Rishi Sunak has quietly restored British government funding to an arms-length body established to support U.K.-China relations.
The Great Britain-China Centre (GBCC), which enables dialogue between British and Chinese officials, will receive a £350,000 annual grant from the U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) starting in 2022-2023.
The move reverses Liz Truss’ decision to withdraw funding for the body while she was foreign secretary. It comes amid efforts by Sunak’s government to bolster its China expertise, and continued pressure from some Conservative parliamentarians to take a tougher stance with Beijing.
Truss — who went on to briefly serve as U.K. prime minister before Sunak took over last year — was warned at the time that pulling funding for the GBCC could cripple its operations and damage the U.K.’s understanding of China.
The decision to restore funding was announced in a letter to the GBCC from James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, a government official told POLITICO.
Though restored, the grant will no longer come from the U.K. international aid budget and represents a cut from the £500,000 the body received from the FCDO in 2021-22.
The GBCC is an executive non-departmental public body of the FCDO. In the past, it has run political, economic and judicial dialogues and roundtables between the two countries in a bid to improve understanding, as well as courses to train U.K. officials, parliamentarians and businesspeople on working with China.
An FCDO spokesperson said: “The Great Britain-China Centre works to increase HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] expertise, which together with its strong relationships in China, helps to support and develop U.K. interests.”
The renewed funding for the GBCC marks the latest effort by the U.K. government to improve its understanding of China amid national security fears, tensions over Hong Kong, and concern over the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur people.
U.K. government officials argue
that the center allows them to influence the Chinese system and deliver tough messages on such issues.
Ministers launched a pilot program late last summer — near the end of Boris Johnson’s premiership — to fund Mandarin language lessons for 100 civil servants, according to two government officials. The scheme was launched with funding from the Cabinet Office’s national security secretariat.
There have been concerns about the low level of Mandarin language proficiency in Whitehall. Freedom of Information disclosures reported by the Times in August revealed that between 2017 and 2022, just 70 Foreign Office officials reached near-fluency in the language.
Alicia Kearns, the Tory chairwoman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee who also sits on the GBCC board, said of the decision to restore funding: “This is a sensible and welcome policy reversal. We need more people who can talk to, analyze and understand China. A lack of China expertise across Whitehall and beyond has become a national security problem in of itself.”
But she added: “This move can’t be in isolation — we now need to move forward with bolstering our China capabilities across the board in order to deal with the greatest geopolitical challenge of our time.”
Since taking over as PM, Sunak has faced pressure from hawkish Tory MPs concerned about a softening stance on China.
The prime minister has already backtracked on a claim during the summer that China is “the largest threat to Britain” and has emphasized the importance of dialogue on global challenges.
Tory MPs and members of the House of Lords are urging the government to use its procurement bill, which had its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday night, to reduce reliance on China and other authoritarian states such as Russia in U.K. supply chains for security reasons. Bob Seely, the Tory MP for the Isle of Wight, plans to put forward an amendment to that effect.
MPs’ concerns have been heightened by a report in the i newspaper over the weekend that a hidden Chinese tracking device had been found in a U.K. government car. No. 10 declined to comment on the story on Monday. The Chinese embassy in London issued a statement calling it “groundless and sheer rumor.”