17 October 2022

The UK must stand firm against Chinese repression on our own shores


The appalling scenes of a protester being dragged into the grounds of the Chinese Consulate in Manchester yesterday afternoon, apparently by Chinese consulate staff, and severely beaten, have rightly been widely condemned by Parliamentarians from all parties. 

The newly elected Chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns MP, tweeted that: ‘The CCP will not import their beating of protestors and denial of free speech to British streets’. She called on the government to summon the Chinese ambassador and said that ‘if any official has beaten protesters, they must be expelled or prosecuted’.

Among others to voice their concerns are former Conservative Party leader and co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Asia Catherine West MP, independent cross-bench peer Lord Alton and the local MP, Shadow Justice Minister Afzal Khan, in whose Manchester Gorton constituency the consulate is located.

For those unfamiliar with the protest, it was a peaceful demonstration by Hongkongers to mark the opening day of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress – one which turned into a nightmare when a group of men stormed out of the compound to furiously tear down the protesters’ banners. The image which had most infuriated them was one of Xi Jinping depicting him as the Emperor with no clothes. ‘This would be intolerable and unacceptable for any diplomatic and consular missions of any country,’ a consulate spokesperson later remarked. ‘Therefore, we condemn this deplorable act with strong indignation and firm opposition.’

Condemning the image is one thing; dragging a protester, who is a Hongkonger, into the Consulate and beating him is quite another. Footage circulating on social media yesterday evening showed the man being beaten and kicked on the ground and at another moment his hair being pulled and another man attempting to gouge his eyes out. He was rescued by Manchester police, who managed to drag him out of the consulate grounds.

It is alleged that one of the key perpetrators may have been the Consul-General himself, Zheng Xiyuan. If so, it raises the Chinese regime’s aggressive ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’ to an entirely new level. There is absolutely no doubt that this incident should be thoroughly investigated, and officials found responsible should either face criminal prosecution, immediate expulsion, or both. The Foreign Secretary James Cleverly should summon the Chinese Ambassador in London immediately to protest and demand an apology, and the Home Secretary Suella Braverman should examine all options for what further action should be taken. 

This is not the first time Beijing’s thugs have shown their true colours in Britain. In November last year, pro-Beijing activists attacked Hong Kong protesters in London’s China Town. Hongkonger students in universities around the UK have faced threats and intimidation. And almost exactly four years ago, I witnessed the Chinese regime’s outrageous aggression first-hand, at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. Kong Linlin, a reporter from China Global Television Network (CGTN), the state broadcaster, screamed a torrent of verbal abuse at me as I was making my concluding remarks, and then repeatedly slapped a Hong Kong friend, Enoch Liu, who had calmly asked her to sit down. We had to call security, and Ms Kong was arrested by the police and, eventually, charged, prosecuted and convicted for common assault.

Such incidents are much more common in Australia and Canada, but as the Hong Kong diaspora in the United Kingdom grows, there are legitimate concerns among many for their safety. This is something the Government should take seriously. Britain has done the right thing in opening our doors to Hongkongers and providing them with a lifeline, but we need to ensure that they can enjoy their newfound freedom in this country in peace. The right to peaceful protest is absolutely fundamental. Chinese diplomats must not be allowed to impose their barbaric, repressive rule on our streets, nor hide behind the cloak of diplomatic immunity when they commit crimes.

In addition to conducting an inquiry, summoning the Chinese Ambassador and expelling the Consul-General and other Consulate staff if proven to have been involved, there is one other step the Government should consider: reviewing China’s plans for a new embassy next to Tower Bridge. 

China has purchased the former Royal Mint, an historic building and a landmark site in a congested area of London. It intends to turn the site into a new embassy, although its planning application has not yet been approved by the local council. Imagine if an incident similar to what happened in Manchester yesterday were to occur in the future at China’s new embassy. Imagine if protesters were dragged by Beijing’s thugs into the old Royal Mint and beaten up. Imagine the chaos that would ensue on the site right opposite the Tower of London.

It is not too late for the decision to be reviewed, the plans rejected and approval for a new embassy on this site refused. It would send Beijing an important signal that we are no longer prepared to be cowed, either by China’s money or its thuggery. In light of yesterday, that would be a vital message to send.

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Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer, and the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch. His new book, “The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny”, will be published in October 2022 by Optimum Publishing International.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.