Chinese diplomat involved in violence at Manchester consulate, MP says

Footage shows figure believed to be Zheng Xiyuan kicking down poster and pulling pro-democracy protester’s hair

One of China’s most senior diplomats in the UK was involved in the violence against pro-democracy protesters at the Manchester consulate, a British MP has said.

Alicia Kearns, a Conservative MP, told the House of Commons that Beijing’s consul general in Manchester, Zheng Xiyuan, was seen “ripping down posters” before a Hong Kong campaigner was attacked on Sunday.

Footage posted online shows a person, believed to be Zheng, who is a veteran Chinese Communist party (CCP) official, kicking down a poster and pulling the hair of a protester, 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.

Kearns, the chair of the Commons foreigns affairs committee, said the violence was a “chilling escalation” of China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests. She called for those involved in the beatings to be prosecuted or expelled from Britain within a week.

Kearns said: “We cannot allow the CCP to import their beating of protesters, their silencing of free speech, and their failure to allow time and time again protests on British soil. This is a chilling escalation.”

It is understood that some of the alleged assailants have been identified by the police and are likely to have diplomatic immunity, which means they cannot be arrested or prosecuted by UK authorities.

On Tuesday, Greater Manchester police were taking statements from many of those involved in the violence.

The force’s major incident team is investigating and will share its findings with Foreign Office officials in London. The FCDO will then have to decide whether to take the extraordinary step of expelling any Chinese diplomats found to be involved, in what would mark a serious escalation of tensions with Beijing.

The altercation threatened to develop into a full-blown diplomatic rift on Tuesday after the UK government summoned China’s chargé d’affaires in London “to account for the actions of the consulate staff”.

Responding to an urgent question in the Commons on Tuesday, the Foreign Office minister Jesse Norman said the government was “extremely concerned” about the incident. Norman said: “The house will know His Majesty’s government is extremely concerned at the apparent scenes of violence at the consulate of the People’s Republic of China in Manchester on Sunday afternoon.”

The minister said Greater Manchester police had been notified of a demonstration and “intervened to restore order”, adding: “I understand that Greater Manchester police has launched an investigation to establish the facts of the incident.

“The foreign secretary has issued a summons to the Chinese chargé d’affaires at the Chinese embassy in London to express His Majesty’s government’s deep concern at the incident and to demand an explanation for the actions of the consulate staff.

“It’d be inappropriate to go into further detail until the investigation has concluded, but let me be clear that peaceful protest – as this house has always recognised – is a fundamental part of British society and of our way of life.

“All those on our soil have the right to express their views peacefully without fear of violence. FCDO officials expressed that clearly to the Chinese embassy yesterday. We will continue to work with the Home Office and Greater Manchester police colleagues to decide on appropriate next steps.”

Dan Chugg, the director for north-east Asia and China at the FCDO, held the meeting with the Chinese minister Yang Xiaoguang and reiterated the UK’s commitment to peaceful protest and the expectation that all diplomats and consular staff based in the UK must respect the UK’s laws and regulation.

Earlier on Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry challenged the British police account of an assault by claiming the man “entered the compound illegally”.

The protester, who has been named only as Bob, was admitted to hospital overnight for treatment of his injuries, which included cuts below his eye.

Greater Manchester police said on Monday that men linked to the consulate dragged the protester through its gates by force, before attacking him violently. “Shortly before 4pm a small group of men came out of the building and a man was dragged into the consulate grounds and assaulted,” the police statement said.

Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a regular press briefing that “disturbing elements” had “illegally entered” the consulate. He called on the UK to increase protection for diplomatic staff and buildings.

China’s Manchester consulate has been contacted for comment but has yet to respond.

Zheng, 59, is a veteran Communist party official and is Beijing’s most senior Chinese diplomat in Manchester. He became consul general in the city in 2018 after postings in Mumbai, Greece and New York.

Wang declined to confirm or deny whether Zheng was involved in the incident, Reuters said.

Politicians and activists are concerned the violence could set a disturbing precedent for Beijing to export domestic repression and censorship to the UK and other democratic countries.

It could also undermine the security of hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents who have moved or are expected to move to the UK to flee Chinese controls.

Nathan Law, a prominent Hong Kong politician in exile in the UK, said: “The police confirmed that the Hong Kong protester was dragged inside the consulate area and assaulted; instead, a spokesman from Beijing claimed that he ‘illegally entered’ the consulate. This is lying, victim blaming, and disgusting – true nature of CCP. We cannot tolerate it.”

Contributors

Josh Halliday, and Emma Graham-Harrison in Taipei

The GuardianTramp

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