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China Hawks Are Uneasy About David Cameron's Warm Reception In Chinese Media

David Cameron was appointed foreign secretary by Rishi Sunak in November in a surprise return to frontline politics. (Alamy)

5 min read

David Cameron has been urged to take a more hawkish stance on China following the warm welcome his return to Government has had in the state's media.

Cameron, who was appointed as Foreign Secretary in November, was known for ushering in a "golden era" of relations with China during his time as prime minister between 2010 and 2016, actively working towards closer relations with the superpower. He was having a pint with Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2015 during an official visit. 

However, relations between the UK and China have become more distant in the years since, with the UK offering visas to Hong Kong students fleeing crackdowns on pro-democracy protests, sanctions issued against China amid reports of a genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, and even the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok being banned on the parliamentary estate as a result of security concerns. 

China has also sanctioned multiple British MPs who have spoken out publicly against human rights abuses by China in Xinjiang, including cabinet minister Tom Tugendhat, who accused them of “lies and disinformation”. 

But despite these tensions, multiple articles published in the Chinese press, which is tightly controlled by the Chinese state, since Cameron's return to frontline politics have expressed optimism that the new Foreign Secretary will encourage another era of closer relations between the UK and China. 

A piece in the Shanghai Daily argued that "the political symbolism of the move is an unmistakable gesture to Beijing which signals an alleviation in ties and a sidelining of the hawks in the Conservative Party", and that "the UK appears to be relenting in hostility toward China and the appointment of Cameron is the affirmative packaging of that". 

In the Global Times a piece read "some believe that with Cameron coming into office, it might inspire more supportive and friendly voices toward China that would help to reshape a healthy and rational discussion about the UK-China relations in the country". 

A piece in the China Times described Cameron's relationship with China as "relatively pragmatic and friendly", adding that "in the seven years since leaving politics, Cameron has worked on the Belt and Road project and visited China several times. It is hoped that with Cameron, the momentum of constructive engagement between China and the UK can continue". 

Senior Tory MP and former cabinet minister Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who has been sanctioned by China, told PoliticsHome Cameron's reception in the Chinese state media – coupled with his connections to lobbying on behalf of Chinese firms – demonstrated why the former prime minister needed to appear more hawkish on China. 

"David Cameron has got a lot of ground to make up if he is to convince everybody that China was wrong to welcome him," Duncan Smith said.

David Cameron and Xi Jinping
David Cameron and Xi Jinping went for a pint at a pub in Buckinghamshire in 2015. (Alamy) 

"There's a lot of concern... he's got a lot of ground to make up if he wants to make it clear to people in the UK that what they're saying in China is not true."

He also said more transparency was needed on the nature of Cameron's business dealings with Chinese companies. 

"We always asked about what the nature of the business links he has were, and can they be properly declared?" Duncan Smith continued.

"So that there's no more chitter-chatter and that we know exactly what that means. And so far, we haven't seen that yet."

The former cabinet minister said while it was positive Cameron had recently referred to Jimmy Lai – a journalist imprisoned in Hong Kong by China who could face a life sentence for reporting on pro-democracy protests in 2019 – as a British citizen, the UK government's position on China was still "not strong enough".  Cameron has publicly said the charges against Lai are "politically motivated". 

"The Foreign Secretary has done one good thing, which is to finally break this nonsense of Jimmy Lai being referred to as a dual citizen - and made it clear, he's not a dual citizen, he is a British citizen," Duncan Smith added. 

"But we need to go a lot further. The question is: will we now change the integrated review to show that China are a systemic threat?"

Luke de Pulford of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China told PoliticsHome Cameron's warm reception in the Chinese press was "very embarrassing" for the ex-prime minister. 

“This is obviously very embarrassing for David Cameron," he said.  

"CCP state media think they’ve got their man in the foreign office, and they’re crowing about it. Little wonder: Cameron was the PM responsible for the disastrously naive 'golden era' of relations with China, and has since been lobbying for Beijing-run infrastructure projects.

"The onus is on the Foreign Secretary to silence Beijing’s mouthpieces and stand up to Xi Jinping’s worsening totalitarianism."

A Labour source said the positive reception to Cameron in the Chinese press was damaging for both the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. 

“It’s not a great look for the former prime minister to be fawned over by the various mouthpieces of the Chinese Communist Party, especially when his new boss – who happens to be the current Prime Minister – has repeatedly been put under pressure by his party for his inconsistency on China," they said. 

“It clearly undermines Rishi Sunak’s authority and China hawks within the Tory Party will be fuming – Lord Cameron will struggle to manage his backbenches.”

A spokesperson from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FDCO) spokesperson said: “As the Foreign Secretary has said, we face a more aggressive, assertive China. It is vital that we protect ourselves, our democracy and our economy at home, while engaging constructively where it is consistent with our interests.

“Since taking office, he has continued to raise areas of concern, including calling for Chinese authorities to release Jimmy Lai and end their targeting of those who stand up for freedom and democracy.”

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