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Row Over £500M London Development Highlights Tensions Between Investment And Human Rights

An image of one of the new buildings in the Chinese embassy complex at Royal Mint Court

At the end of the first Opium War in 1842, the victorious British forced the Chinese to pay 6 million silver dollars in return for opium that had been seized as China tried to rid the country of unwanted British influence. Those small, silver coins were shipped back to Britain, transported to the site of the Royal Mint on the eastern edge of the City of London, smelted and turned into British currency. It is a small element of a defeat that is still today seen as a moment of national trauma in China. 

More than 175 years later, that same Royal Mint site is again playing a role in relations between China and the UK. And it has become a lightning rod over the tension between the need for cities like London to attract overseas investment and the uncomfortable questions that often arise about the origins of that investment. 

The Chinese government paid £250M in 2018 for Royal Mint Court, an empty complex of office buildings on a 5.5-acre walled estate in Tower Hill that used to house the UK’s royal mint. It is planning to spend at least another £500M building a new embassy, which could extend to more than 600K SF of floorspace, comprising embassy buildings, a cultural exchange centre and accommodation for diplomatic staff. 

At the handing over ceremony for the site in March 2018, then-Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming and Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs talked warmly about how the new embassy would epitomise the close relations between China and the UK and London. But events since then have changed the rhetoric.

Relations between the UK and China have cooled significantly as a result of China clamping down on pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong in 2019.

And more recently, Britain and other countries have condemned the treatment by China of the Uyghur Muslim population in the north western Chinese region of Xinjiang.

Human rights groups said more than 1 million Uyghurs have been detained by China in recent years and sent to what the government calls “re-education camps.” Evidence of forced labour and of women being forcibly sterilised has been circulated in the media around the world, and China has been accused of genocide and crimes against humanity in the region.

The treatment of the Uyghur population has created particular tension in relation to the new embassy. The population of Tower Hamlets is 38% Muslim, the highest proportion of any London borough. 

In March this year, Tower Hamlets councillors proposed a motion saying that the council should explore the possibility of changing the names of the streets around the new embassy to ones that highlight China’s human rights abuses.

“This council resolves that Tower Hamlets council investigates whether roads or possibly new buildings near the location of the proposed Chinese embassy could be renamed appropriately as acts of solidarity with historic symbols or placenames of Chinese significance,” the motion said. “For example Tiananmen Square, Tibet Hill, Uyghur Court, Hong Kong Road and/or Xiaobo Road (in memory of Liu Xiaobo).” The latter is a Chinese Nobel laureate and democracy campaigner.

The motion was voted on and passed. The new ambassador, Zheng Zeguang, or his outgoing predecessor have not responded to the move. 

“Tower Hamlets has a unique history of welcoming people and at Wednesday’s full council meeting politicians unanimously came together on the amended motion that whilst we welcome the proposed relocation of the Chinese embassy, we also stand up against the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party’s] human rights violations,” Liberal Democrat Councillor Rabina Khan, who proposed the motion, told the Guardian.

There are also signs that Tower Hamlets’ planning committee will not give the new embassy scheme, designed by architecture firm David Chipperfield, an easy ride.

A full planning application has not yet been submitted, but an outline of plans has been shown to the council’s strategic development committee, which picked several holes in it.

Chief among the problems with the scheme as currently envisaged were that it might impact views in the conservation area around the Tower of London, the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site; and that too much of the site is allocated to residential accommodation. 

Currently 57% of the site is earmarked for accommodation, when local planning regulations suggest that 75% at least should be offices. 

Royal Mint Court

Last year, Biggs had written to Liu expressing concern about Chinese treatment of the Muslim Uyghur people. 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.”

In November, councillors put forward a motion to adopt a specific position on China’s human rights abuses, given its decision to move its embassy to the district.

The councillors who put forward the motion tried to tread a fine line, criticising the Chinese government’s actions but stopping short of saying 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,” said the motion, which ultimately was not debated or voted on by the council. 

“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.”

When the development committee assessed the initial plans, it raised another point: There is no space anywhere near the site for people to gather and protest. The council is anticipating that the new embassy will be a site of dissent at China’s actions, another example of how real estate and global politics collide.