British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak warned Monday that China posed a “systemic challenge” to UK “values and interests” as his government condemned Beijing after a BBC journalist said he was beaten covering Shanghai protests. 

Rishi Sunak Covid-19 Presser
24/09/2020. London, United Kingdom. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak holds a Covid-19 Press Conference in 10 Downing Street. Picture by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street.

In his first major speech on foreign policy, Sunak said that the so-called “golden era” of UK-China relations trumpeted by former prime minister David Cameron was “over, along with the naïve idea that trade would automatically lead to social and political reform.”

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Britain would “need to evolve our approach to China” as a result, he said in his speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London.

“We recognise China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism,” he said.

“We cannot simply ignore China’s significance in world affairs — to global economic stability or issues like climate change. The US, Canada, Australia, Japan and many others understand this too.

“So together we’ll manage this sharpening competition, including with diplomacy and engagement,” he added.

His government will prioritise deepening trade and security ties with Indo-Pacific allies, he said, adding that “economics and security are indivisible” in the region. 

While unlikely to please Beijing, Sunak’s message was somewhat toned down from that on the campaign trail, when he called China the “number one threat” to domestic and global security.

‘Deeply disturbing’

The speech came as tensions were further strained between the two nations after Ed Lawrence, working in China as an accredited BBC journalist, was arrested at a Covid lockdown protest in Shanghai and detained for several hours.

The UK broadcaster says he was assaulted and kicked by police. 

After his release, Lawrence tweeted on Monday to thank his followers, adding he believed “at least one local national was arrested after trying to stop the police from beating me”.

Ed Lawrence
BBC journalist Ed Lawrence. Photo: Twitter.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly called the incident “deeply disturbing”.

“Media freedom and freedom to protest must be respected. No country is exempt,” he tweeted.

“Journalists must be able to do their job without intimidation.”

Sunak stressed that the media “must be able to highlight these issues without sanction, including calling out abuses in Xinjiang — and the curtailment of freedom in Hong Kong.”

Security minister Tom Tugendhat said Lawrence’s arrest was “an echo of the repression the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is attempting elsewhere”.

“China’s attempts at state repression here in the UK remind us of the urgent need to defend our own freedoms,” he said, after reports emerged of China operating undeclared police outposts in foreign countries including Britain.

Hundreds of people took to the streets in China’s major cities on Sunday in a rare outpouring of public anger against the state over its zero-Covid policy. 

The BBC said it was “extremely concerned”, after Lawrence was filmed being hauled away at one of the protests in Shanghai. 

“We have had no official explanation or apology from the Chinese authorities, beyond a claim by the officials who later released him that they had arrested him for his own good in case he caught Covid from the crowd,” it said.

“We do not consider this a credible explanation.”

China’s foreign ministry said on Monday that Lawrence had not identified himself as a journalist.

“Based on what we learned from relevant Shanghai authorities, he did not identify himself as a journalist and didn’t voluntarily present his press credentials,” foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said.

He told international media to “follow Chinese laws and regulations while in China”.

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