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The Controversy Over China’s New Embassy in London Reflects Growing Tensions With the West

14 minute read

There are few keener eyewitnesses to British history than London’s Royal Mint Court. When, in 1348, the Black Death scythed down a quarter of all Londoners, thousands of bodies were tipped into a vast plague pit on the site. That burial ground was consecrated as a Cistercian Abbey, before becoming a Royal Navy chandlering yard, and later a tobacco warehouse. It was only in 1809 that the site adopted the function that today still bears its name, when the smelting of silver and gold coinage announced Britain as the world’s predominant military and financial superpower.

Those days are long gone, of course, though the Royal Mint Court—tucked inside London’s raffish East End, gazing toward Tower Bridge and the 11th century Tower of London—continues to serve as a barometer of our time. Now, however, it’s the world’s rising superpower that will write the next chapter: China, which purchased the site for $250 million in 2018 to house its new U.K. Embassy, its largest in Europe and, in a perhaps notable augury, almost a third bigger than London’s new U.S. Embassy four miles away. A proposal for the 700,000 sq ft redevelopment was submitted in June, but planning permission has yet to be granted, meaning it will likely take several years before the building is fit for occupation.

The upgrade was needed to create a “welcoming public face for China,” according to the architect commissioned in 2020 to lead the refurbishment, with office space and staff accommodation far exceeding its current premises in Marylebone. Locals have been less welcoming, however, and ever since the sale have voiced their opposition to the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ensconcing themselves in this storied landmark given Beijing’s ongoing abuses against Uyghur Muslims, Tibetans and the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong.

“It is disgraceful,” local community activist Mohammad Rakib tells TIME. “The government of China should not have been able to purchase such a prominent site. [By] sticking an unobstructed Chinese flag by Tower Bridge and the Tower of London… the authorities may as well have allowed neo-Nazis to occupy the building and fly a swastika from it.”

Such is the groundswell of opposition that last year local politicians for Tower Hamlets borough, where Royal Mint Court is situated, passed a cross-party motion in support of renaming nearby roads in commemoration of CCP atrocities, such as “Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong Road, Uyghur Court and Tibet Hill.” Councilor Rabina Khan, who proposed the motion, said it was to “stand up against the CCP’s human rights violations.”

In recent weeks, China’s support for Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine has only galvanized opposition. “For decades, China and Russia have collaborated on human rights abuses and suppression of civil liberties,” says Finn Lau, founder of pro-democracy advocacy group Hong Kong Liberty, who had previously helped organize a joint demonstration against the embassy together with Tibetan and Uyghur activists. “And when you look at the timeline, Russia deliberately avoided invading Ukraine during the Winter Olympics [in Beijing], so they clearly had a deal.”

Read More: China’s Embrace of Putin Is Looking More and More Costly

Approached by TIME, a spokesperson for China’s U.K. embassy declined to comment on the controversy. However, in a letter to Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs last year, China’s outgoing Ambassador to the U.K. Liu Xiaoming said that the alleged abuses highlighted by the proposed street name changes were “all lies fabricated by a few irresponsible politicians and media from the West.”

Although Sino-U.K. relations are ostensibly set by central governments, Britain’s traditions of free speech provide myriad outlets for all strata of British society to register objections. (And not just regarding China, as any fans of the Donald Trump baby blimp that trolled the former U.S. President on his U.K. visits can attest.) But popular protest is an aspect of democracy that the notoriously thin-skinned Chinese state, which under strongman President Xi Jinping has become increasingly ideological and centralized, has long struggled to grasp.

“Gesture politics like renaming streets won’t have any real effect in terms of how the Chinese behave,” says Prof. Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. “But it will have a very strong negative effect on China’s relationship with the U.K. generally.”

A member of Manchester's "Hong Kong" community, shows his and friends solidarity with Ukraine and its people
A member of the "Hong Kong" community in Manchester, England shows solidarity with Ukraine and its people during a protest around Manchester's city center on April 9.Andrew McCoy—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

The spat has underscored the difficulties democracies face when engaging a regime that they are economically reliant on but whose actions are wholly unacceptable by the public they represent. China’s relationship with the U.K. had already been on a downward spiral following the exclusion of Chinese telecoms firm Huawei from Britain’s 5G network on national security grounds, as well as growing calls to block China’s state nuclear agency from its power grid. And now the war in Ukraine has given China skeptics fresh impetus to draw focus to the new embassy proposal. On April 29, a spokesman for China’s Foriegn Ministry hailed ties with Russia as “a new model of international relations.”

Read More: China’s Support for Russian Aggression Toward Ukraine Confirms the West’s Worst Fears

“China is capable of doing something the old Soviet Union couldn’t do, which is to threaten us economically and militarily at the same time,” says Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative Party and a supporter of the Tower Hamlets motion. “Today, we’re dealing with Russia, but we’ve got an even bigger problem coming down the track, which is China.”

Street name politics

Changing the names of streets surrounding consular premises is a perennial flashpoint. A congressional proposal in 2016 to rename International Place NW outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. to “Liu Xiaobo Plaza,” after the now deceased democracy activist and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, only failed after the Obama Administration promised to veto the move. In 2020, Congress proposed renaming that same street after Wuhan whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, drawing sharp rebukes from Beijing.

Still, China has its own history of doing the same thing. Following the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s, the Soviet Embassy in Beijing sat for a while on “Oppose Revisionism Street,” though the name reverted after the Cultural Revolution. Another road in the Beijing’s foreign legation quarter was renamed “Anti-Imperialist Street” around the same time, while there was an official campaign to have any mail set to Hong Kong to be addressed to “Expel-the-Imperialists-City,” which the territory’s postal service even acquiesced to service.

Of course, despite the Tower Hamlets motion, the reality is that renaming central London streets that contain heritage buildings and possibly billions of dollars of real estate is not that simple. However, there is a small unadopted slip-road right outside Royal Mint Court that currently houses a taxi rank. The council could very easily “adopt” this 50-yard strip of tarmac and give it its own symbolic name without disrupting nearby stakeholders. The campaign has now focused on this relatively simple task.

Tower Hamlets Councilor Andrew Wood says “Tiananmen Square” would be his preference for the new road’s name, since while passers-by would immediately recognize the reference to the 1989 massacre of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators, “for the Chinese to object would mean explaining why it’s appropriate for a square in Beijing, but not here.” Not least since, according to the CCP’s official scrubbed narrative, “everything was fine and dandy and nothing really happened there,” he adds.

Read More: How the Tiananmen Square Massacre Changed China Forever

Still, critics argue that it is beyond the remit of a local council to meddle with foreign relations. Indeed, Wood says that he opposed a 2015 council motion to recognize breakaway African state Somaliland for that very reason. However, he argues that the embassy case is very different, given the Beijing government’s actions, particularly its erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong, are having a direct effect here.

When the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, it was under an agreement that the territory would enjoy significant autonomy for 50 years in an arrangement dubbed “One Country, Two Systems.” However, Beijing’s arrest of pro-democracy activists and imposition of a draconian new National Security Law has shredded that accord, prompting the U.K. government last year to launch a new visa program to potentially allow almost three million Hong Kongers to apply for a five-year British visa and a route to citizenship beyond. (In early March, 103,900 Hong Kongers had already applied via the scheme.)

And today, the largest single origin of overseas property owners in Tower Hamlets is Hong Kong. “So for us, it’s not just the embassy that’s an issue,” says Wood, who has been helping some new arrivals from Hong Kong resolve school placement issues. “Our community demographics are actually changing because of the actions of the Chinese government.”

China’s abuses against Muslims are likewise not abstract events here. The borough has the highest percentage of Muslim residents in the U.K. with 38% either practicing Islam or of Muslim heritage, according to the latest 2011 census data. It is home to 47 mosques, including East London Mosque, Europe’s largest, which has welcomed worshippers for over a century. Royal Mint Court also sits toward the end of Cable Street, which is steeped in anti-racist lore after East End residents drove back a march of British fascist leader Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts in 1936.

“The Embassy represents the country, and that country is committing a genocide, terrorizing Tibetans and eradicating democracy in Hong Kong,” says Rahima Mahmut, a former Tower Hamlets resident and the U.K. director of the World Uyghur Congress. She was also present at the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. “So the least that we can do is remind people of the human rights abuses.”

A hub for espionage?

An additional concern is the nature of work that will be carried out inside Royal Mint Court. On Nov. 20, Richard Moore, the chief of British foreign intelligence service MI6, told the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London that Beijing is mounting “large-scale espionage operations” against the U.K. and its allies in order to steal technology and distort political decision-making. Calling the Chinese threat his “single greatest priority,” Moore said Chinese operatives were instructed to “monitor and attempt to exercise undue influence over the Chinese diaspora.”

In January, British domestic security service MI5 issued a rare warning that a 59-year-old legal adviser to the Chinese Embassy named Christine Lee was in fact an agent for the CCP’s foreign influence wing, the United Front Work Department. The statement alleged that Lee, a political networker who even received an award in 2019 from the U.K. prime minister’s office, has for almost three decades attempted to influence lawmakers and political parties by facilitating financial donations from China. (A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson dismissed the claims, saying that “certain people may have watched too many ‘007’ movies.”)

And China’s growing diplomatic presence is raising eyebrows. In 2010, there were 94 Chinese officials in the U.K. on diplomatic passports. That rose to 116 in 2020, while today there are 121 in London alone. (China also has consulates in Edinburgh, Belfast and Manchester.) The purpose of these officials is unclear. In 2019, a U.K. foreign affairs select committee report found “alarming evidence” of Chinese interference on British University campuses, some of which had been coordinated by the Chinese Embassy. “That the Chinese government trying to infiltrate us is a given,” says Tsang. “It is a Leninist party state and so infiltrates when and where it can. They are not being paid to do nothing.”

Influence is also a problem locally. The Tower Hamlet motion to change street names noted that the Chinese Embassy had written to some neighborhood schools to explore opportunities for potential collaboration, and expressed worried that the CCP promoting its own aberrant ideas about ethnic harmony may chafe with the borough’s “proud history of standing up for each other as one community and celebrating our differences.”

Overall, there’s a huge question mark over what benefit residents get out of having the Embassy in their midst. It’s certainly not economic. Were an office building to take over the site, the council could charge a Community Infrastructure Levy on the square footage to help renovate transport links and so on. However, because the borough has never had an embassy before, diplomatic usages weren’t included in the levy categories and so are currently exempt. Having the Chinese Embassy may possibly attract more Chinese investment, though given the borough already hosts the U.K. headquarters of HSBC and the Bank of China in its freewheeling Docklands financial center, any boost is likely to be incremental. “So we probably lose out financially slightly from the [Embassy] as compared to an office use as was originally planned,” says Wood. In a report published in January, Tower Hamlets Council’s director of community safety Ann Corbett also warned that protests around the embassy building are “inevitably likely to be very disruptive to residents and traffic.”

Bulldozing history

Planning permission for the site refurbishment still hasn’t been granted and therein lies another raft of problems. Due to national security concerns, installing an embassy is not like building an office block—many nations prefer to fly in developers from their homeland given that local contractors could install bugs or other vulnerabilities. At the very least, the building is gutted and secured by a, typically concrete, hard shell to encase the most sensitive work areas. But the Royal Mint Court has centuries of historical artifacts buried deep beneath its current Greek Revival portico. Apart from the skeletons of Black Death dead, there are the original foundations of St Mary Graces Abbey and countless artifacts of “enormous historical importance,” says Tower Hamlets Councilor Peter Golds.

“The last thing I want is the Chinese government digging a great big hole in the ground and picking through historic remains that date from the 14th century,” says Golds. “And then plowing through the graves of several thousand Londoners who died in the Black Death.”

How this invaluable history can be preserved whilst meeting the security requirements for the famously paranoid Chinese state has not yet been ascertained. It’s incumbent upon Tower Hamlets to find a solution that works for all. Under British law, while planning approval is a local matter, the decision can be “called in” by either the Mayor of London or central government should they deem necessary. Given already frosty relations with the world’s number two economy, the British government may decide this is not a fight worth their while.

At any rate, the council should have final say on the name of that unadopted road, be it Tiananmen Square, Uyghur Court or something else entirely. And some remain optimistic. Such is the strength of the local community that politician Wood is betting against the Chinese proving a corrupting influence here, suggesting that things may in fact manifest the other way around. “Tower Hamlets is one of the most multi-ethnic, international places in the globe, let alone London,” he says. “So I think it would be good for the Chinese to see how that works.”

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Write to Charlie Campbell/London at charlie.campbell@time.com