UK Conservative Leadership Contenders Clash Over China and Taxes in BBC Debate

By Alexander Zhang
Alexander Zhang
Alexander Zhang
July 26, 2022 Updated: July 26, 2022

The two remaining candidates in the race to become Conservative Party leader and UK prime minister—Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former chancellor Rishi Sunak—have traded blows over policies regarding China and taxation in a TV debate hosted by the BBC.

While the tax and economic policy was the focus of the earlier stages of the leadership campaign, China has emerged over the past few days as a key foreign policy battleground between the two leadership hopefuls.

During the debate held on July 25, Sunak went on the offensive and accused Truss of having pursued a closer relationship with China earlier in her ministerial career.

Records of Toughness

He told the audience in Stoke-on-Trent: “There was a time when Liz was talking about having a golden era of relationships with China and the mission there was talking about having deeper collaboration with things like food security and technology.

“But what we do need to do is acknowledge that China is a threat to our national security, it’s a threat to our economic security.”

He added that during his tenure as chancellor, the government came up with the National Security Investment Bill, which gives the UK the power to “protect ourselves against countries like China who are trying to infiltrate our companies and steal our technology.”

In her counterattack, Truss stressed that her previous calls for better China ties were made nearly a decade ago, while Sunak was pushing for closer trade relationships with China “as recently as a month ago.”

She accused Sunak’s former department, the Treasury, of harbouring a desire for “closer economic relations” with China, while the Foreign Office has taken “the toughest stance” towards the regime including by “being clear that Taiwan should be able to defend itself.”

‘Pragmatic’

Sunak, who was in charge of the UK government’s economic policy before resigning earlier this month, has previously been praised by the Global Times—a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece—as the only candidate “with a pragmatic view of developing balanced ties with China.”

On July 24, one day before the debate, Sunak sought to boost his national security credentials by issuing a statement in which he called China “the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity” and promised to “face down China.”

Sunak promised to close all 30 Confucius Institutes—Beijing-backed language and culture centres—in the UK, build “a new international alliance of free nations” to counter cyber threats from China, counter Chinese industrial espionage, and protect key British assets against Chinese acquisitions.

Truss’s campaign stressed that she had “strengthened Britain’s position on China since becoming foreign secretary and helped 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,” a spokesperson said.

Conservative Economics

The economic policy continued to be the biggest focus of debates between the two would-be leaders.

Truss said she would put an economic growth plan in place “immediately” if she becomes prime minister, reverse the increase in national insurance payment, and impose a temporary moratorium on the green energy levy.

Sunak countered that Truss had promised over £40 billion ($48 billion) of unfunded tax cuts, which will mean £40 billion more borrowing, adding: “There’s nothing Conservative about it.”

Truss in turn suggested her rival would lead the country into a recession and criticised him for increasing taxes to the “highest rate in 70 years.”

A snap poll by Opinium, based on a sample of 1,032 voters, found 39 percent believed Sunak had performed best compared to 38 percent for Truss.

Lily Zhou and PA Media contributed to this report.