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Chinese Consul General: Manchester Protest

Volume 720: debated on Thursday 20 October 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs to make a statement on the role of the Chinese consul general, who it now appears took part in the assault of Bob Chan.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question and deeply aware of the strength of feeling in this House and the other place about the scenes of violence at the consulate of the People’s Republic of China in Manchester on Sunday afternoon. I am happy to provide an update on our response. You have been kind enough, Mr Speaker, to indicate that you will allow me to speak for a couple more minutes to set out the position.

As the House will know, on Sunday afternoon officials were in touch with Greater Manchester police regarding the incident. On Monday, officials spoke to the Chinese embassy to express our very serious concerns at the reports and demand an explanation. FCDO officials were clear that all diplomats and consular staff based in the UK must respect UK laws and regulations. On Tuesday, I announced in this House that the Foreign Secretary had issued a summons to express His Majesty’s Government’s deep concern at the incident and demand an explanation for the apparent actions of the staff at the consulate general.

Following my statement, the Chinese chargé d’affaires attended a summons at the FCDO in his capacity as acting ambassador. For the avoidance of any doubt, I should say that the Chinese ambassador is currently out of the UK and it is standard practice in such circumstances to summon the chargé d’affaires. I should also be clear that receiving an official summons from the Foreign Secretary is not, as has been described, a light rap on the knuckles but the delivery of a stern message, well understood within the context of diplomatic protocol. It is customary for senior officials to deliver such messages. These summons are not an invitation for an ambassador to have an audience with the Foreign Secretary or Ministers; in any case, given that the chargé d’affaires was involved, it was doubly appropriate that they should be delivered by a senior official.

In the summons the official set out that peaceful protest is a fundamental part of British society and that everyone in the United Kingdom has the right to express their views peacefully and without fear of violence. He reiterated our clear expectation that diplomatic and consular staff should conduct themselves in accordance with UK law. We have made it absolutely clear to the Chinese embassy that the apparent behaviour of consulate general officials during the incident, as it appears from the footage—more of which is coming out, even as we discuss this—is completely unacceptable.

The independent police investigation is now under way. Greater Manchester police have been clear that there are many strands to what is a complex and sensitive inquiry and that it may take some time. As the Foreign Secretary has said, we await the details of the investigation, but in the meantime I have instructed our ambassador to deliver a clear message directly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing about the depth of concern at the apparent actions by consulate general staff. Let me be clear that if the police determine that there are grounds to charge any officials, we would expect the Chinese consulate to waive immunity for those officials. If it does not, diplomatic consequences will follow.

Finally, allow me to reiterate to the House the value that we place on the Hong Kong community in the UK. When the national security law was imposed on Hong Kong in 2020, this Government acted immediately in announcing the scheme for British national overseas status holders and their dependants. Since then, more than 100,000 people and their families have made the decision to move to the UK to live, work and make it their new home. I want to put on the record, here, now, again and officially, a reaffirmation of our unwavering support for them and our commitment to their safety. They are most welcome here. Recognising the interest that this issue has across the House, the Government will seek to update the House on this matter next week.

Mr Speaker, I am grateful to you for granting this urgent question, which follows Tuesday’s urgent question secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns).

It is worth reminding the House of what happened in the Chinese consulate’s grounds on Sunday, where there was an appalling attack on a peaceful protester. We saw appalling videos of Bob Chan being dragged into the consulate’s grounds and seriously abused, and it now appears that the consul general played a part in that physical attack.

Mr Chan is a Hong Kong refugee whom we have welcomed over here. I and others on both sides of the House are working together to help people get out of Hong Kong, and that community now feels very frightened by what the Chinese Government’s representatives are doing in the UK. Mr Chan gave a statement to the media for the first time yesterday. His wife and child were in the room, and it was a very moving statement. He spoke of how badly bruised and damaged he is, and how frightened he is. I thought it was very brave of him, because he now fears being targeted by the Chinese Communist party here in the United Kingdom.

Overnight, we discovered that the consul general has admitted that not only did he take part in the attack but that he was responsible for, in his own words, pulling Mr Chan’s hair and tearing his scalp. That is the consul general, let alone the others who were there.

I have worked with the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and others in this House to help Hong Kong refugees, and I credit the Government for their work to get those with British national overseas passports over here. I now urge the Government to be much clearer than just using diplomatic language; I urge them to make it clear, in the light of this new evidence, that it is not just unacceptable that any consular individual should have taken part in anything like this, but that any consular individual who is proved to have been a perpetrator of this outrageous and violent attack on Mr Chan will immediately be made persona non grata and sent back to China. The Government have the diplomatic power to dismiss them. Whether or not there are criminal proceedings, the fact is we do not want them here in the UK and they must go.

I urge my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to come to the Dispatch Box and show the resolution that is necessary to send that message to China. He should ignore what other people and officials might say about being careful of tit for tat, get to the Dispatch Box and simply say, “They will leave the United Kingdom. Anyone involved in that attack is not welcome, and the ambassador will be informed of that forthwith.”

I thank my right hon. Friend for his further remarks. We should be absolutely clear that participating in an assault, if that is what is determined to have happened, is completely outside the expectations of our rule of law. If such a thing had taken place in front of the British consulate in Shanghai—that question was raised in the House only two days ago—we would, of course, refer the matter to the local policing authorities, as we would have expected in this case. I take his point, which he makes very strongly.

My right hon. Friend is also right to insist, as he insisted during Tuesday’s urgent question, that the diplomatic channel and the legal channel are distinct. I have seen the footage he describes, and I think it looks very black and very damning, but we are going through a process and we need to make a factual determination. Once that is done, and if the situation is found to be as we fear—that is to say there has been a criminal offence of some kind—diplomatic consequences will follow.

I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this urgent question, for yesterday’s interview with Mr Chan and for his work on this matter.

This is yet another complete failure by the Government. Instead of making a statement to this House, which would be the normal way of carrying on, Members have had to secure a second urgent question. What is more concerning is the outrageous admission of the Chinese consul general that he did, in fact, assault Hong Kong democracy protesters in Manchester, which he described as his duty.

The Government’s handling of this issue has been a complete mess. The Minister will know that Labour called for the Chinese ambassador to be summoned so that an explanation could be demanded, but a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office statement confirmed that, in a stunning abdication of the Government’s duties, a civil servant held the meeting with Minister Yang, rather than the Foreign Secretary or a responsible Minister. Although I have the upmost confidence in the abilities of FCDO officials to fulfil their responsibilities, there are moments in foreign policy when only an elected Minister will do. Sadly, it appears that what this chaotic Government have unleashed upon the country through their failed economic agenda is now hampering Ministers’ ability to stand up for the most basic rights we hold dear.

The Minister has the chance to send a clear message not only to the Chinese Government, but to the Government in Myanmar and any other country that might have a repressive regime and where refugees fear for their safety in this country. He will know that on 12 May, from this Dispatch Box, we challenged the Government to come forward with a comprehensive safety plan for Hong Kong nationals and others, so I have two questions. Will he meet those from the embassy without any delay to communicate the strong message from MPs about the importance of peaceful protest in this country? Is it the case that Greater Manchester police have not yet received the CCTV footage because the consul general is refusing to hand it over?

What will the Minister do to tackle this problem? 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.

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. She is right to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for his interview with Mr Chan. It was an important moment and my right hon. Friend deserves congratulation from across this House on that. As for what the hon. Lady said, I do not think she can have listened to what I said, which is a pity. The ambassador is not in the UK and has not been since before the beginning of this week, so he is not available for any kind of diplomatic interaction. In any case, the chargé d’affaires is the appropriate person for this kind of exchange. The last time an ambassador was summonsed to a meeting with a Minister—indeed, the Foreign Minister —was following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That gives a sense of the way in which the diplomatic niceties work out.

On CCTV and the Greater Manchester police, I cannot comment on that as it is a matter outside the purview of the Government. However, if the Chinese consulate is not giving up any CCTV that it has, I would certainly encourage it to do so.

I welcome this urgent question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. It is clear that the House is unhappy with the course that the Government have taken and I must challenge the Minister on some of the comments he has made this morning. It is not “apparent” involvement; there are no ifs or buts here. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has said, the consul general has not only admitted that he is responsible, but praised his own role in these actions and said that he would do it again. It is a political decision to expel, not a policing one. Will the Minister therefore confirm that, as he suggested from the Dispatch Box just now, his preference is to prosecute these individuals and see them in British prisons? Secondly, what are the diplomatic consequences that he references? Are they expulsion? We need plain speaking at this time. The House is clearly united in its position and I urge the Government to listen to it.

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for that. She has made clear her view that a crime was committed, and that is the view that many others have taken, but it is not a determination of fact at the level we would need. She may have missed the portion of what I said earlier to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green about the fact that we recognise that the diplomatic channel and the legal are separate, but they are not separate as regards a determination of fact. Those are the proper grounds for us to make a determination as a Government. As regards the political desire, we will be looking at the fact situation as it is brought forward and at the options. She may have missed this too, but I said that I would expect there to be an update to the House next week, as further events play themselves out. We will make a judgment in due course on that basis.

This is a serious diplomatic incident. As others have said, the violent clash between pro-democracy protesters and officials at the Chinese consulate is disturbing and goes directly against the tenets of diplomacy, freedom of speech and protest. Bob Chan, who fled Hong Kong for his life, was pulled through the gates into the consulate and beaten by staff. He was left with cuts and bruises to his face, and video footage shows his hair being pulled by the Chinese consul general, who has already asserted that that was his “duty”.

The SNP condemns in the strongest terms this violence against peaceful protesters and calls for an urgent investigation. If the individuals responsible for such violence cannot be criminally prosecuted due to diplomatic immunity, they must be formally expelled from the UK. What action will the Minister commit to taking to hold the consul general to account, in both domestic law and international law?

I have set out the actions that we are proposing to take at the moment. Of course, as I have said in terms, we recognise the seriousness of this matter. We also recognise the seriousness with which the House takes the matter. As to the consul general’s remarks about it being his “duty”, I think they are sufficiently absurd not to require comment from the Dispatch Box.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the steadfast support that you have continued to show those of us sanctioned by China.

The consul general seems to have forgotten that he was in Manchester, where we allow free speech, rather than Lhasa, Hong Kong or Xinjiang, where peaceful demonstration is routinely met by violence from the authorities. This does not require “clear” messages “in due course” as the Minister has just said; it requires strong action now. That involves chucking out some of these people and posting additional police outside every Chinese Government establishment in this country to make sure that no more peaceful demonstrators are attacked in this way. Many Uyghur and Tibetan families already feel intimidated; now they can be dragged into Chinese premises and beaten up, or worse.

My hon. Friend is right to raise the contrast between our own rule of law and the deplorable, despicable experience that has been meted out to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. He will know that only last week the UN Human Rights Council debated this matter on the back of an extraordinarily damning report by former President Bachelet of Chile, and that is now in the public domain.

As regards police support, I think it is a fact that the demonstration was notified to Greater Manchester police and it was on hand at the time, so it is not absolutely clear that police support, as such, is what is required. There clearly has been some kind of failure in this case, and we need to work out—if there was—what it was.

Yesterday, I joined Bob Chan in a press conference in which he bravely detailed his awful ordeal in my constituency. In an interview with Sky News reporter Inzy Rashid, the Chinese consul general in Manchester confirmed that the footage did show him destroying banners and assaulting a protester, which he argued was his “duty”. The hubris and above-the-law attitude of the consul general is sickening. Will the Government stop dragging their feet and take immediate action by declaring the consul general persona non grata?

Of course, the hon. Gentleman too has engaged very closely with Mr Chan, and very welcome that is too. I am sure that everyone around the House would congratulate him and thank him for his support on that. He revisits questions that I have already answered at some length. I have announced that we have put in place a series of measures, which we are going through now. In due course, we will expect to update the House on progress in this developing situation.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your continued efforts in helping us to hold the Chinese to account in this House.

There is another protest this weekend in Manchester. Has the Minister contacted Greater Manchester police to ensure that those protesters will have their protection, which they clearly have not had to date?

I personally was not aware of any further demonstrations, but the House has now been made aware of them. I will ensure that officials make some notification of that. This is a Home Office matter, so it will go through the Home Office. Even within the Home Office network of relationships, our police are independent of Government, and rightly so for the best rule-of-law reasons, so we will respect that. I am not sure yet that what happened here necessarily was a failure of policing. In this case, it certainly appears that way, and we expect the Greater Manchester police to be able to do whatever they can the next time round.

Frankly, this is now just ridiculous. I hope the Minister can see the force of the will of the House and that it helps him in what he needs to do next. Article 41 of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations states that diplomats need to

“respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State.”

Article 9 states that the receiving state has the right to declare that person “persona non grata” at any time with no explanation. The Crown Prosecution Service then says that that is done when the police have sufficient evidence to justify court proceedings. Given the video and the admission, the lack of action by the Government is frankly laughable at this point. This is now a political decision. Can the Minister explain why he is not making them persona non grata now?

The hon. Lady quotes the convention, and it is very interesting, but she skated over the key phrase, which is when police have “sufficient” evidence, and we are not in that position yet. When we are, as I have assured the House, there will be consequences if that evidence proves to be dispositive.

I understand that my right hon. Friend is a diplomat, but does he not understand that if this assault took place on the streets of this country, the individuals responsible would be in prison cells and before magistrates? The situation is therefore very simple: every single day that those responsible remain on these shores is a disgrace and a stain on our society. Can we not take the decision now to encourage my right hon. Friend and his colleagues to expel the people responsible today?

I fully recognise that the House has a very strong view of this, but if this apparent offence had taken place elsewhere on the streets of the United Kingdom, it would be subject to the same kind of police investigation and determination and, potentially, a prosecution as a result.

I welcome the Minister to his post, because I know him to be a decent, intelligent and honourable man. He talks of diplomatic niceties, but the time for diplomatic niceties is long, long past. Does he think that the Chinese Government care about diplomatic niceties? Of course, what the Minister should be doing is saying to the ambassador, “Get yourself back to Britain, so that you can meet with the Minister. If you don’t get back, it will be a Minister who will be meeting with the chargé d’affaires on Monday morning, or preferably tomorrow, and, for that matter, we will be expelling the consul general tomorrow because he has clearly been engaged in something that would have got him arrested if it had happened on the streets of the United Kingdom.”

The fact of the matter is that we have already laid out an approach to this. As I said, the last time an ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Secretary was in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There are diplomatic channels through which these things occur, and we need to respect them. As regards the question of arrest, an individual might have been arrested, or they might not have been; that is at the discretion of the police. That remains the case whether they are outside the embassy or on any other parts of our streets.

Can the Minister outline what tangible steps have been taken to protect the Hong Kong community, Tibetans and Uyghurs from intimidation, threats and actual use of violence from the Chinese state on UK soil—tangible steps?

The hon. Gentleman knows that we have opened the British national overseas channel. We have offered support from the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and those individuals remain under the rule of law and therefore the purview of the police, as would any other residents in this country.

The right to protest is a British value that stems from 1819 and the Peterloo massacre in our great city, which is why this Government’s inaction is gnawing at our moral core. Powerlessness corrupts, and absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely; the Government are being sclerotic in this case, if that is not part of the wider malaise. However, I too know the Minister to be an honourable man, so in that spirit can he tell us what discussions he has had with either the Mayor of Greater Manchester, the leader of Manchester City Council or Greater Manchester police to reassure the people in our great city that action will be taken?

The hon. Gentleman is a Manchester MP and I respect the force of his passion on this issue. As with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), there is nothing more deadly than when a member of the Opposition is kind about the gentleman at the Dispatch Box, so I am aware of the danger there. I would correct the hon. Gentleman on the issue of the rule of law and due process in this country; it goes back way before Peterloo, and one would think of the codification or formalisation of legal changes in the 17th century, if not earlier. He also brilliantly misquotes Lord Acton. On Greater Manchester police, that is a matter for the Home Office, but I can be absolutely certain, as can he, that they will be following the debate with considerable interest.

A few moments ago, the Minister characterised the consul general’s comment that it was his “duty” to commit an act of violence as absurd. With the greatest of respect to the Minister, whom I like very much, I think it was sinister and menacing. It is not just that this House cares about seeing the consul general and others involved in this incident facing immediate diplomatic consequences, as he calls them. Hong Kong nationals now obtaining refuge in my constituency also need reassurance that the Government take their security seriously. As long as those people remain in Manchester and in this country, they do not have that reassurance.

If I may say so, I do not think the hon. Lady is right about the position I have taken. We have been perfectly clear about the concern felt across interested bodies, parties and groups in the UK, particularly Hong Kong residents here and people who have come from Hong Kong. That is why I ended my statement with a very specific message of support to them. I have also outlined to the House the measures that we have put in place in the other Departments focused on those people. It is true that they too would expect to live under the rule of law and our police, and in general Greater Manchester police do a sterling job, as I am sure any Manchester MP would say, of protecting the wellbeing of the people of Manchester. I am sure that they will continue to extend that privilege, courtesy and protection to Hong Kong residents.

I was not going to intervene until I listened to the Minister’s responses. There can be no question here of a failure of the Manchester police. No one would have expected a bunch of thugs to come running out of an embassy and beat people up on the streets of Britain. Will the Minister think for a minute about how that appears and how his answers make our country look? We look supine and weak. The evidence is absolutely clear, and he should be stating that and making it clear that the Government will act, and act swiftly. I get no urgency from the Minister.

I am afraid that is hopelessly untrue. We take this matter extremely seriously: we are acting on it, we have had two urgent questions on the matter and we have different Departments engaged and involved. I have also now had it confirmed to me that officials have been in touch with Greater Manchester police and will remain so. Of course I mean no criticism of anyone in that fine, august body of policemen and policewomen; we continue to look to them to maintain the kinds of standards of policing that they always have done in that city.

It strikes me that there is no dubiety in this House about the appalling scenes we have all witnessed. As a signatory to the Sino-British joint declaration, the UK has not only a diplomatic but a moral responsibility to the people of Hong Kong, especially the large numbers who came to the UK under the new visa scheme. Does the Minister not accept that there is a need for clear action to make sure that Hong Kong people, Uyghurs and Tibetans feel safe and valued here?

Of course I do. The hon. Lady may recall that on Tuesday, I announced that the British national overseas channel had been extended to include adult relatives of those who are already entitled to its benefits. I have also outlined to the House not just our very warm and enthusiastic embrace of the people of Hong Kong through that channel, but the measures and Departments responsible for protecting those people in this country. Again, I send a very strong message to Hongkongers in this country: we massively respect and warmly embrace you, and will of course continue to protect and look to your safety.

It has been quite difficult to listen to these answers—I say that with great respect for the Minister—because we do not really feel that the issue is being dealt with strongly enough. The Minister will be aware that this latest travesty is one in a long list of despicable attacks on innocent people that have arguably taken place at the hands of those in power in China. Will he commit to meet the ambassador and highlight the fact that taking someone from British soil into the Chinese consulate to physically and violently abuse them is disgraceful and will not be tolerated, and that those involved—including the ambassador—will be sent home immediately?

I am an enormous fan and admirer of the hon. Gentleman, but we have covered that question quite closely on several occasions during this urgent question. We will take the measures I have outlined, which are a clear extension of the work we are already doing, both in this country and in Beijing. We will await the factual determination on the evidence, and will then take action, if that is required.