Hong Kong exiles in UK unnerved by ‘weak’ response to beating of protester

Activists fear for their safety after limited UK riposte to assault on demonstrator outside Chinese consulate

Hong Kong migrants who fled repression by China said they fear for their safety and are calling on the UK government to take a bolder stance after a pro-democracy protester was beaten in the grounds of a Chinese consulate two weeks ago.

The assault in Manchester drew swift condemnation from activists and politicians across the Commons as videos circulated showing a senior Chinese diplomat forcefully grabbing a pro-democracy protester’s hair before the protester was wrestled to the ground and beaten by a group of men.

While Greater Manchester police investigated the incident, the government response has been called “inadequate” by MPs calling for the prosecution or expulsion of the senior Chinese officials involved.

Hongkongers who fled after Beijing’s crackdown on freedom of speech expressed alarm at the incident and said the UK government needed to take a bolder stance over what they said was an attempt to crack down on dissent and undermine the rule of law.

For Zoe Chan, a former Hong Kong resident, the consulate incident has left her fearing for her safety. Chan relocated to Buckinghamshire in 2021 with her family after Hong Kong’s national security law – which gave China sweeping powers over the territory – provoked fears that her sons would be “brainwashed” by the state.

“I thought when I relocated to a western country, I might be safe,” said Chan, 47. “But now I think maybe it might not be so safe because at the moment we are still not British citizens; no one will protect us in case there are any problems.

“The government needs to very seriously settle this problem … They have to reassure the safety of the Hong Kong people in this country.”

After the introduction of the national security law and a swift clampdown on dissent, Britain opened a path to citizenship for residents in 2021. There have already been 140,500 applications for visas under the scheme, according to government data, with more expected as it expands to include young Hongkongers later this month.

Beijing’s consul general in Manchester, Zheng Xiyuan, has since said it was his “duty” to intervene as the protesters were “abusing my country, my leader”.

A spokesperson for Greater Manchester police said while inquiries into the consulate incident are ongoing, they doubt the investigation will conclude any time soon. The spokesperson said they are working with partners to ensure those affected are safe and feel safe in Greater Manchester.

For Simon Cheng, a former employee at the UK’s consulate in Hong Kong and founder of Hongkongers in Britain, the video evidence and admission from the senior Chinese diplomat to his involvement is clear enough for the Foreign Office to take decisive action.

“I think it’s a blatant and brazen act that the Chinese consulate disdained the rule of law in the UK,” Cheng said. “We do feel the UK Foreign Office should immediately issue a stronger statement on the attack. Rather than that, they still keep saying we should wait until the police investigation.”

Steve Tsang, the director of the Soas China Institute at the University of London, said while it is legitimate for the government to call on Manchester police to establish and verify the facts, the slow process suggested a lack of commitment to expedite the process.

“The country, and our diplomacy, and the protection of citizens and asylum seekers is a duty of the government, which needs to be performed whatever the Tory party may be engaged in with their own internal squabbles,” Tsang said.

On Tuesday, the security minister, Tom Tugendhat, said the government is committed to tackling transnational oppression.

In September, Spanish civil rights group Safeguard Defenders published a report on undeclared Chinese police stations worldwide, including three sites in the UK. Similar illegal bases are under investigation in the Netherlands and Canada.

“It is essential that we champion those who can enjoy freedom here, and the Hongkongers are a clear demonstration that this government and this country welcome those seeking freedom,” said Tugendhat. “There is no place for those who abuse their diplomatic privilege or the liberties of this country in order to oppress citizens here.”

Seffyr, 39, said the incident had made him feel more isolated and distrustful of those around him.

“After the case in Manchester, you can’t feel safe even at home in the UK, because this just happened just next to us,” said Seffyr, who now lives in Wales. “So every Hongkonger could be the next one who is being dragged, or disappeared, or being beaten up.

“This is really serious to the long-term of all the Hongkongers who tried to settle here and rebuild the community. We lost the trust,” he said.

Winston, 38, was working as a part-time university lecturer in Hong Kong before moving to Greater Manchester with his family in 2021.

“In Hong Kong, we come across a lot of this kind of behaviour,” said Winston, adding he was surprised it could be done officially in the UK.

“If the UK government doesn’t deliver a strong message, it shows that the UK government is weak,” he said. “It also cannot show the UK is a free society.”

Some names have been changed to protect people’s identities.


Geneva Abdul

The GuardianTramp

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