"Let's be clear, the famous golden age is over, as is the naive idea that trade will automatically lead to political and social reform," Rishi Sunak said in reference to the warming of Sino-British relations from 2015 under David Cameron.
For his first major foreign policy speech delivered at Guildhall, the palace in the City of London, the Prime Minister considered that China now represented "a systemic challenge to our values and our interests, a challenge that is increasingly glaring as the country is moving towards even greater authoritarianism".
His remarks come after the arrest and police violence against a BBC journalist who was covering protests in Shanghai.
The BBC claimed on Sunday evening that its reporter Ed Lawrence had been "arrested and handcuffed while covering protests in Shanghai". According to the British audiovisual giant, "he was beaten and beaten by the police" before being released.
Triggered by the mobilization against the confinements and the restrictions imposed by the authorities to fight against the epidemic of coronavirus, the anger which growls in China seems unprecedented since the pro-democracy demonstrations repressed in blood in 1989.
- Pragmatic approach -
"Instead of listening to the protests of its people, the Chinese government has chosen to crack down more, including by attacking a BBC journalist," denounced the Prime Minister.
"The media - and our parliamentarians - must be able to highlight these issues without being sanctioned," he insisted.
The BBC explained that it had "no official explanation or apology from the Chinese authorities, beyond an assertion by officials, who subsequently released him, that they arrested him for his own good at the case he caught the Covid (in the middle) of the crowd". "We don't consider that to be a credible explanation."
Beijing assured Monday that Mr. Lawrence had not identified himself as a journalist "and did not voluntarily present his press accreditation", according to Zhao Lijian, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The incident only worsens already strained relations between Beijing and London, against a backdrop of strong criticism from the United Kingdom, in particular on the recovery of Hong Kong by China and recent incidents on British soil.
But if the Prime Minister has said he wants to "evolve" the approach of the United Kingdom vis-à-vis the Asian country, we must not "ignore" according to him "the place of China in world affairs".
Earlier on Monday, the spokesman for the head of government described the journalist's arrest as "shocking and unacceptable". "But that does not mean that we will not seek to have constructive relations with China on other issues" such as the fight against global warming or the economy.
- "Threat number 1" -
A speech that seems to have faded as Mr Sunak called China "the number one threat" to the United Kingdom during the campaign that led him to Downing Street.
The United Kingdom was recently marked by the violence suffered by a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist at the Chinese consulate in Manchester (North) and by reports from a Spanish NGO that Beijing had opened clandestine police stations in several Western countries, particularly on British soil.
Reacting to Mr. Lawrence's arrest, British Secretary of State for Security Tom Tugendhat said the case echoed the "repression" that the Chinese Communist Party is trying to implement "elsewhere".
“Attempts at state repression here in the UK remind us of the urgent need to defend our own freedoms,” he tweeted.