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Rejection of plan for super-embassy a ‘setback’ for China’s overseas operations

President of China Xi Jinping. (Kremlin/Released)
December 10, 2022

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A decision by local officials not to allow China to build a “super-embassy” on the site of a historic building in east London is a major setback for the Chinese Communist Party’s overseas influence operations, analysts told RFA.

Development officials at London’s Tower Hamlets borough council voted unanimously on Dec. 1 to reject an application for planning permission for the new Chinese embassy on the former Royal Mint site, citing security fears, as well as the potential impact on tourism, policing and heritage.

The Strategic Development Committee said the plan, which included dormitories accommodating hundreds of employees and a landmark “cultural exchange” building, had attracted dozens of objections from residents of the surrounding area, which is home to a large Muslim community.

The plan was also opposed to by groups representing Hong Kongers in the U.K., who have been attacked both by pro-China thugs and by consular officials on British soils, and Uyghurs, who face security risks from Beijing’s overseas policing and infiltration, which include unofficial renditions of government critics, often by using loved ones back home as leverage. 

The decision came as Canada became the latest country to investigate unofficial Chinese police “service stations” on its soil.

Senior Canadian foreign ministry official Weldon Epp told a parliamentary committee last week that Global Affairs had summoned the Chinese ambassador “multiple times” over the service centers, which have been reported by the Spanish-based rights group Safeguard Defenders in dozens of countries.

British Uyghur rights activist Rahima Mahmut, who heads the group Stop Uyghur Genocide, said Muslims in Tower Hamlets were angry at the plan to relocate the Chinese embassy to their backyard, while other residents were fearful of the impact of frequent demonstrations against China’s rights abuses.

“Just because you have a lot of money, doesn’t mean you can do anything,” Mahmut told RFA. “Particularly in the U.K., which is a country where human rights are respected, and where the voice of the people, their wishes and requirements are taken extremely seriously.”

The decision came after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in his first foreign policy speech that the “golden age” of U.K.-China relations was now over, and as Chinese Ambassador Zheng Zeguang was summoned following the detention and beating of a BBC journalist who was covering recent anti-lockdown protests in Shanghai.

China’s Consul General in the northern British city of Manchester admitted in October to assaulting a Hong Kong pro-democracy protester inside the grounds of the diplomatic mission following a peaceful protest on the street outside. 

Zheng Xiyuan told Sky News that he was the grey-haired man in a hat seen on social media footage pulling the hair of protester Bob Chan, adding: “I think it’s my duty.”

The British government is also planning a slew of measures aimed at curbing infiltration and influence operations by foreign governments, including probing the attacks at the Chinese consulate in Manchester and the possible closure of the Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes in universities. 

Hongkongers in Britain founder Simon Cheng, who has himself been the target of doxxing threats by pro-China agitators online for highlighting the risks of pro-China violence targeting Hong Kongers in the U.K., said the Tower Hamlets decision was a victory for freedom and for security.

He said the move would likely prevent another incident like the Manchester attack.

“This planning application gave rise to serious security concerns,” Cheng told RFA. “It [would have] intruded into the daily lives of residents around the Royal Mint building, and also affected anyone passing by this super-embassy.”

“The plan to move the Chinese embassy to the Royal Mint was part of an elaborate plan to dominate and monitor Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, Tibetans and Chinese nationals in the British capital, and was a danger to British sovereignty,” said Cheng, who was detained and tortured by China’s state security police while working for the British consulate in Hong Kong during the 2019 protest movement.

Chinese buyers acquired the 200-year-old Royal Mint site in 2018. The planning application involved some restoration and some demolition of Grade II listed buildings, and an investment of £200,000 (U.S. $245,000) in site-wide surveillance systems.

The super-embassy would have been 10 times the size of the current site in Portland Place, making it China’s biggest diplomatic facility anywhere, and the largest embassy in the U.K.

Former Hong Kong lawmaker Nathan Law welcomed the decision via his Twitter account.

“No new mega embassy for [China] in the UK. Great work fellows,” he wrote, retweeting a Royal Mint residents’ association campaign announcing the decision.

The English-language Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid with ties to Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, said the U.K.’s tougher line on China was a mistake.

“Sunak’s remarks are not that surprising since the China discourse in Britain, and more broadly the West, has been poisoned,” the paper said in a commentary published on Dec. 2. “Politicians are competing to be the toughest, rather than the wisest, on China.”

“Overstretching the concept of national security and using interdependence as an excuse to target China would be unwise,” it warned.

In a separate article in Chinese, the paper said the Western media was using the embassy plans to “hype” China as a security threat, adding that residents’ concerns were “unnecessary.”

“The current Chinese embassy in the UK is located at 49 Portland Street, London, with a history of 145 years,” the paper said. “However, multiple offices including visa, education, technology, etc. are located in other places in London, which is often inconvenient for their operations.”