David Cameron had arrived in China with a plan to secure money for a $1bn UK-China fund that was set to make the former prime minister a rich financier and cement ties between London and Beijing.
One of his fundraising targets during trips in 2017 and 2018 was China’s sovereign wealth fund, the China Investment Corporation. Cameron wanted CIC to invest hundreds of millions of dollars, said people familiar with the matter.
The details of Cameron’s attempt to raise money from an arm of the Chinese state are part of the baggage he has brought into the heart of the UK government after his surprise appointment as foreign secretary.
Cameron resigned in 2016 after gambling the UK would vote to remain in the European Union and losing. Now Rishi Sunak has brought him back as Britain’s top diplomat following seven chequered years in the wilderness.
His controversial corporate career included working for a software company whose founder was forced to step down after accusations of sexual harassment, and contacting ministers about a biotech company he advised that later won a £123mn government deal.
Cameron was also mired in the biggest British lobbying scandal in recent years after using his personal connections to try to change the UK’s rules on Covid-19 banking loans for Greensill Capital, which paid him millions of dollars.
Greensill’s collapse in 2021 led to criminal investigations that are still ongoing in the UK, Germany and Switzerland. Cameron’s conduct is not the subject of those investigations.
But his efforts to launch an investment firm that would have straddled the UK and China are now drawing scrutiny as he represents Britain on the world stage in an era of heightened tensions between Beijing and the west.
Anneliese Dodds, chair of the Labour party, has written to Sunak calling for total transparency in Cameron’s business and financial interests, including any that were divested in the past fortnight.
“The British public will, quite rightly, want to know that the foreign secretary is solely dedicated to representing Britain on the world stage, not promoting his own private interests,” she wrote in a letter seen by the Financial Times.
“It further raises concerns about potential conflicts of interest if the foreign secretary has been in negotiations with a foreign government about funding a project from which he would have personally profited,” she added.
A spokesperson for Cameron said he “chose not to take the fund forward”.
“David Cameron has consistently made clear at home and abroad that China faces a crucial choice, and encouraged the leadership to embrace the benefits of a globalised, interconnected, rules-based world,” they added.
As foreign secretary, the spokesperson said, Cameron would “engage with Beijing on global challenges such as climate change and AI, but where there are attempts by the Chinese Communist party to coerce or create dependencies, he will push back against them”.
“China cannot be ignored, but we must be clear-eyed. In our engagement, it is vital that we protect ourselves, our democracy and our economy at home,” they said.
CIC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As prime minister between 2010 and 2016, Cameron sought to build closer ties between the UK and China. He hosted Xi Jinping for a state visit to Britain in 2015 and took the Chinese president for a pint at a pub near Chequers.
George Osborne, Cameron’s chancellor, declared that year that China-UK relations had entered a “golden era”.
After leaving office and stepping down as an MP, Cameron juggled an array of business and philanthropic activities, including a professorship at New York University and the presidency of Alzheimer’s Research UK.
Out of politics, Cameron was no longer required to disclose his business activities in official records. But accounts for his “Office for David Cameron” UK entity showed his earnings — it made £836,168 in profit in 2019. The following year he turned it into an unlimited company, meaning it no longer had to publish financial statements.
His most ambitious venture was an attempt to set up a $1bn private equity fund that echoed the Sinophile approach he took in office. The fund was initially the idea of Peter Gummer, Lord Chadlington, a Conservative peer and longstanding public affairs executive.
Cameron was not just a figurehead as its vice-chair. Despite his lack of investing experience, he was set to play an active role in investing and managing the fund.
The fund was seeking to raise money from Chinese and UK investors to invest primarily in the two countries, according to a 2017 letter published by parliamentary watchdog Acoba.
Alongside finding deals, Cameron would also be responsible for facilitating “dialogue with the UK and Chinese governments,” the letter added.
Cameron, though a private citizen, still enjoyed high-level access to senior Chinese government figures. In September 2017 Cameron said on social media platform X he had visited Beijing to reinforce the “golden era” between the two countries, “something I’m very proud of”. On that trip he discussed the idea of a UK-China fund with then-vice-premier Ma Kai.
Soon afterwards Cameron made another trip to China in January 2018 and had a private meeting and dinner with Xi. The UK-China fund was discussed, Cameron said on his website.
Cameron also held talks with senior executives at CIC around this time including its president, Tu Guangshao, and Hu Bing, a former head of “special investments” at the fund.
One CIC veteran and another person involved in the negotiations said Cameron’s team had sought hundreds of millions of dollars, but the precise amount of potential investment was not fixed because it depended on what other investors were willing to put up.
Cameron’s team wanted CIC to be an “anchor investor”, a term referring to the first investors to give substantial sums to a fund, providing crucial momentum and credibility, the people said.
CIC played this role in a number of similar funds it set up around the same time in partnership with Goldman Sachs and private equity firms.
Cameron returned to China again in September 2018 and visited the British Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. The next month he went to Beijing and met then-premier Li Keqiang, the two men exchanging warm words.
In July this year, parliament’s intelligence and security committee said it was possible Cameron’s role in the UK-China fund was “in some part engineered by the Chinese state” to lend credibility to Chinese investment and the broader “China brand”.
At the time of Cameron’s visits to China, Tu, the CIC president, wanted to use partnerships with western investors to bolster the Belt and Road Initiative, a $1 trillion global infrastructure scheme that has enhanced China’s geopolitical clout to the concern of some western leaders.
In 2018 Cameron praised the BRI, saying it would bring new opportunities for bilateral co-operation between the UK and China.
Earlier this year Cameron gave a speech promoting a Sri Lankan project called Port City Colombo during an investment conference in the Middle East. The development, which Cameron has also visited, is a major part of Xi’s BRI.
Cameron’s spokesperson said the former prime minister had no direct contact with the Chinese government or the Chinese company behind the port in relation to the speech. The speech was booked by Cameron’s agency, the Washington Speakers Bureau, they said.
Charles Parton, a former senior British diplomat who spent more than two decades specialising on China, said Cameron’s apparent lack of awareness of China’s ambitions as he pursued the UK-China fund was “worrying”.
“He doesn’t appear to have become aware of what most people were,” said Parton. “Anyone who really knew China — well before 2017, even during the golden era — was saying: ‘Beware of its global ambitions. The future is one of challenge, if not threat. You really ought not to be helping those ambitions.’”
Remarking on Cameron’s appointment this week as foreign secretary, he added: “I hope he has seen the light and formed a different awareness of China.”
Lord Peter Ricketts, former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office and ex-national security adviser, said criticism of Cameron and Osborne’s efforts to forge closer relations with Beijing while in office was “misplaced”.
“At that point China was much more open to co-operation with the west and looking for partnerships, competitive but constructive,” Ricketts said, concluding that Cameron’s policy “made sense at the time”.
Ultimately Cameron’s UK-China fund failed to get off the ground despite initial signs of support from both governments as London-Beijing relations cooled.
In recent years the UK has tightened its scrutiny of inward investment from China and banned the use of Chinese company Huawei’s equipment in its new 5G telecoms network. CIC launched a UK-China Cooperation Fund backed by HSBC in 2020. Cameron was not involved.
Cameron’s immediate successor, Theresa May, took a less rosy view of Beijing than he did — one of her first acts in Downing Street was to review Chinese investment in UK nuclear energy. Sunak has recently taken a more conciliatory approach to China.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, another former Conservative leader and a leading China hawk, said he was “astonished” at the appointment as foreign secretary of “a man who appears to be so close to China, going back to the golden decade and even today”.
“This is all about money first, human rights second, our desperate rush for business at any price,” he said.
In Beijing, Cameron’s appointment was warmly received due to his China-friendly record as prime minister. “We remember that, so we think there could be some benefits in terms of improved relations,” said Zou Zhibo, a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a think-tank closely affiliated with the government.
On Monday Cameron confirmed he was resigning from “all of the businesses I’ve been helping and all the other things I’ve been doing”. He did not elaborate on what they were.