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15 December 2022

Is Rishi Sunak as hawkish on China as he made out?

The government may have missed a geopolitical trick by allowing Beijing to recall diplomats wanted for questioning by British police.

By Freddie Hayward

Nurses go on strike today (15 December) for the first time in their history. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak is in a tricky position. The headline of this morning’s Daily Express reads: “Give nurses a deal and stop this madness”. The Tory MP and former party chairman Jake Berry, who is a major thorn in the government’s side, last night called on Whitehall to increase its offer on pay. As I wrote on Tuesday, the problem for Sunak is that the end of strikes is unlikely to bring any reprieve from criticism.

Beyond the strikes, the story of interest is China. The Chinese consul-general in Manchester and five other officials have been recalled by Beijing, thus avoiding police questioning for their role in beating a Hong Kong protester at the consulate in the northern city in October.

The feeling within parliament is that the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was too soft on this issue, and that the Chinese officials’ recall makes it look as if he missed the moment. As one source put it, “By not labelling the diplomats involved persona non grata and expelling them, we’ve taken the easy way out and let Beijing off the hook.” As I wrote last month, Cleverly’s response may be explained by his desire to avoid a diplomatic scene so soon after his reappointment by Rishi Sunak as Foreign Secretary. It’s also worth considering whether this outcome is mutually beneficial, allowing both Sunak and the Chinese leader Xi Jinping to save face: the consul-general is gone but he wasn’t expelled.

Nonetheless, as the response from the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Alicia Kearns makes clear, this development will not temper the feeling within parliament that Sunak isn’t as hawkish on China as he made out during the leadership election.

While the tone among many China-watchers in Westminster has become more temperate over the past year, the substantive policy disagreements remain as robust as before. That matters because much of the pressure on the government about its China policy is exerted by a relatively small collection of MPs, think tanks and activists, even if there’s a broad consensus in parliament on the issue. The pressure from the backbenches has not abated, which will expose the government to further disputes in the new year.

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[See also: Will the Tories ever resolve their internal battle on immigration?]

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