpet’ for China

Rishi Sunak has accused Liz Truss of helping to enable Beijing’s infiltration of British universities, as a row broke out between the Tory leadership candidates over China.

Laying out his position on foreign policy, the former Chancellor said China and the Chinese Communist Party were the “biggest long-term threat” to the UK.

Mr Sunak pledged to close all Confucius Institutes, which teach Mandarin in universities and schools but are linked to the Chinese Communist Party, if he becomes prime minister.  His team pointed out that nine of the 31 Confucius centres in Britain were established when Ms Truss was an education minister between 2012 and 2014.

Mr Sunak said on Sunday night: “Enough is enough. For too long, politicians in Britain and across the West have rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions.”

But the Foreign Secretary’s team hit back, saying Mr Sunak had for years been “soft” on China – and had even been effectively backed for the leadership by Beijing’s state media.

It is the latest row to break out between the candidates after major clashes on tax and immigration.

The pair will take part in the first TV debate between the final two candidates on Monday night, on BBC One, with Ms Truss expected to use the occasion to highlight Mr Sunak’s inexperience in foreign policy.

Ms Truss used the last debate between the Tory leadership candidates, when five contenders remained in the race, to ask Mr Sunak: “Do you still think we should be doing more business with China?”  

Despite both candidates having indicated they wish to see a decline in personal attacks, the briefing war between the two sides has become increasingly frenetic and negative in recent days.

On Sunday, Ms Truss’s team claimed Mr Sunak’s immigration plans could breach domestic human rights law. In response, an ally of the former Chancellor remarked: “Good to see Remainer Truss on the side of human rights lawyers.”

While the initial stage of the Tory leadership race focused on tax, more natural territory for the former chancellor, attention has turned in recent days to foreign affairs – Ms Truss’s brief.

Unveiling his new policy on Sunday night, Mr Sunak said that in the face of the growing threat, he was ready to “face down” China.

He said he wanted to use MI5 to help British businesses counter Chinese spying, and examine the case for banning Chinese acquisitions of key British assets, including strategically sensitive tech firms.

The former chancellor said: “China is the biggest long-term threat to Britain and the world’s economic and national security – as the Director General of MI5 and the Director of the FBI have said.

“At home, they are stealing our technology and infiltrating our universities. And abroad, they are propping up Putin’s fascist invasion of Ukraine by buying his oil and attempting to bully their neighbours, including Taiwan.

“Enough is enough. For too long, politicians in Britain and across the West have rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions.

“I will change this on day one as PM. I will stop China taking over our universities, and get British companies and public institutions the cybersecurity they need. And I will work with President Biden and other world leaders to transform the West’s resilience to the threat China poses.”

Mr Sunak said he would close all 31 Confucius institutes in the UK – the highest number in the world. As recently as May 2022, the Open University launched the world’s first online Confucius Institute.

Almost all UK government spending on Mandarin language teaching is channelled through the university-based institutes, promoting Chinese soft power.

Mr Sunak said he would ensure British universities disclose any foreign funding partnerships worth more than £50,000, and conduct a review of all UK-Chinese research partnerships which unwittingly assist China’s strategy to dominate the technologies of the future or that have military applications.

Ms Truss was an education minister between 2012 and 2014, and Mr Sunak’s team said that nine institutes opened up under her time there – nearly a third of all the institutes which presently exist.

Tom Tugendhat, the former Tory leadership candidate, and the Tory China Research Group, wants to ban these centres.

Concerns centres are used for spying

Several countries including the US and Sweden have started shutting the centres down over concerns they are used for spying.

In 2014, Ms Truss opened a conference at a Confucius Institute in the UK, saying she wished “all of the Confucius classrooms the very best of luck for the future”.

But the Foreign Secretary’s campaign hit back, pointing out that Michael Gove was in charge of the education department at the time, and in any case China was not as much of a threat in 2014.

They also said Mr Sunak had been “soft” on China, pointing out that just last year he said in his Mansion House speech: “Too often, the debate with China lacks nuance. It is one of the most important economies in the world… We can pursue with confidence an economic relationship with China in a safe, mutually beneficial way.”

Her team pointed out that the Treasury under Mr Sunak wanted to resume the Economic and Financial Dialogue and Joint Economic Trade and Cooperation summits with China. These had been paused in July 2020 after China imposed draconian new laws in Hong Kong.

They also point to the fact that the former chancellor was effectively endorsed by the China Global Times, which said: “Apart from Sunak, almost all the other candidates hold a very tough stance on China”, while singling out Sunak for praise for his “pragmatic approach” which “might improve” UK-China ties.

Treasury has ‘pushed hard for economic deal with China’

On Sunday night Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader who is the co-chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and a Truss supporter, said: “This ‘tough on China’ announcement is surprising.

“After all, over the last two years, the Treasury has pushed hard for an economic deal with China. This is despite China sanctioning myself and four UK parliamentarians.

“Despite China brutally cracking down on peaceful democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, threatening Taiwan, illegally occupying the South China Sea, committing genocide on the Uyghurs and increasing its influence in our universities.

“After such a litany, I have one simple question: where have you been over the last two years?”

Ms Truss’s team said she had toughened Britain’s stance on China since becoming Foreign Secretary, including calling out Beijing’s coercive economic tactics against other countries.

Her team said she had prioritised building closer economic ties with other countries to help reduce the UK’s supply chain and trade dependency on China. And they said she had been at the forefront of G7 plans to put more investment into developing countries to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

A spokesperson for Ms Truss said: “Liz has strengthened Britain’s position on China since becoming foreign secretary and helped lead the international response to increased Chinese aggression.

“This will only continue when she becomes Prime Minister and seeks to expand her network of liberty around the world.”

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