UK aid to China – the world’s second largest economy and a country that is viewed by London as a security concern – hit a record high of nearly £70 million in 2019, a spending watchdog has revealed.
More than two-thirds of the money went to British research institutions or “diplomatic efforts”, with the salaries of some diplomatic staff counted as official development assistance (ODA), according to an analysis released by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI).
The watchdog was unable to say, from the data, exactly how much UK funding went to support human rights issues such as the plight of Uighur Muslims and other minorities.
It pointed to a portfolio of small projects for China, run by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), with an overall budget of £1million a year that focused on issues such as the rule of law and democracy.
The wider details on UK spending on aid to China prompted Tobias Elwood, chair of the defence select committee and a former foreign office minister, to query government thinking.
“The only conclusion we can draw is that we have a very confusing strategy in relation to China and we are still in denial as to the threat Beijing poses,” he said.
“Taxpayers have every right to pose these questions as to why a penny is being spent there given where China is taking Hong Kong, how it treats Uighurs and its growing authoritarian stance beyond its shores.”
The foreign office last week announced its aid spending to China was being slashed by 95% to just £900,000 as part of a reprioritising of effort, prompted by a massive cut of more than £4billion in overall international development funding.
The ICAI report, though, noted that not all aid given to China came from the foreign office, with other departments like business, health and environment also contributing funds.
“We are asking further questions of departments about these cuts and will update this note in due course,” it said.
Assessing UK aid to China since 2015, the watchdog described it as a “complex mosaic”, supporting China’s own development; pursuing mutual interests such as climate change; and working together with third countries.
This included massive Chinese infrastructure programmes in developing countries across Africa. The UK has tried to promote transparency with Chinese loans and the hiring of local labour, it said.
UK funds to China hit a record high of £68.4 million in grants in 2019, though ICAI identified additional spend used to engage with Beijing on global issues which took the total to nearly £82 million.
Sir Hugh Bayley, the ICAI commissioner, said there had been a “lack of information in the public domain about the full extent of the UK’s aid spend in relation to China”.
One example appears to be the way the former Foreign and Commonwealth Office reported costs related to diplomatic staff with aid-related duties as part of its overseas aid spending. ICAI said almost a third of diplomatic costs in China in 2017 were reported as ODA.
Asked about the ICAI report and the proportion of UK aid funding that goes on human rights issues, a spokesperson said: “The FCDO will ensure that aid is spent even more effectively this year to address global challenges while working in the UK’s national interest.
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