Skip to main content

Chinese Consul General: Attack on Protesters in Manchester

Volume 724: debated on Thursday 15 December 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs to update the House on the investigation into the Chinese consul general’s attack on protesters in Manchester.

As Members of the House will be aware, the Foreign Secretary laid a written ministerial statement yesterday to update the House on actions taken following the incident that occurred outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester on 16 October. I was as shocked as all Members of the House to see the disturbing social media footage of violence there that day. The right of free expression—the right to protest peacefully, the right to speaks one’s mind free from the fear or threat of violence—is an absolutely fundamental part of our democratic life in the UK.

In our immediate response, the Foreign Secretary summoned China’s acting ambassador—the most senior Chinese diplomat who was in the UK that day—to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to demand an explanation for the incident. His Majesty’s ambassador in Beijing also sought a further explanation from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Following the incident, Greater Manchester police initiated an investigation. As part of that investigation, the police requested that the FCDO approach the Chinese Government to ask them to waive immunity of the Chinese consul general and five of his staff to enable interviews to take place. We informed the Chinese embassy of that request and set yesterday as the deadline, making it clear that we expected it to take action.

Indeed, we have been clear with China from the outset that we would take firm action should the police determine that there was a need to interview officials regarding their involvement in the incident. We rightly expect the highest standard of behaviour from all foreign diplomats and consular staff in the UK regardless of their privileges and immunities.

In response to our request, the Chinese embassy, acting on instruction from Beijing, notified His Majesty’s Government earlier this week that it had removed the consul general from the UK. The embassy also notified us that five other staff identified for interview from the incident by Greater Manchester police have either now left or are about to leave the UK. I wish to put on record my thanks for the professionalism shown by Greater Manchester police, particularly given the complexities of dealing with this case.

As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, we are disappointed that these individuals will not be interviewed. It is therefore right that those identified by the police as involved in the disgraceful scenes in Manchester are no longer, or will shortly cease to be, consular staff accredited to the UK. Throughout this process, we have been clear that, in the UK, we adhere to the rule of law, follow due process and respect the operational independence of our police.

Our firm diplomacy and our actions demonstrate the seriousness with which we took this incident, and the correct outcome has now been reached. The UK will always use our diplomacy to demonstrate the importance of abiding by the rule of law, and we expect others to do the same.

Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and let me put on record how disappointed I am that the Government felt that a written ministerial statement was sufficient to update the House on this issue.

The consul general and five others brutalised a refugee on British soil, and rather than being expelled or prosecuted, they have been allowed to slip off—to flee like cowards—which makes their guilt even more evident. By giving them a week’s notice, which goes far beyond the Vienna convention on consular relations, we have essentially denied Bob Chan any sense of justice. I am afraid that, at this point, the Government are being opaque, and I cannot identify any meaningful action that they have taken beyond giving the diplomats notice to flee the country, and essentially allowing the Chinese Communist party to claim now that it was simply the end of their term in Britain: they were not removed, they were not expelled, it was just time for him to leave our country.

I am not asking the Government to be tough for toughness’ sake. Justice is needed to deter future action and to ensure that we stand by the refugees who come to this country for safety. I ask the Minister please to reassure refugees in our country that we will not stand for transnational repression, and that we will take action by declaring those individuals who have fled personae non gratae so that they can never return to British soil again and potentially brutalise people or undermine the values that we have in this country.

As I said in my statement and as was said in our conversations with the Chinese embassy, in London and indeed at post—our ambassador’s conversations with the Chinese Government in Beijing—we made it very clear that the Chinese diplomats’ behaviour was completely unacceptable, but because, as I have said, we believe in the operational independence of the police, we asked for Greater Manchester police to be allowed to investigate the matter, and asked for the Chinese to co-operate fully with the police investigation. The diplomatic frameworks that exist for that very purpose were observed, and we are content with the outcome that the Chinese direction from Beijing was to bring its people home and remove them from being accredited members of the UK diplomatic corps.

I thank the chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), for the urgent question, and for her tireless work on this issue to date. We have heard of government by press release, but I think we now have government by urgent question. This is the third urgent question with the third Minister and the third slightly different version of events, and the impression is of dither and delay.

Of course Labour Members believe that the right of free expression, including the right to protest and to speak one’s mind, is essential to our democratic way of life, and we thank Greater Manchester police for their intense efforts in this regard. However, I have three brief questions to ask the Minister. First, will the officials removed by the Chinese Government be declared personae non gratae, to send a clear message about our dissatisfaction with their unwillingness to engage with the investigation? Secondly, has there has been concerted engagement with international partners about the episode to prevent similar occurrences in New York, Canberra, Amsterdam or Ottawa? Finally, will there be fresh and concerted cross-Whitehall engagement to ensure that pro-democracy activists and Hongkongers are given the protection that they deserve here in the UK? Members of this House have spoken with one voice and I should like to hear a robust response from the Government.

As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, the Vienna convention on consular relations allows states to withdraw members of a consular post at any point, and we were clear that we were asking the Chinese either to waive immunity or to do that. They have chosen that route. That is how the framework is set out. We are disappointed that these individuals will therefore not be interviewed, but it is absolutely right that those responsible will shortly be getting on to a plane and leaving the UK.

As the hon. Lady will know, issues across posts are discussed regularly and forcefully, and the Foreign Secretary has ensured that all our embassies are fully up to date on his very clear directions. As I have said, I know all of us in the House agree that we value that freedom of expression—that freedom to protest peacefully—and, indeed, ask others around the world to demonstrate it as well. We will continue to ensure that our police forces are able to do what they need to do, independent of Government direction. This is a framework of which we are all extremely proud, and often, wherever we are in the world, other countries note and are impressed by our ability to maintain it. We will continue to protect the rights of all who wish to demonstrate and share their views peacefully to do so.

I concur with everything the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), said. There was clear video evidence of outrageous violence by Chinese nationals, and the consul general admitted it. It is clear that the Government should have expelled the diplomats without having to wait for a police investigation. Any other person in this country guilty of such crimes would have been arrested at that stage. It is a clear admission of guilt that they have now scuttled off into the night back to China. At the very least, the Government must now retrospectively say that they are personae non gratae.

Will the Minister invite the Chinese ambassador, without coffee and biscuits, for a serious lesson on what freedom of expression actually means in this country? Will he say that when China eventually builds its new embassy it will allow free and peaceful demonstration outside, because that is what we do in this country, and that we will not tolerate intimidation of the many Hong Kong British overseas nationals coming to this country who are still at risk of the tentacles of the Chinese Communist Government using these sorts of bully boy tactics?

I note the very colourful description in my hon. Friend’s request. I am pleased to update him with the fact that, in my new post, I have been able to meet the Chinese ambassador. Just last week, I went to pay my condolences on the death of President Zemin. I was able to sit and have a short conversation with the ambassador, during which I raised these issues, which at the time were ongoing. We will continue to meet, and I note the request for less of a welcome than perhaps one might otherwise give. It is really important to maintain those conversations and, as my hon. Friend says, ensure that every embassy accredited to the UK understands our values and our rights. All those who wish to demonstrate peacefully to raise concerns on any matter should be free to do so. We will continue to stand up to ensure that everyone across the UK understands that, and we will continue to support our police to allow that to happen.

I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), for forcing the Government to the Dispatch Box to address this issue.

The Minister and others are right about the right to protest—that must be protected. We cannot allow the creep-in of authoritarian tactics here. China removing the six individuals is not a success story for the UK. Justice has not been served. Does the Minister agree that the Chinese Communist party’s actions show wilful disregard for the rule of law and the UK’s diplomatic authority? Criminal investigations should have been progressed. The instigators of Bob Chan’s assault will not now be held to account. The UK Government cannot think that that is acceptable. Does the Minister regret that? The UK Government have failed to act strategically on China while our allies and partners, including the US and Germany, have done so. The UK has not even published the long-promised strategy on China. When will that now be progressed?

I note the hon. Gentleman’s request on the China strategy. I am afraid that I cannot provide any more detail at the moment—it is not in my purview to do so—but we continue to work very closely on it. He will have heard the Prime Minister, in his Guildhall speech a few weeks ago, set out very clearly what he described as “robust pragmatism”. We will be hearing further on that.

On this particular issue, it is really important to be clear that once the Greater Manchester police confirmed, after consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service, that it was satisfied that the level of injuries of one of the reported victims was consistent with a section 39 assault, we followed through with the action I set out. We gave the Chinese Government one week to comply with the request to waive privileges and immunities, so that the police could interview those involved and urge them to co-operate fully. They decided to use the diplomatic tools available to them to send their people home.

I was unaware until this incident that there was even a Chinese Government consulate in Manchester. May I suggest that we conduct a review into where all the consuls are? There are a number of embassies outside London. We should ensure that they all have a police liaison officer so that everyone understands their duties and responsibilities here in the United Kingdom.

I will take that point away and discuss it with the team. Just as we have in many countries, there are consulates general not only at the main embassy but across large areas. Thinking of our own, the One HMG programme was done to help us bring together our trade and agriculture experts and those working in-country. He is quite right that we see consulates general across the UK for many embassies that are accredited to the Court of St James’s. I will take that point away.

I join the Minister and the Opposition Front Bencher in praising Greater Manchester police. We should have not seen scenes such as that in our great city. I am disappointed that this issue has had to be raised as an urgent question, because the Foreign Secretary was making a statement on his Department’s media channel about it last night. I am concerned that he is not here.

The Minister summed it up: these diplomats are accredited, so what happens when they are replaced in the consulate of Manchester? Will those officials have a semblance of the common good and allow encounter and dialogue, or will they be replaced with further state-sponsored thugs?

The Chinese embassy and Beijing will no doubt send a new consul general in due course. We will be clear, as we always are with all those who come to serve in their embassies in the UK, that we expect the highest standards from all staff. That will continue to be the case.

China, of course, always displays its absolute contempt when it identifies weakness amongst its opponents and counter- parties, doesn’t it?

The Foreign Secretary was clear with the Chinese embassy, and we have followed through. I am pleased that the outcome is that those whom Greater Manchester police identified as involved have been sent home by Beijing.

I concur with the congratulations to Greater Manchester police on their swift action to support the refugee in this case. I agree, very unusually, with the remarks of the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) about the consequences of, quite frankly, a lacklustre Government response. What do the Government think will be the response from China to this poor display?

I think the whole House agrees that Greater Manchester police behaved incredibly well through what was a difficult situation. As we have discussed, the Vienna convention on consular relations sets out clearly the rules of the road between all our diplomats across the world. We have always and will continue to expect the highest standards of behaviour and protocols here in the UK. We will reiterate that in due course.

Those exercising their freedoms here in the UK should never feel threatened or intimidated by the actions of foreign states. Can the Minister confirm how she is working with ministerial colleagues and Government agencies to establish and address other threats to freedom of expression by foreign actors? Could she make particular reference to concerns about Confucius Institutes, which have been raised in this place a number of times?

I thank my hon. Friend for all her work as the Prime Minister’s envoy on freedom of religion or belief. Hers is an incredibly important voice that reaches across the world, setting out the UK’s absolute clarity on our values. We will continue to do that. I hope she will be pleased to see the human rights report published, as promised, at the beginning of the week. We continue set out how the UK is leading on that. We continue to look across the piece at all centres. The Prime Minister has set out more work for us to do to ensure that all those who are here under diplomatic authority follow the rules of the road that we set out clearly.

Does the Minister agree that this is only one incident in a pattern of behaviour by the Chinese Communist party, as others have referred to? The assaults on British journalists, the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong and the genocidal activities taking place in Xinjiang province warrant greater international condemnation and action. Just yesterday, China attempted to stop Iran being ousted from the UN body tasked with empowering women’s rights. That is what China does, and everybody is a target. Does she plan to raise this with her Chinese counterpart? Will accountability be applied on every occasion that the United Kingdom has to highlight issues of abuse by the Chinese Communist party?

The hon. Gentleman continues to be a great champion for those oppressed in many parts of the world. We now have a robust and active sanctions regime, and we use it firmly to make clear our views on those breaching it through either corruption or human rights aggressions where we can identify those. We have a number of sanctions on Chinese entities and individuals exactly along those lines, and I will be happy to write to him with more details about them, if that would be useful.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the written ministerial statement laid yesterday by the Foreign Secretary, the House was informed that the Chinese Communist party was given one week to waive immunity for those whom the police wanted to speak to. That deadline passed last night, but the Minister has just stated from the Dispatch Box that two Chinese consul staff remain in the UK and will leave shortly. Given that the deadline has passed and no action has been taken by the Government, may I seek your guidance on whether the House was misled when it was informed that a deadline had been set, or was it merely a rhetorical deadline?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The consul general left the UK first. Of the remaining five, I do not have precise numbers on the last few—I am not sure whether it is two or three. We are waiting on an update from the Chinese embassy later today that all of those five have left the UK.