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New Chinese Embassy Development Becomes Focus Of Human Rights Row

Royal Mint Court

A debate about human rights has broken out between the Chinese ambassador to the UK and the local authority of the London district where China plans to build a huge new embassy, with the development a potential pawn in the debate. 

Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs has written to Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming expressing concern about Chinese treatment of the Muslim Uighur people, React News reported, saying the council was raising the issue because of Beijing’s plans to build a new 700K SF embassy on the eastern fringe of the City of London. The scheme could cost as much as £750M to build. 

In response, Liu said the council was attempting to “disrupt the new Chinese Embassy project under the excuse of Xinjiang- and Hong Kong-related issues.”

The UK was the top destination for outbound Chinese real estate investment until 2016, when the ruling Communist Party introduced capital controls limiting foreign investment. Growing tension between the UK and China, particularly over the latter’s management of former British colony Hong Kong, is seen as likely to limit any investment flows coming out of China. 

In July, ABP, the Chinese developer of a large office scheme in nearby Newham, said it had shifted its strategy of targeting tenants from its home country because relations between the two countries had chilled.

The Chinese government paid £250M in 2018 for Royal Mint Court, a 5.5-acre walled estate in Tower Hill that used to house the UK’s royal mint. 

Tower Hamlet’s attitude toward the Chinese government is important because planning consent for a redevelopment drawn up by the previous owners has now lapsed, React reported, and China will have to submit new plans, on which the council’s planning department will decide. Those plans are likely to feature a large amount of residential for embassy staff. 

At a meeting next Wednesday, Tower Hamlets council will discuss a motion to adopt a specific position toward China, given its decision to move its embassy to the district, in relation to China’s treatment of the Muslim Uighur people and the citizens of Hong Kong. 

The motion specifically mentions reports of arbitrary detention, widespread surveillance and restrictions particularly targeting Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.

The councillors who have put forward the motion try to tread a fine line, criticising the Chinese government’s actions, but stopping short of saying that the embassy shouldn’t be built in the district, which would have negative economic consequences for the borough. 

“This Council Believes: That when the embassy does move to Tower Hamlets that the embassy staff will be able to see how people with different nationalities, backgrounds, religions and ethnicities can work closely together in harmony and that a person’s religion is not a threat to be removed by violating their human rights and trying to suppress their identity as we fear the Chinese government is trying to do now in Xinjiang,” the motion to be debated on 18 November said. 

“This Council Resolves: To write to the ambassador of the People’s Republic of China based in the United Kingdom to welcome the embassy and its staff moving to Tower Hamlets,” the motion went on. “But that as new neighbours and friends we have to make clear where our own standards and principles apply. We believe that it is in the People’s Republic of China’s own interest to: Cease its human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslims and all other detainees, and to urge China to implement the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s recommendations in Xinjiang, and allow the United Nations to monitor its implementation. 

“We urge the Chinese and Hong Kong governments to reconsider the imposition of National Security Law legislation and to engage Hong Kong’s people, institutions and judiciary to prevent further erosion of the rights and freedoms that the people of Hong Kong have enjoyed for many years.”

Liu said the motion gave him “grave concern” and called the reporting on China’s actions “all lies fabricated by a few irresponsible politicians and media from the West.”