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China: UK PM’s rivals engage in prime-time TV debate with tough rhetoric on China

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The two candidates for the post of British Prime Minister were due to face each other on Monday for the first time in a televised debate after a weekend of difficult discussions on China.

Responding to criticism from conservative leadership favorite Liz Truss, her rival Rishi Sunak announced plans to crack down on Beijing’s influence, calling it a “number one threat” to national and global security.

China’s state-run Global Times previously said former finance minister Sunak was the only contestant with “a clear and pragmatic view of the development of UK-China relations”.

The Daily Mail, which has spoken out for Foreign Secretary Truss in the race to succeed Boris Johnson, called it ‘the endorsement no one wanted’.

Sunak’s proposals include closing all 30 Confucius Institutes in Britain.

Beijing-backed schools teach students Chinese language and culture, but critics say they are propaganda fronts for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Sunak also promised to “kick the CCP out of our universities”, requiring higher education institutions to disclose overseas funding of more than £50,000 ($60,000) and reviewing research partnerships.

Britain’s MI5 spy agency would be used to help combat Chinese espionage, and he would seek to establish “NATO-style” international cooperation to counter Chinese threats in cyberspace.

China’s Foreign Office said in response that British politicians should not “talk about China all the time and make irresponsible remarks such as the so-called ‘China threat theory’, which cannot solve their problems”.

– ‘Magic money tree’ – Truss accused Sunak of being soft on China and Russia when he was finance minister, after apparently raising economic concerns when Johnson pushed for tough sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine via Moscow.

His hard line on China came ahead of Monday’s BBC TV debate, which will take place at 21:00 (2000 GMT), as he seeks to claw back some ground from Truss.

Opinion polls put her well ahead of the roughly 200,000 rank-and-file Tories who will decide the contest, after she and Sunak emerged as the run-off candidates in a series of MP votes.

The winner will be announced on September 5.

Truss promised immediate tax cuts while Sunak stressed the need to tame decades-high inflation first, as both candidates claim to be political heirs to 1980s prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

The main opposition Labour, which leads in the polls but may have to wait until 2024 for the next general election, is looking to capitalize on the fallout from the Tories’ bitter battle.

In a speech on Monday, Labor leader Keir Starmer said Sunak was the “architect of the cost of living crisis” while Truss was “the latest graduate of the magic money tree school of economics”. .

He added that their BBC debate would present “a clear contrast between my Labor party and the Thatcherite cosplay on display”.

– ‘State threat’ – The candidates’ foreign policy positions are likely to feature in the prime-time TV event, alongside a series of domestic issues.

Truss also called for a tougher approach to adversaries, calling on the G7 to become an “economic NATO” against Chinese threats and warning Beijing of sanctions if it fails to follow international rules.

His allies have blamed Sunak for not doing more when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, before his resignation earlier this month over Johnson’s leadership scandal contributed to the Prime Minister’s downfall outgoing.

“Over the past two years, the Treasury has pushed for an economic deal with China…despite China’s brutal crackdown on peaceful democracy activists in Hong Kong, threatening Taiwan, illegally occupying the South China Sea, committing genocide on the Uyghurs,” former conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said.

“After such a litany, I have a simple question: where have you been for the past two years?”

But Truss was also on Johnson’s cabinet when intelligence agencies repeatedly warned against China’s influence.

In March last year, the government’s ‘Integrated Review’ of Security, Defense and Foreign Policy identified China as ‘the greatest state threat to the UK’s economic security’.

But the review also highlighted the need for trade and investment engagement.