British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said China poses a “systemic” challenge to UK values and interests as his government condemned Beijing after a BBC journalist was beaten while covering protests in Shanghai.
In his first major foreign policy speech, Sunak said the so-called “golden era” of UK relations with China was “over, along with the naive idea that trade would automatically lead to social and political reform”.
As a result, the United Kingdom would “need to evolve our approach to China”, he said in his speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London, adding that Beijing was “consciously competing for global influence using all the levers of state power”.
“Let’s be clear, the so-called ‘golden era’ is over, along with the naive idea that trade would lead to social and political reform,” Sunak said in reference to former Finance Minister George Osborne’s description of Sino-British ties in 2015.
His government will prioritise deepening trade and security ties with Indo-Pacific allies, he said, adding that “economics and security are indivisible” in the region.
Some in Sunak’s Conservative Party have been critical of the prime minister, regarding him as less hawkish on China than his predecessor Liz Truss.
Lawmaker Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative Party leader and a vocal Beijing critic who co-chairs the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, said Sunak’s “robust pragmatism” meant “anything you want it to mean” and amounted to “appeasement.”
David Lammy, the opposition Labour Party’s foreign affairs spokesman, meanwhile, described Sunak’s speech as “as thin as gruel.”
“All it shows is that once again the Conservative government is flip-flopping its rhetoric on China,” Lammy said.
Sunak had been due to meet China’s President Xi Jinping at this month’s G20 summit in Bali but the plan fell through.
Last week London banned Chinese-made security cameras from sensitive government buildings. Sunak has previously promised to close all Confucius Institutes, which promote Chinese culture and language but are partially funded by the Chinese government, and said he would lead an international alliance against Chinese cyberthreats, and help British companies and universities counter Chinese spying.
“We recognise China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism,” he said.
Referring to Beijing’s handling of widespread protests across China against the country’s strict zero-COVID strategy, Sunak said that “instead of listening to their people’s protests, the Chinese government has chosen to crack down further, including by assaulting a BBC journalist.”
Ed Lawrence, accredited to work in China with the BBC, was detained for several hours at a COVID lockdown demonstration in Shanghai. The UK public broadcaster says he was assaulted and kicked by police.
“Of course, we cannot simply ignore China’s significance in world affairs — to global economic stability or issues like climate change. The US, Canada, Australia, Japan and many others understand this too.”
The speech came as tensions were further strained between the two nations after Ed Lawrence, working in China as an accredited BBC journalist, was arrested at a COVID lockdown demonstration in Shanghai and detained for several hours.
The UK public broadcaster says he was assaulted and kicked by police.
Hundreds of Chinese people have taken to the streets of some of the country’s major cities in recent days in a rare outpouring of public anger over the government’s dogged commitment to zero-COVID and the harsh restrictions it imposes on everyday life.
After the unrest in Shanghai, where an unknown number of people were taken away, barriers were erected long the pavements to prevent gatherings and police vehicles were parked close-by.
There was also a noticeable police presence in other places where rallies had been held. Some protesters said they had been called by police officers demanding information on their movements.