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25 March 2024

Will Rishi Sunak get tougher on China?

Tory pressure on the Prime Minister to reverse his policy of “robust pragmatism” will increase now a cyberattack on the Electoral Commission is to be blamed on Chinese hackers.

By Freddie Hayward

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) probably has your name and address.

The Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden will today condemn the CCP for accessing 40 million voters’ details in a hack on the Electoral Commission. The time frame has raised suspicions that Britain’s cybersecurity is not as robust as some might like: the attack began in August 2021 but was not revealed for over a year, until October 2022. And the government has only today chosen to blame China-linked groups.

In any case, the attacks should not come as a surprise. A report from the i in February suggested that Chinese surveillance companies had a long list of Whitehall targets, including the Foreign Office. Two weeks before, US officials confirmed that the Chinese hackers had been in US systems for five years to prepare for an attack on American critical infrastructure. Christopher Wray, the FBI director, recently said Chinese cyberattacks were now on a scale not seen before.

What will also worry the government is the targeting of parliamentarians who have been critical of the CCP. Iain Duncan Smith and Tim Loughton, both Tory MPs, Stewart McDonald MP of the SNP, and the peer David Alton, will reportedly be briefed by parliament’s head of security following the attacks. The calls for sanctions from some quarters – Duncan Smith has noted how few the UK have imposed on China compared with the Americans – will grow louder. The Foreign Secretary David Cameron, who is better known for drinking pints with Xi Jinping than rebutting Chinese cyberattacks, will address an unruly bunch of Tory MPs this evening.

Such episodes will increase pressure within the party for the government to be tougher on China. But there is little chance that the hawks will exert the level of influence they wielded in 2020, when parliamentary concern over the CCP takeover of Hong Kong and persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province were at their height. The government’s strategy now falls under the rubric “robust pragmatism”, which is not wildly dissimilar to Labour’s “progressive realism”. Both avoid a blanket rejection of China – they call for cooperation on some areas, condemnation on others. This will be the attitude with which the government approaches this challenge, and is what some sceptical backbenchers will seek to change.

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