RISHI Sunak has said he would ban all 30 of China’s controversial Confucius Institutes from the UK, including five attached to Scottish universities, if he becomes Prime Minister.

Signalling a major hardening of policy towards China, the former Chancellor branded the country the “biggest long-term threat to Britain”.

Mr Sunak’s focus on foreign affairs was mirrored by his rival for No10, the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, last night concentrating on one of his key policies.

Ms Truss said that if she won the contest she would aim to boost UK growth rates with “full-fat freeports” across the country, criticising the model promoted by Mr Sunak as Chancellor.

She said the Government would no longer “pick the winners and losers” with freeports, which were one of Mr Sunak’s flagship post-Brexit reforms.

The trespassing on each other’s territory could set up an acrimonious scrap between the two candidates when they take part in the first televised head-to-head TV debate tonight.

The pair pulled out of a Sky News debate last week to avoid more damaging clashes in the early stages of the leadership race, but the battle will be rejoined at 9pm on BBC One.

Ahead of the event, Mr Sunak tried to outflank Ms Truss on China, saying he would go much further than current UK Government policy.

Funded by the Chinese Government, Confucius Institutes are ostensibly culture and language centres but critics say they are propaganda tools.
Five Scottish universities - Edinburgh, Glasgow, Strathclyde, Heriot-Watt and Aberdeen - have accepted more than £13m between them since 2006 for their Institutes.

Accusing China of “stealing our technology and infiltrating our universities”, Mr Sunak said: “Abroad, they are propping up Putin’s fascist invasion of Ukraine by buying his oil and attempting to bully their neighbours, including Taiwan.

“They are saddling developing countries with insurmountable debt and using this to seize their assets or hold a diplomatic gun to their heads.

“They torture, detain and indoctrinate their own people, including in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, in contravention of their human rights.

"And they have continually rigged the global economy in their favour by suppressing their currency.”

He pledged to review all UK-Chinese research partnerships which might aid China technologically or have military applications, and expand MI5’s reach to help British business and academia counter Chinese industrial espionage.

He said he would examine whether there was a need to prevent Chinese acquisitions of key British assets, amid concerns about the scale of Chinese investment in key industries.

Although higher education is devolved, Mr Sunak's campaign said the action on China would be a security and foreign policy matter, and so UK-wide.

A spokesperson told The Herald: "When it comes to dealing with super-powers that don't share our values, we operate as one United Kingdom.

"We will therefore work to close all 30 of China's Confucius Institutes across the UK."

Ms Truss pitched an improved freeports plan as the cornerstone of her tax-cutting economic vision, with brownfield sites near ports and airports being turned into “investment zones” dubbed “full-fat freeports”.

She said the investment zones would benefit from a low-tax burden, reduced planning restrictions and regulations tailored on a case-by-case basis.

In an implicit criticism of her rival's record, Ms Truss said she would reform Government policy to “unleash the potential” of current free ports.

She said: “As Prime Minister, I will be laser-focused on turbocharging business investment and delivering the economic growth our country desperately needs. We can’t carry on allowing Whitehall to pick the winners and losers; like we’ve seen with the current freeport model.

“By creating these new Investment Zones we will finally prove to businesses that we’re committed to their futures and incentivise them to stimulate the investment that will help deliver for hardworking people.”

Mr Sunak was an early champion of freeports, writing in 2016 thinktank report as a junior MP that: “Brexit will provide the UK with new economic freedom, and the Government should take the opportunity to create Free Ports across the nation.”

Five sites are currently competing to be Scotland's first two ‘green freeports’.

Ms Truss and Mr Sunak did agree on one thing - tougher policy on migrants.

The Foreign Secretary promised an expanded Border Force and Mr Sunak committed to an annual cap on the number of refugees coming to Britain.

Both candidates also backed the Government’s Rwanda asylum scheme, even though Britain could lose the £120m it has already paid the African state if the plan to deport migrants is ruled unlawful by the courts.

The first deportation flight was grounded in June after a series of legal challenges, and  another attempt is yet to be scheduled.

Ms Truss said the Rwanda scheme was the “right” policy and could be expanded to include other countries, while Mr Sunak vowed to do “whatever it takes” for the scheme to succeed. 

Oxfam and Amnesty International criticised the bidding war between the pair when people's lives were at stake.

Steve Valdez-Symonds of Amnesty International UK said Mr Sunak and Ms Truss were making policy “based on nothing more than what is thought to appeal to some Conservative party members”, which was “why our asylum system has collapsed into chaos and backlogs” 

Zehrah Hasan, of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, accused both candidates of “cruelty and immorality by trying to abdicate all responsibly for people forced to move to the UK”.

Labour said it was “dismal” to see the paid “competing to extend an unworkable, unethical, unaffordable, high fraud risk Rwanda scheme” that would only make trafficking worse.

SNP depute leader Keith Brown MSP said: “Scotland faces the worst of both worlds with either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak as PM. The people of Scotland are looking on in despair that this is the best the UK can offer.”