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Meet the former soldier who's changing Britain's China policy

Ailbhe Rea interviews Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the China Research Group and foreign affairs select committee.

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When Theresa May was prime minister, the great political pressure on her from the backbenchers in her own party and the fatal problem of her premiership was embodied by a research group. The European Research Group (ERG), a sort of subscriber service for research on the European Union for Conservative MPs who signed up, was the vehicle through which the Conservative Party and those who observed it understood and conveyed the strength of eurosceptic feeling within the party. It was the mechanism through which figures such as Steve Baker and Mark Francois organised and rose to prominence, and an easy shorthand for the wing of the party that demanded an increasingly hard exit from the EU and, when the deal failed to meet its demands, would refuse to vote for it on three occasions, bringing down May’s premiership. 

Will there be an ERG for the Johnson era? It has been a possibility since March, when 38 Conservative backbenchers voted for an amendment which would end the Chinese telecomms giant Huawei’s participation in building the UK’s 5G network. The government won by 24 votes, but saw its majority slashed as the strength of feeling on this issue from the Conservative back benches became apparent. In April, this strength of feeling appeared to find a formal manifestation, as Conservative MPs founded a new group, with a familiar-sounding name: the China Research Group. 

Since its inception, the group has been styled in the press as an “ERG-style grouping” for Conservative MPs who are pushing for the government to take a more hawkish approach to the communist government in Beijing. The group is being watched closely to see if, and how, it causes trouble for a Prime Minister who as recently as July last year declared himself “very pro-China” and the UK the “most open economy in Europe” to Chinese state investment.

This is not, however, how Tom Tugendhat, the China Research Group's chair and co-founder, describes its purpose. “The China Research Group isn’t a lobbying group,” he tells me. "The China Research Group is not very political in that sense.”

The idea for the grouping began “months and months ago”, before the general election, he says, when he and his fellow Conservative MP, Neil O’Brien, started to discuss “the growing influence of China in our national life”. 

“We started to talk about how little understanding there was of it. Many people read speeches and policy papers by German politicians, Italian politicians, by the EU, and so on, but very few read any by Chinese politicians or think tanks, for the very obvious reason that it’s in Chinese. And so we’re not very good at it. So we set up early this year effectively as an information-sharing network rather than anything else.” 

I ask if the group has more precise aims or policy positions beyond its information-sharing function. He replies, simply, “no”. Is it a misconception that the CRG is hoping to push the government into a more hawkish approach to the Chinese government? 

“You can be pretty sure that most people who are interested in what’s going on in China are interested because they are concerned about things. You know, we’re not concerned about Sweden, for example. It’s reasonable to draw a concern, but we don’t caucus and come up with policy ideas or anything like that, we just share information. And the reason we share information is I’m pretty sure that the more you understand about what the Chinese Communist Party is doing round the world and how it’s organising itself, [the more] I think you will probably come to see this as a matter of concern. You may not, but I think you will. That’s why I’m doing it.”

It is a marked departure from the Conservative approach to China during the Cameron years, when George Osborne heralded a “golden decade” of UK-Chinese relations. Now, the China Research Group’s nine-strong steering committee contains several figures tipped for promotion, including Andrew Bowie, a former parliamentary private secretary to May and the vice-chair of the Conservative Party; Dehenna Davison, one of the most prominent of the new “Red Wall” Tory MPs from the 2019 election; and Anthony Browne, a former adviser to Boris Johnson when he was London mayor. It is also notably centrist, including Damian Green, a former senior figure in Theresa May’s cabinet. The balance on the committee is a seemingly deliberate attempt to style a sceptical approach to China as a concern of the Tory mainstream, rather than a fringe preoccupation of the party’s right. 

See also: Jessie Lau on the questions facing Hong Kongers as China tightens its grip

“We are now about a third of the parliamentary party, maybe more, and there’s a whole bunch of Labour MPs and others [involved]. In theory we’re a Conservative group, but actually we’re not.”

When Tugendhat rebelled against the government over Huawei in March, it looked as though the issue of China could be the one that would divide the Conservative Party during Johnson’s premiership. But he sees it differently. 

“I think not only the Conservative Party, but the Labour Party  except for a few hardcore Corbynites  is almost enitrely united on this. You only have to see Lisa Nandy responding to Dominic Raab [on the Hong Kong National Security Law]. It’s perfectly obvious where the weight of opinion is in parliament. Stephen Kinnock and I could give each other’s speeches on this subject,” he laughs.

The dial has shifted within UK politics since Tugendhat and his colleagues rebelled over Huawei in March and established the China Research Group. The government has offered citizenship to 350,000 British National (Overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong (with a further 2.6 million residents eligible), in response to China’s draconian new security law in the region. There is widespread concern over the brutal persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province. And questions have been raised over the Chinese government’s cooperation in sharing vital information about the spread and origins of Covid-19. 

Tugendhat has been vocal on all of these issues and is deeply concerned by “the undermining of a rules-based system”: “the global, liberal, democratic concepts” that he argues are being undermined by the Chinese government as the country grows in economic power. “We’re seeing a very different China and one that has changed in the past six, seven years.” He urges cautious engagement with Beijing, and stronger international cooperation on the subject. 

“There are countries that have been way ahead of us on this, like France, which has a much more clear-eyed view on China. You might call it hawkish, but I would call it clear. Then there’s other countries like Italy, which [has] Chinese money so deep into its system that it’s very difficult to see how it can get out.”  

He is careful, however, to emphasise that while personally he is “pretty clear on these things”, “I haven’t run them by the rest of the group, and they’re not Foreign Affairs Committee positions either”.

He “wouldn’t really” make a comparison between the ERG and the China Research Group. On a practical level “they all work differently”, he says. “This happens to be me, Neil and a few others doing the research… sharing other research, finding it, mailing it around, then organising events. Tomorrow, for example, we’ve got a Hong Kong democracy activist talking to 200 people. All we do there is organise a time, a Zoom call and that’s it.”

The comparison is, however, one the group has invited itself. “The reason we took the name was because it’s a brand you’ve heard of and we’re moving on,” he tells me. “We’re demonstrating that the Europe debate is over. This is about something else.” It is a striking parallel to invite given the political significance of the ERG in recent politics. Does he see the China Research Group ever exerting the kind of political pressure the ERG once did?

“No,” he bristles. “I’ve said. It’s an information group.”

A few days after our call it is reported that the Prime Minister will soon unveil plans to phase out Huawei from the UK’s 5G mobile phone networks. The change of policy is in large part due to US sanctions on the firm, but also pressure from Conservative MPs, ten of whom wrote to the Prime Minister on the matter, and 60 of whom now form the Huawei Interest Group led by Tory backbencher Bob Seely. Tugendhat is among them.

It is too soon to tell whether the China Research Group will, as many have suggested, become the vehicle for Conservative discontent over the government’s approach to China in the months and years to come, or whether the “Huawei Interest Group” or similar will fulfill that role. It is also too soon to test whether there is, as Tugendhat argues, a newfound cross-party consensus on the issue, or whether the government will, as we have seen in the recent past, be pushed into a more hardline position by its backbenchers. Either way, if China is the new Europe, as Tugendhat suggests, the China Research Group, like the man himself, is one to watch.

See also: Isabel Hilton on the Conservatives' shifting relationship with China, from the "golden decade" to Huawei

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman