UK PM rivals prepare for first head-to-head TV debate

Tory leadership hopefuls set to clash on Chinese influence in the UK

Conservative Party leadership hopeful Rishi Sunak accused China of 'stealing our technology and infiltrating our universities'. Getty
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Conservative Party leadership contenders Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are preparing for the first head-to-head TV debate of the race after clashing on foreign policy.

The debate will be aired by the BBC on Monday, after both camps traded increasingly personal attacks at the weekend.

Allies of Ms Truss lashed out at the former chancellor over his warning that China represents the “biggest-long term threat to Britain”.

In a hardening of tone against China, Mr Sunak promised to close all 30 Confucius Institutes in the UK.

If he becomes the next prime minister and follows pressure from a vocal caucus of Conservative Party backbenchers, Mr Sunak's announcement would signal a major hardening of government policy on China.

The pledge follows the example of Ms Truss, who has also adopted an increasingly hardline stance against China in her role as foreign secretary in recent months.

The move to shut down Confucius Institutes will be seen as a move to firm up the former chancellor’s national security credentials.

The culture and language centres, which are funded by the Chinese government, have been labelled propaganda tools by critics amid worsening relations between the West and China.

Mr Sunak accused China of “stealing our technology and infiltrating our universities”.

“Abroad, they are propping up [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s fascist invasion of Ukraine by buying his oil and attempting to bully their neighbours, including Taiwan.

“They are saddling developing countries with insurmountable debt and using this to seize their assets or hold a diplomatic gun to their heads.

“They torture, detain and indoctrinate their own people, including in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, in contravention of their human rights. And they have continually rigged the global economy in their favour by suppressing their currency.”

With a pledge to lead the world in standing up to China “technological aggression”, Mr Sunak said he would introduce an amendment to the Higher Education Bill that would force British universities to disclose any foreign funding partnerships of more than £50,000 ($60,000).

He is also committing to a review of all UK-Chinese research partnerships that might assist China technologically or have military applications, as well as expanding MI5’s reach to provide greater support to British businesses and universities to counter alleged Chinese industrial espionage.

Mr Sunak plans to examine whether there is a need to prevent Chinese acquisitions of prime British assets, amid concerns about the scale of Chinese investment in critical industries.

“I will stop China taking over our universities, and get British companies and public institutions the cyber security they need. And I will work with [US] President [Joe] Biden and other world leaders to transform the West’s resilience to the threat China poses,” he said.

The Truss campaign’s Sir Iain Duncan Smith called the announcement “surprising”.

“Over the last two years, the Treasury has pushed hard for an economic deal with China,” Sir Iain, the co-chairman of the inter-parliamentary alliance on China, said.

“This is despite China sanctioning myself and four UK parliamentarians. Despite China brutally cracking down on peaceful democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, threatening Taiwan, illegally occupying the South China Sea, committing genocide on the Uighurs and increasing its influence in our universities.

“After such a litany, I have one simple question: where have you been over the last two years?”

A spokesman for Ms Truss said she had “strengthened Britain’s position on China since becoming foreign secretary and helped to lead the international response to increased Chinese aggression”.

“This will only continue when she becomes prime minister and seeks to expand her network of liberty around the world,” the spokesman said.

Updated: July 25, 2022, 12:46 PM