Why Sinoscepticism will Remake British Politics

25 March 2024

Liam Stanley - Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics & IR, University of Sheffield

Many Conservative MPs have moved to become vocal critics of the UK’s relations with China. Under pressure from an increasingly organised anti-China presence in Westminster, the UK has recently planned for technology from the Chinese firm Huawei to be removed from the country’s 5G public networks and placed sanctions on China for human rights abuses in Hong Kong. ‘Sinoscepticism’, which we can define as a political position defined by opposition to the increasing power of China and its ruling Communist Party, prompts questions: why has this position become so prominent and what effects will it have? This piece is based on newly published research by the author.

The 'Golden Era'

To answer these questions, we need to return to the so-called ‘golden era’ of UK-China relations. This term refers to the period between 2010–2016, owing to the pro-China stance of David Cameron’s governments and, especially, then-chancellor, George Osborne. The Economist went as far to name the UK’s approach as ‘The Osborne Doctrine’. In short, it meant gambling on linking Britain to the Chinese economy, while turning a blind eye to the authoritarianism of the Chinese state. For Britain, the diplomatic pinnacle occurred with Xi Jinping’s official visit in 2015, when a ‘global comprehensive strategic partnership’ was announced. This partnership included a £6 billion investment in the Hinkley Point nuclear power station. In addition, various Chinese companies (including state-owned enterprises) invested £80 billion in UK assets.

Underpinning this is liberal internationalism. It is a multifaceted ideology, but one core aspect is the belief in a virtuous cycle: that development of human rights and liberal democracy leads to economic prosperity, and in turn, economic prosperity fosters human rights and liberal democracy. By embracing capital mobility and adhering to a rules-based global order, this virtuous cycle will—according to many adherents—propel a country towards prosperity and freedom. This ideology envisions everyone benefitting, thus serving as justification for increased economic interdependence.

The backlash

It was the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 that kickstarted the Sinosceptic backlash proper. Owing to the origins of the virus and theories of potential cover-ups, individuals with concerns about China’s authoritarian regime saw this as an opportunity to argue that the CCP posed a threat to democratic societies. The pandemic prompted the formation of two influential Sinosceptic groups: the Conservative-led China Research Group (CRG) and the cross-party Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC). Pressure leading to their formation had been building gradually, with senior Tories like Malcolm Rifkind and Iain Duncan Smith having criticised China for some time. A concerted Sinosceptic campaign driven by Tory MPs gained momentum, targeting various issues including Huawei, nuclear power and concerns over human rights violations.

When the government put its proposal to give Huawei only a limited role in 5G infrastructure, Iain Duncan Smith was central to a rebellion of thirty-eight Conservative MPs. Three months later in July 2020, the government promised to remove all Huawei equipment from 5G networks by 2027. In May 2021, the National Security and Investment Act provided mechanisms for the state to prevent other states such as China from buying sensitive UK assets. Meanwhile, China introduced the new security law in Hong Kong in 2020, allowing Beijing to suppress protests and extradite to the mainland. The UK declared this a breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984 during the Hong Kong handover. In response, the UK gave special rights to those Hong Kong residents holding British National Overseas passports, thereby opening a path to British citizenship for 3 million residents. By the time of the first Conservative Party leadership contest in 2022, Sinoscepticism was a clear constraint on the party. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak were compelled to demonstrate their hawkish credentials, each trying to outstrip the other.

The crisis of liberal internationalism

To explain the rise of Sinoscepticism we need to look beyond Westminster, however. By further integrating China into the global economy, the UK hoped that China would improve its human rights record and inch towards democracy. However, this kind of liberal internationalism is increasingly discredited. The relative decline of US power has left it and its associated mechanisms of international liberal ordering less effective in promoting (and enforcing) the standards of political liberalism, especially on human rights.

In addition, the rise of ‘geoeconomics’, referring to the way that economic interdependence fostered by globalisation creates new opportunities for states to wield power internationally, complicates things further. Economic interdependence can be ‘weaponised’, setting the scene for the supposed ‘return’ of industrial strategy in the context of the green transition, most notably the Bidenomics revolution in the US and the new state aid regime in the EU. This attempts to ‘de-risk’ the exposure of their economies to China. For the UK, however, it cannot properly compete in this new game of industrial strategy owing to a lack of resources and having a finance-dependent economy. What’s more, geoeconomics blurs economic and security imperatives. Chinese state-led investment, rather than just seeking passive portfolio investment for long-term returns, also aims at acquiring majority stakes in strategically-relevant companies that will enhance Chinese development (and possibly security). Consequently, the old liberal internationalist idea that global economic integration— including increased ties with China—is a win-win for all involved is no longer as sure as it once was.


Sinoscepticism has become prominent because of the interaction between two interlinked processes: the rise and fall of the UK’s golden era of relations with China; and the shifting politics of global order, including the crisis of liberal internationalism. The UK’s China policy has long been a balance between maintaining its economic interests in free trade while placating allies. As critics have become more hawkish alongside China’s accumulation of power, it is seemingly ever more hazardous. For Sinoscepticism to remake British politics, it will need to become mainstream. As relations with China relate to many of the key issues of British political development such as its ties to the US, its economic openness, and its ability to manage the green transition, it has the potential to.

This blog originally appeared on the Political Quarterley Blog.

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