British, Chinese Governments Trade Accusations After Assault at Consulate

A violent confrontation between protesters and Chinese consular staff in the U.K. highlights China’s increasing determination to police beyond its borders, and tests the resolve of Western governments to maintain their sovereignty. On Sunday, a group of several dozen protesters led by the NGO Hong Kong Indigenous Defense Force gathered outside of the Chinese consulate in Manchester, U.K., on the opening day of the CCP’s 20th Party Congress. According to Manchester police, video footage, and various witnesses, Chinese consular staff emerged from the gate of the consulate, vandalized large posters displayed by the protesters, and attempted to take a poster satirizing Xi Jinping back into the consulate. During the ensuing scuffle that broke out to prevent the theft, one protester was dragged into the consulate and beaten by consular staff.

Josh Halliday and Emma Graham-Harrison from The Guardian described the brazen show of force from the Chinese consular staff, which included the consul general and other high-ranking officials:

Footage posted online shows a person, believed to be [China’s consul general in Manchester] Zheng [Xiyuan], who is a veteran Chinese Communist party (CCP) official, kicking down a poster and pulling a protester’s hair, who was then dragged inside the consulate grounds and beaten.

The Guardian has spoken to several witnesses and reviewed footage that appears to show nine men emerge from the consulate, including one wearing a riot helmet and two wearing stab vests, and confront the demonstrators. [Source]

Manchester police stated that the protester who was dragged into the consulate “suffered several physical injuries and remained in hospital overnight for treatment.” Lily Kuo and Vic Chiang from The Washington Post shared the account of one witness who described the chaos at the scene:

Jimmy Chen, a 19-year-old who was at the gathering, said he saw the protester pulled through a gate into the consulate where he was attacked for around 30 seconds before a British police officer intervened and dragged him back out.

“The event was calm until several people with bulletproof vests on came out from the consulate and started to tear down the posters,” he said. “Some protesters tried to stop them and got pushed back, so they ended up fighting.” [Source]

The incident shocked Hong Kong diaspora groups. Hong Kong Indigenous Defense Force released a statement strongly condemning the Chinese government for “attacking UK Hongkongers” and attempting to “violently interfere [in] peaceful assemblies in the UK.” Exiled Hong Kong activist Nathan Law wrote, “I have to come to the understanding this week that, for Hong Kong dissidents, Britain may not be as safe as we hope. […] The extraterritorial persecution conducted by Chinese authorities here is not only a diplomatic and foreign policy issue, but also a domestic issue that affects the sense of security of freedom-loving Hongkongers in this country.” Over a dozen Hong Kong civil society groups wrote a joint letter to the British government arguing, “If the promises the UK has given Hong Kongers – and indeed the high standards of British democracy –­ are to mean anything, this kind of illegal behaviour must not be allowed to stand.”

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly appeared to agree, saying “They were on British soil and it is absolutely unacceptable for this kind of behaviour.” Yvette Tan and Simon Fraser from the BBC reported on the criticism of the Chinese consular staff’s actions by several members of the British Parliament:

Another MP, Labour’s Afzal Khan – who represents the constituency where the consulate is, Manchester Gorton – told the House of Commons he was “sickened” by the scenes.

“The UK stands for freedom, the rule of law, and democracy,” said the Labour MP. “The quashing of peaceful protests will never be tolerated on British soil.”

Mr Khan and other MPs called for the consul-general to be declared a “persona non grata” – meaning a person who is unwelcome in the country. [Source]

On Tuesday, British Foreign Office minister Jesse Norman told Parliament that the Foreign Secretary had summoned the Chinese Charge d’Affaires at the Chinese Embassy in London in order to “demand an explanation for the actions of the consulate staff,” adding that “All those on our soil have the right to express their views peacefully, without fear of violence.” However, some Hong Kong activists argued that this was not enough:

Following the incident, the Chinese government attempted to blame protesters for the escalation. Pro-CCP social media accounts reportedly tried to spin the incident to portray the consular staff as the victims. One of these accounts on Twitter, showing previously unseen CCTV footage from within the consulate, was created in October of this year, and has posted only three tweets, all related to the incident. AFP reported on the Chinese government’s official reaction:

China on Tuesday accused demonstrators of “illegally entering” Beijing’s consulate in the British city of Manchester, after footage of a Hong Kong pro-democracy protester being assaulted on the grounds sparked outrage in the UK.

[…] Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Tuesday said the protesters were to blame and that “violation of the peace and dignity of China’s overseas embassies and consulates will not be tolerated”. [Source]

Chinese officials have countered British criticism with accusations that the U.K. had failed in its duty to adequately protect the consulate:

Tiffany May from The New York Times described how Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong and the subsequent migration of Hongkongers to the U.K. has motivated the British government to harden its approach to China:

Britain has been taking an increasingly hard line against China. It has revoked the broadcasting license of a state-backed news channel, banned equipment from the Chinese technology giant Huawei from Britain’s high-speed wireless network, and offered a path to citizenship to the residents of Hong Kong, a former British colony, in the wake of a political crackdown there.

The Home Office said in February that as many as 322,400 Hong Kongers would likely move to Britain over five years under new visa programs. Many of these emigrants have chosen Manchester as a new home base, partly for its relatively low cost of living.

Some Hong Kongers have become dedicated activists abroad. Protesters in British cities such as Nottingham and Newcastle have petitioned government officials to end sister-city relationships with Chinese counterparts. [Source]

Rachel Cheung from Vice reported that Chinese embassies have increasingly sought to intimidate activists abroad, in part due to a growing sense of impunity

“There is a wider pattern of [Chinese] embassies taking roles in intimidating or acting against protesters from Hong Kong, Tibet, and during major visits. But they normally aren’t quite as blatant. This was exceptionally visible,” said Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund who studies China’s growing influence in his upcoming book, “No Limits: The Inside Story of China’s War with the West.” 

Such behavior on China’s part is becoming increasingly normalized, he added. In 2019, for instance, the Chinese embassy was accused by the Lithuanian government of directing pro-Beijing hecklers to harass demonstrators supporting democracy in Hong Kong. In 2020, two Chinese officials stormed a Taiwanese reception in Fiji and got into a brawl with Taiwanese diplomats, sending one to hospital with a head injury.

“They have been protested by the governments involved but it doesn’t seem to have come at a significant cost. Certainly the general sense would be that they feel they can get away with it,” Small told VICE World News. [Source]

A recent Safeguard Defenders report found a network of at least 54 police-run “overseas police service centers,” spanning five continents, that the Chinese government has used to hunt down Chinese nationals that it claims are fugitives (despite admitting that not all the targets have committed a crime). Between April 2021 and August 2022, these centers reportedly forced over 230,000 people to “voluntarily” return to China after they were “persuaded” by police through a variety of methods, such as threatening to deny the targets’ children in China the right to education. Safeguard Defenders described case studies of this illegal overseas policing in Spain and Serbia

Last month, the U.S. Institute for Peace released “Beijing’s Strategy for Asserting Its ‘Party Rule by Law’ Abroad,” a report that explores China’s growing determination to assert more influence over the international legal system in order to serve its political objectives. Here are some of the main points of the report:

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seeks to expand the applicability of its “rule by law” (as opposed to “rule of law”) paradigm, enhancing its ability to use the law as a tool to increase its international influence and advance its political and economic objectives.

The CCP is taking three steps to expand rule by law abroad: expanding its control over the legal system at home, increasing the extraterritoriality of PRC laws, and crafting new legal tools to block US extraterritorial laws and shape the behavior of foreign actors.

These legal developments have significant implications for US industry. Companies will experience escalating risk from increasingly assertive intellectual property jurisdictional claims and efforts to control speech abroad. [Source]

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