Coronavirus: Senior Tory calls for Cold War-style relations with China in wake of pandemic

Lizzy Buchan
Conservative MP Damian Green arrives in Downing Street in central London on 21 October 2019: AFP via Getty Images

A former Tory cabinet minister has blamed China for allowing the coronavirus outbreak to spread and said diplomatic relations with Beijing should mirror the UK's Cold War-era ties with Russia.

Damian Green, who was Theresa May's de facto deputy, criticised China's handling of the crisis and said it was "undeniable" that the outbreak had been triggered by "unhygienic practices" in its markets.

Mr Green, a vocal critic of the government's decision to allow Chinese firm Huawei a role in the UK's 5G network, called for an overhaul of Britain's relationship with China once the pandemic has ended.

His intervention comes after sustained criticism of Beijing from senior Tories, including former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, who accused China of a "cover up" and said Western leaders must stop "kow towing" to the country.

Cabinet office minister Michael Gove sought to blame China for failing to curb the spread of the virus at the weekend and Dominic Raab suggested on Monday that a "lessons learned" inquiry could be needed in the aftermath of the pandemic.

But the criticism drew warnings from Labour against "deeply cynical" attempts to exploit the pandemic to further political goals.

Writing for Conservative Home, Mr Green said: "The irritation of the British government with its Chinese counterpart, both for the delay in informing international bodies of the arrival of coronavirus and for its slightly dubious attitude to statistics, has been obvious in recent days."

The former work and pensions secretary added: "Whatever charges can be laid at the door of others, it is undeniable that the pandemic started because of unhygienic practices in Chinese markets, which have been known about for years, and that the Chinese authorities were dilatory in informing the World Health Organisation about the outbreak."

Already a vocal critic of Boris Johnson's decision to allow Chinese tech giant Huawei a role in the UK's fledgling 5G network, he made the case for UK manufacturers to use factories outside China for their products to protect supply lines, looking to the likes of Vietnam and Cambodia instead.

Mr Green argued that a "deeper look at the long-term interdependence of Western capitalism and Chinese communism" would take place after the pandemic ends.

He added: "The UK stance towards China, regrettably, may have to become similar to our attitude to Russia in the more peaceful stages of the Cold War.

"Co-operate where we can, but guard when we must."

Labour MP Sarah Owen said there was an "undercurrent of dog whistle racism" to the comments, which will fuel racism against Chinese and East Asian people in the UK.

Ms Owen, who chairs the Chinese for Labour affiliate, told The Independent: "It’s deeply cynical that anyone would seek to use this pandemic to further their own political agenda, but that is exactly what we have seen from a handful of Tories and right wing media outlets over the past week.

"The likes of (Tory MP) Iain Duncan Smith have crassly used the outbreak, which has killed thousands and will likely kill thousands more, as a blunt tool against a 5G deal he doesn’t want, instead of addressing serious concerns with security or control over data - would anyone have suggested that the U.K should stop buying coffee from Sierra Leone because of the Ebola outbreak?"

She said stereotyping and generalisations were a "far cry" from legitimate criticism of the Chinese government - and called for an international response without boundaries.

Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson, echoed the concerns and warned against rash action against China.

"The Tories have been quite happy turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in recent years. I am glad that some are belatedly catching up," he said.

"It is not enough, however, to simply draw down an iron curtain with China in order to distract from our own struggles with coronavirus.

“Our historical obligations to the people of Hong Kong cannot be ignored, and a rash declaration of "cold war" with China would put their liberties - already under threat - in still greater peril."

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