Six years ago, Neil O’Brien was working for George Osborne when the then chancellor was enthusing about a ‘new golden era’ in Sino-British relations. But now O’Brien, who became the Conservative MP for Harborough in 2017, is one of the founders of the new China Research Group, a group of Tory MPs who are pushing for the government to take a tougher line with Beijing. His best-case scenario is one where the UK and its allies ‘manage to restrain some of the worst behaviours of the Chinese government’.
O’Brien’s change of heart sums up the shift in Tory thinking on China. The party has moved away from pushing for the UK to be China’s best friend in the West, and now regards the Chinese Communist party as a dangerous power that must be checked.
When we discuss the matter with O’Brien by Zoom, he says that his thinking has changed because the ‘facts on the ground about China have also changed’ since the time when David Cameron and Osborne were busy deepening ties, as exemplified by Osborne’s controversial decision to push through the China--funded Hinkley Point nuclear energy project. O’Brien’s analysis is that ‘China has clearly fallen off the path of economic opening’ and ‘is still doing all of the things they promised they wouldn’t do when they joined the WTO [World Trade Organisation]. Massive state subsidies; huge extraction of intellectual property in lots of different ways, be that industrial espionage or joint ventures in which people’s technology is forced over; huge state-owned enterprises, massive state banks pumping out lots of soft loans. Basically, you name it, they are doing it.’
O’Brien, who is 41, was described by one colleague as the Conservative party’s ‘most unlikely rebel’, and his involvement with this new venture shows how Sino-scepticism is now a mainstream opinion among Tories. Even before Covid-19, concerns over the direction in which President Xi’s China is heading had been bubbling away for some time. In March, 38 Tory MPs rebelled over the Prime Minister’s decision to allow the Chinese company Huawei to help build the UK’s 5G network. But while these were MPs known for being outspoken or who had little chance of promotion, the China Research Group is made up of party loyalists tipped for ministerial office in this parliament, such as Dehenna Davison, Andrew Bowie and former Boris Johnson aide Anthony Browne. Their involvement shows that there is no longer a sense that being critical of China is a fringe view or a bar to advancement.
O’Brien worries that, even putting aside the security risks, the current economic relationship with China will only serve to stamp out innovation in the West. ‘Why should you invest heavily in risky R&D at a firm in the West if everything you invest in is just going to get ripped off by a firm in China and used against you?’ he asks. ‘They are playing a zero-sum game that is negative for us.’
Now that parliament is working online in lockdown, the group has been making do with meetings via the video app Jitsi. While it’s early days, he hopes that they can learn from a very influential Tory group which has dominated the headlines in recent years: the European Research Group. ‘The ERG had been around since about 1993 trying to create a debate in the UK about the EU when there wasn’t really much of a debate — every-one was on the same side,’ O’Brien says. ‘It took a long time to get from the Bruges speech to the 2016 vote. There’s no particular read-across from the European debate to the debate about how to cope with Beijing, but that kind of sense of trying to build up a stronger understanding and a more lively debate about the issues, I think is analogous.’
On Huawei, he backed the government the last time around — he has never voted against it since he became an MP. While he thinks a more general reset on the UK’s relationship with China is required, he says it is ‘too early to say’ which lobby he will walk through come this summer’s vote on the matter.
His stance on the company can’t exactly be described as positive, though. ‘When Huawei helped track down the members of the Ugandan opposition using their mobile phone data and spied on their communications, I think that is an example of where things can have a diplomatic and geo--strategic implication as well as a commercial one, and so yes, it is very hard to make those kinds of distinctions in an economy that is in truth not really a market economy,’ he says. ‘It’s one where the government is making a lot of the key decisions, and the political system that we thought would maybe wither in the 1990s has actually just taken more control over the situation.’
Coronavirus means that for many MPs, concerns about China’s communist regime can no longer be put to one side. ‘You don’t need to exaggerate anything about it to see that the country’s authoritarian system is creating a problem in recognising the truth at an early stage,’ he says of reports that the Chinese government kept information on the virus to itself. ‘I mean everybody who watched [the TV miniseries] Chernobyl will see a parallel there.’ He believes it would be ‘reasonable’ to conduct an inter-national inquiry. Asked whether he thinks the UK would be in a different situation if China had been franker from the beginning, he replies: ‘Yes, I think we probably would be.’
An approach which means the UK does not have to rely on China for essential products will be key for the future. This will be an area in which research can be expected. ‘The US is having this conversation, doing a lot more and always doing more than us, the Japanese and the Europeans are doing more, and we need to get with the programme on all of this stuff.’ As for the American approach to China, O’Brien says that no matter who wins the US election in November, in the future Washington will be even more reluctant to work collaboratively with the Chinese state — or with countries that side with it. ‘I think a lot of what the US is going to do is going to put us on the spot, and other countries too, in that way,’ he says. ‘That will absolutely not stop after Trump, because below the kind of headline Biden-vs-Trump, kind of biffing each other, there is a very strong bi-partisan consensus in Washington now, with both sides of the Senate and every government agency.’
So with the UK government’s approach to China under more scrutiny, will the Prime Minister be willing to listen? ‘I’ve never had a conversation about it with him so I honestly don’t know,’ he says. ‘It’s not like it was a big thing in the leadership contest or anything, so people are not currently sure what his view on it is.’
O’Brien is convinced that Britain, and the democratic world more broadly, have only limited time left to prevent a Beijing-dominated world. He warns that they ‘have been wiping the floor with us economically, by means fair and unfair, and you can see why they are confident they’re going to win — and we need to do some things to change course so that doesn’t happen’.