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.