Britain expects China to waive diplomatic immunity for officials if the U.K. police determine there are grounds to charge them for an attack on a Hong Kong protester, a British Foreign Office minister said on Thursday.
A protest against the Chinese Communist Party's 20th Party Congress occurred last Sunday outside the Chinese Consulate General in Manchester, a city in the north of England. Video of the incident appears to show Chinese officials dragging a protester, former Hong Kong resident Bob Chan, onto consulate grounds before assaulting him. Chan was hospitalized overnight due to injuries, according to Manchester police.
Manchester police officers patrolling the protest of some 30 to 40 people intervened fearing "for the safety of the man … and removed the victim from the Consulate grounds," according to a police press release.
The episode was "absolutely unacceptable" as the protests were "peaceful and legal," Foreign Secretary James Cleverly told Britain's Sky News on Thursday. "They were on British soil."
What happened outside the consulate and on its grounds is now a diplomatic incident when relations between China and the U.K., which turned over control of Hong Kong to Beijing in 1997, are touchy. Hong Kong had been a colony and dependent territory of the British Empire since 1841. Since June 2020, when China tightened its authoritarian grip on the once freewheeling Hong Kong, U.K. has issued thousands of British National Overseas (BNO) visas to those born in Hong Kong prior to the handover, citing "China's failure to live up to its international obligations with respect to Hong Kong."
Chan, who left Hong Kong in March under a special entry arrangement, is on a BNO visa. He told VOA Cantonese that he was dragged into the consulate. "I was punched and kicked. I have bruises on my face. There was bleeding and swelling. My hair was pulled," he said on Sunday soon after the incident. "There are many bruises on my neck and back. I feel some pain at my waist."
Answering an urgent question in the U.K. Parliament on Thursday, Foreign Office Minister Jesse Norman said the government had summoned the Chinese chargé d'affaires of the Chinese embassy in London to demand an explanation, as the Chinese ambassador was not in Britain.
"I've instructed our ambassador to deliver a clear message directly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing about the depth of concern with the apparent actions by Consulate General staff," Norman told Parliament.
"Let me be clear that if the police determine there are grounds to charge any officials, we would expect the Chinese Consulate to waive immunity for those officials," Norman said. "If they do not, then diplomatic consequences will follow."
Luke de Pulford, executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, told VOA Cantonese that the latest comments by the U.K. were "encouraging."
"But there's no way [the People's Republic of China] is going to waive immunity," he said. "The most likely outcome for the consul general is therefore now expulsion, and it's the very minimum we can do to show Hong Kongers that the U.K. is a country that will protect them."
The Greater Manchester Police are investigating the incident. No arrests have been made. "We are liaising with national policing and diplomatic partners," the department said.
Assistant Chief Constable Rob Potts said, "I can assure the public that all viable avenues will be explored to bring to justice anyone we believe is culpable for the scenes we saw outside the Chinese Consulate on Sunday."
At a press conference on Wednesday, Chan said the injuries at his waist were the most painful and sitting down causes him pain. He denounced the assault as "barbaric."Chan also said he lost sleep worrying that the safety of his family may be jeopardized. "This incident made me worry about my own safety, but it does not mean I won't protest again," he said at the press conference. "I like to say that the tougher the oppression, the stronger my will is to stand up, because this is my freedom, and it should not be diminished."
Under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, diplomatic staff enjoy immunity to any form of arrest or detention unless the sending state waived their immunity. While diplomatic premises in the U.K. are part of Britain's territory, they are "inviolable and may not be entered without the consent of the Ambassador or Head of Mission," according to the U.K. Crown Prosecution Service.
Zheng Xiyuan, the Chinese consul-general who was seen in video footage pulling Chan's hair, told Sky News on Wednesday that because Chan was "abusing my country, my leader" he was performing his "duty."
Zheng wrote the Greater Manchester Police, saying the protesters' banners featured a "volume of deeply offensive imagery and slogans," including a picture of the Chinese president with a noose around his neck, according to Sky News.
Zheng said it was an emergency situation and his colleagues' life had been threatened.
After graduating in the early 1980s from Lanzhou University in Gansu Province, one of the poorest regions in China, Zheng started his career as a canned food factory manager there. He joined the Chinese Foreign Ministry in 1992, and had previous postings in New York, Athens and Mumbai. In an interview in 2004, he spoke of his patriotism, saying that "the fundamental quality of a diplomat is the unreserved loyalty for one's country."
Beijing's newly aggressive diplomats are referred to as "wolf warriors" after a movie of the same name that broke box-office records throughout China with its nationalistic theme.
U.K. Parliament member Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of the Conservative Party who was sanctioned by China for criticizing Beijing's human rights record, called for declaring any consulate individuals involved in the attack "persona non grata" immediately and expelling them.
"The government has the diplomatic power to dismiss them," he said during the urgent question session of Parliament on Thursday "Whether or not there are criminal proceedings, the fact is we do not want them here in the U.K. and they must go."
Catherine West, the Labour Party's shadow minister for Asia and the Pacific, said at Parliament that the U.K. should summon China's ambassador to communicate a strong message about the importance of peaceful protests in Britain.
“Is it possible for him to expel the individual and then for that individual to apply to return? If it were that way round, we would at least know that the Government had taken the strongest action possible," she said.