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Voters favour harder line on relations with China, polling shows

New polling for the New Statesman reveals that the public support Tory demands for a reset amid concerns over the Xi regime's handling of the pandemic.

By Patrick Maguire

Voters of all parties want the United Kingdom to distance itself from China, exclusive polling for the New Statesman has found. Amid global criticism of the Xi regime’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, more than four in ten voters – 41 per cent – say the government should take a tougher line in relations with the Chinese state.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said last month that the UK would carry out a “deep dive” review into how the virus spread from China, and said there could be no return to “business as usual” with Beijing once the crisis abated.

Opinion on the Tory backbenches has also markedly hardened over the course of the pandemic, which has exacerbated existing national security concerns over telecoms giant Huawei’s access to 5G infrastructure.

Last week a group of influential Conservative MPs, led by the foreign affairs select committee chair Tom Tugendhat, launched a China Research Group in a bid to influence the direction of government policy in a more hawkish direction.

Polling for the NS by Redfield and Wilton Strategies suggests a more critical approach is likely to enjoy widespread support from voters across the political spectrum.

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Nearly half of all voters – 48 per cent – identified China as a threat to the United Kingdom and its interests rather than an ally. That figure rises to 58 per cent for Conservative voters, while a clear plurality of Labour voters – 40 per cent – take the same view. Only 22 per cent of voters consider China an ally. Of all voters, 43 per cent would like to see the government pursue more distant relations with China, rising to more than half – 56 per cent – of Conservative voters.

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Labour voters are more likely to favour no change in relations, with 55 per cent preferring the government to neither distance itself from nor seek a closer relationship with China. Of all voters across the spectrum, 35 per cent of all voters take the same view. Those who want to strengthen bonds between London and Beijing are in a clear minority, with only 8 per cent favouring closer ties.

Any reset in relations will mark a step change from Conservative policy under David Cameron, who in 2015 hailed a “golden era” in relations with China and welcomed billions of pounds in investment into the British economy and infrastructure.

The UK was described by President Xi Jinping as the “most open country in the West” to his regime the same year. George Osborne, then chancellor, was architect of the approach, believing that China’s booming economy provided a golden opportunity for British exports, particularly in services.

Polling suggests that voters are now reassessing that thinking. They are likelier than not to believe that Cameron and Osborne pursued the wrong policy in seeking a closer economic relationship with Beijing, with 37 per cent believing they took the wrong decision compared to 30 per cent who believe they were right to do so.

Disapproval is even more pronounced among Tory voters. Nearly half – 45 per cent – now believe Cameron’s governments took the wrong approach.

Redfield and Wilton strategies polled a representative sample of 1,500 voters in Great Britain online on 30 April.