U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak talked a good game, at least while auditioning for the country’s top job. Back in July 2022, as a leadership candidate for the ruling Conservative Party, he described China as the “number one threat” to global security, promised to expand the reach of intelligence agency MI5 “to counter Chinese industrial espionage” and pledged to kick the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) out of universities.
Finding himself at the country’s helm in October of the same year, that position crumbled swiftly. Less than a month into the job, he had decided that China was not an official threat after all, but rather a “systematic challenge.” Chinese consular staff were then permitted to return to the motherland in a “normal rotation” after beating up a Hong Konger on the grounds of their consulate. Shortly later, British Trade Minister Dominic Johnson tip-toed onto a plane after them, looking to eke a few deals out of Hong Kong, while Britain pretended to talk tough on the city. In the meantime, Sunak had u-turned to let the CCP stay on campus, too.
Watching these antics knowingly and holding information then outside the public realm that a parliamentary researcher had been arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing, the U.K’s Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament presented a withering report on the country’s China relations in mid-July 2023. It concluded that China had penetrated “every sector” of the British economy, become “aggressive in its interference activities” and constituted a “whole-of-state threat.”
According to the report, Beijing’s “ruthless targeting” had been made far simpler by a U.K. government that “has been so keen to take Chinese money that it has not noticed China’s sleight of hand” as it infiltrated energy and industry sectors, among others. Former prime minister David Cameron’s name was mentioned more than once and never flatteringly.
In response, between the usual rhetoric about being “clear-eyed” and “acutely aware of the particular threat to our open and democratic way of life,” Sunak stated the U.K.’s preference vis-a-vis Beijing for a “relationship in which there was room for cooperation, understanding, predictability and stability.” With all its implied tolerance for dictatorship, China President Xi Jinping may as well have written this last part himself.
Before long, with the China report seemingly forgotten, Sunak’s government was welcoming U.S.-sanctioned Hikvision, a Chinese company implicated in minority profiling, to install its surveillance tech in U.K. police stations and public authority facilities, while working hushedly behind the scenes to relaunch the U.K.-China Joint Economic and Trade Committee, dormant, due to the crushing of freedoms in Hong Kong, since 2018.
And it is at this point, to Sunak’s behest, that China chummy David Cameron has suddenly walked into London’s plum post of foreign secretary, fresh from a walkabout in the political wilderness, where he has been supporting himself with Beijing-friendly gigs, after a career spent escorting Xi in a golden carriage, both metaphorical and actual. It is an astonishing turnaround.
For Cameron was forged in that quaint era when, intoxicated with optimism from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the democratization of Taiwan and South Korea, growing complicity with the CCP could be excused by the notion that mutual trade and investment between China and the free world would cause the former to change in the latter’s image, not the other way around. It seemed a logical and realistic hope.
But omens were already presaging a very different outcome by the time Cameron became leader of the United Kingdom in 2010. Far from toning down its colonial policies in Tibet and East Turkestan (Xinjiang) in response to their respective protests of 2008 and 2009, China had reportedly opened fire on protesters, disappeared countless people and tortured them. It had covered up the SARS outbreak and avian flu flare-ups. It had imprisoned activists and arrested parents who sought justice for children that had died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, while persecuting Falun Gong practitioners and signatories of the Charter 08 call for democracy. And it had taken advantage of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. to intensify its characterization of Uyghurs as terrorists, laying groundwork for the future eradication of their culture.
Desperate to fire up his overleveraged economy with deeper ties to China as the aftershocks of the Lehman collapse reverberated, Cameron took none of the hints on board even as others swelled their number. Chen Quanguo (陳全國), alleged architect of some of the 21st century’s worst crimes to date, was perfecting his draconian model of extreme authoritarian control in Tibet from 2011, directly on Cameron’s watch as a world leader. Cameron was also in office as Xi took over the Chinese presidency, ratcheted up repression of Uyghurs, made no concessions to Hong Kong’s 2014 “Umbrella Movement” and started to unpick the few freedoms that civil society had gained over decades.
A minor meeting with the Dalai Lama aside, Cameron did little to put these dangers back in their box. In 2015, immediately after China’s 709 crackdown on human rights lawyers, he instead declared “something of a golden era” in British-Chinese relations; wowed Xi with royal meetings and celebrity selfie opportunities; invited China into the U.K’s nuclear power industry; took a leading role in the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has recently been described as a CCP “cesspool” by its former head of global communications; and even boasted about all of the different ways Beijing had perforated his country’s physical and economic infrastructure.
This culminated a policy of opportunism and willful naivety that had already been leaving the U.K. open to Chinese influence for many years, as neatly encapsulated by the case of Huawei. Cameron certainly knew that the company posed dangers, but the substantiality with which they were handled under his government was questionable, as was his awareness of the deeper geopolitical implications of endorsing it, such as how U.K. sourcing decisions might financially service China’s wider strategic aims and influence choices in other states with less resources to oversee telecommunications security.
In 2011, he signed off Government Chief Information Officer John Suffolk to quit and become Huawei’s Global Head of Cyber Security, despite intelligence misgivings. A few months later, his coalition government’s policies then advanced Huawei’s purchase of the East of England Development Agency’s Centre for Integrated Photonics, at the time a public body, which gave the Chinese tech giant a “head start” in 100GB optics, according to the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre. In the same year, Cameron also courted Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei (任正非), which resulted in the promise of $2 billion of investments for Britain but also coincided with what the aforementioned Intelligence and Security Committee describes as a “revolving door between the government and Huawei, with officials involved in awarding the company contracts being apparently ‘rewarded’ with jobs.”
It is worth remembering that, aside from the undertones of corruption, Huawei has since patented technology that could very well be applied to the abusive segregation of Uyghurs in East Turkestan (Xinjiang) and has been implicated in electoral interference in both Uganda and Zambia. It is also worth remembering that the little procession of high-ranking job-seekers who crossed from the U.K. government to the Chinese sphere was joined by Cameron himself, shortly after he stepped down as prime minister of the country in 2016.
Notably, this kept him active with Anglo-Sino exchange in the interim period between leading the United Kingdom and acquiring his current position as foreign minister. Within two years of leaving office, Cameron was involved with the creation of the UK-China Fund, a $1.2 billion investment vehicle that would also support Beijing’s Belt and Road policy. It was endorsed by the governments of both countries, and he had been installed as its vice chair, a paid role that he was reportedly offered at Beijing’s request.
Reassuring the U.K.’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, an independent public body which reviews the appropriateness of former ministers’ roles outside government, that “no work or tentative discussions” took place for the fund while he was leading the country, Cameron nonetheless revealed that he intended it to “build upon the close bilateral relationship between the U.K. and China established when he was [prime minister].”
Although the committee subjected him to rules that he should not “make use, directly or indirectly, of his contacts in Government and/or Crown service to influence policy on the fund’s behalf,” he had already discussed the matter with the U.K.’s then-Chancellor Philip Hammond prior to the rules being issued, which sparked a lobbying controversy. He also unsuccessfully tried to bring on board the China Investment Corporation, the Chinese sovereign wealth fund, which manages assets worth $1.35 trillion and, in the words of the U.S. State Department, “is expected to pursue government objectives.”
For a little extra pocket money, Cameron has been working indirectly for Beijing as a speaker rolling up investment for the highly controversial Colombo Port City project in Sri Lanka, too. Standing behind the project is the China Communications Construction Company, a notoriously corrupt entity that has been on the U.S. sanctions list since 2020 for its role in militarizing the West Pacific. Some believe the port will serve as a smokescreen for People’s Liberation Army access or result in yet more environmental destruction.
Angering members of the local Tamil community, Cameron’s involvement with the development was secured by fellow Conservative Party stalwart Nirj Deva, a pro-China figure. Deva has previously been at the center of an influence row as a member of the European parliament after forming the EU-China Friendship Group. Now on ice amid suspicion of its activities, the group was accused of displacing the European Union’s official discourse with China, whose government often picked up the tab for its trips to the Far East.
Aside from offering insight into the kind of thoughts and future planning that might go through David Cameron’s head now that he is foreign minister, these roles of the past few years imply that Beijing is deploying his amenable facade to camouflage its unedifying presence in the background of investments, a kind of reputation laundering. Those who are less kind believe China sees him as a “useful idiot” who bumbles around to serve Beijing’s obviously self-interested purposes without ever quite figuring out what they are.
Given his personnel selection, the same term surely now applies to Cameron’s London boss, Rishi Sunak, too.