Chinese investors expressed surprise on Friday at Theresa May’s move to delay the final go-ahead for the Hinkley Point nuclear plant, a decision seen as part of a rethink on Chinese investment in the UK.
A senior official in the Chinese nuclear industry who was scheduled to attend the signing said: “We are really questioning what’s going on. We were all set to go over when it was suddenly pushed back. It seems the UK government has a lot of doubts, we aren’t sure where all this is coming from.”
The official said the project still made economic sense: “We believe Hinkley can still be built under budget and on time.”
The UK’s decision to delay signals fears in Downing Street that Beijing could “shut down Britain’s energy production at will”.
Nick Timothy, Mrs May’s joint chief of staff and a highly influential figure in the new administration, was a critic of David Cameron’s attempts to secure Chinese “gold”, which he said was buying British silence on human rights abuses.
But Mr Timothy also said Chinese investment in sensitive sectors raised security concerns, including the possibility that Beijing could close down nuclear reactors in Britain as a form of energy blackmail.
George Osborne, the former chancellor, told his Chinese hosts last year that their investment in Hinkley Point in Somerset could lead the way to Beijing building its own reactors in Britain, including Bradwell in Essex.
But Mr Timothy wrote at the time on the ConservativeHome website that such a move could allow the Chinese “to use their role to build weaknesses into computer systems which will allow them to shut down Britain’s energy production at will”.
He added: “For those who believe that such an eventuality is unlikely, the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation — one of the state-owned companies involved in the plans for the British nuclear plants — says on its website that it is responsible not just for “increasing the value of state assets and developing the society” but the “building of national defence”.
Mrs May, a former home secretary, raised security concerns repeatedly about Chinese investment with cabinet colleagues, adding to the tensions between her and Mr Osborne in cabinet.
The new prime minister’s sacking of Mr Osborne this month marked not just a departure from his economic austerity policies but a change in emphasis in the relationship with China.
While Mrs May’s decision to pause Hinkley Point will frustrate François Hollande, the French president, it is likely to cause equal concern in Beijing, which has been persuaded in recent years to regard the UK as open to its investment.
The animosity towards Beijing in the May camp was reflected by Mr Timothy’s 2015 article when he wrote: “What are the Chinese buying with their gold? The first thing on their shopping list is British silence on human rights abuses — and the government has been only too happy to oblige.”
Although the feeling inside government is that Mrs May will still authorise the construction of Hinkley Point C, her suspicion of Chinese involvement could throw new doubts over the project.
If Beijing were to get the signal from London that it was no longer welcome to build its own nuclear power stations in the UK, China might question whether its involvement in the risky project still made sense.
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