UK explores way between pandering to China hawks and seeking best interests
Published: Nov 02, 2022 11:24 PM
Illustration: Tang Tengfei/Global Times

Illustration: Tang Tengfei/Global Times

It seems that the UK policy-making circle is still exploring a way of pandering to anti-China forces while seeking best interests from China ties. 

UK Security Minister Tom Tugendhat said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is "looking to close" Confucius Institutes across UK universities over security concerns, according to media reports on Wednesday.

During the Conservative Party leadership contest to replace Boris Johnson in July, Sunak, as a candidate, said he would ban Confucius Institutes in Britain if he became the prime minister.  Before the race, however, he was considered to hold a ''pragmatic view'' on China, which led to others and his rival Liz Truss to accuse him of being soft on China.

"Out of their own interests, the UK security unit wants to pile more pressure on Sunak, in a bid to force him to fulfill his election vow and display a tough stance toward China," Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times. "The China policy within the British government has long been divided. The security sector tends to advocate a hard-line position on China, while the economic and diplomatic units would like to see a more balanced policy towards China."

In addition, Tugendhat himself is one of the most prominent proponents of anti-China sentiment among British political circle. He and the Sinophobic China Research Group he helped form were sanctioned by the Chinese government in March 2021 for maliciously spreading lies and disinformation. In recent years, Tugendhat has repeatedly made foul remarks on issues related to China's internal affairs such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang, but failed to provide any evidence. It's clear that the chief of the UK's security sector is deliberately stirring up trouble.

Cui noted that another scenario to explain why it is Tugendhat who sent the message, instead of Sunak announcing himself is that Sunak wants to release a trial balloon to see the response at home and abroad. He may want to discuss with the members of his government on how to tackle the issue based on the response from related parties, the UK society, China and the US.

Sunak's identity today is different from that when he was a Party leadership candidate after all. If it's announced by himself, it would definitely lead to more negative consequences and further hit Britain's relations with China. It would be unfavorable for him, who just took office.

Pressure may also come from Washington, pushing Sunak to follow the US in containing China. With the G20 summit just around the corner, there may be a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Sunak. Britain may want to display its position toward China to the US in this way, said Chinese observers. From London's perspective, targeting the Confucius Institutes would be the least expensive way to demonstrate its coordination with Washington's anti-China strategy, according to Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at the Renmin University of China.

The majority of the international community is fully aware that Confucius Institutes have long served as a bridge and bond between China and other countries including the UK in education and cultural communication and exchange. And the operation and management of the Confucius Institutes is open and transparent. Tom Fowdy, a British political and international relations analyst commented, "The institutes have been transformed into an explicit political bogeyman, transforming something as innocent and benign as Chinese language education into a covert 'threat' in a McCarthyist fashion."

The UK is now in a mess at home, with problems such as disunity within the Conservative Party and the UK's society. The country's economy is in bad shape. Against this backdrop, playing tricks on the Confucius Institutes is not a good idea for Sunak. Especially considering that China is one of the UK's largest trading partners, it is difficult for Britain to achieve economic recovery without sound ties with China. Such a trial balloon is pretty dangerous.