Six Manchester-based Chinese diplomats, including Consul-General Zheng Xiyuan, are returning to China following an incident in which a protester was dragged into the consulate area and attacked, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.
Police last week told the government it would question these six Chinese diplomats and, as a matter of protocol, the British government has asked Beijing to waive diplomatic immunity to allow the officers to proceed, the people said.
The British side gave the Chinese today a deadline to respond and allow the police investigation to continue, but instead the six are now returning to China.
The departure of the diplomats was confirmed by British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly on Wednesday, following the initial report by POLITICO.
The episode follows footage in October showing unidentified men emerging from the consulate compound, tearing down a satirical portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping erected by Hong Kong protesters outside, and then attacking a protester who had been dragged into the consulate area.
The video shows the men delivering a series of vicious blows to the protester, who later identified himself to the BBC as ‘Bob’. He told reporters he was “dragged in and attacked” before being rescued by police. Greater Manchester Police confirmed his account.
A call to the Manchester consulate went unanswered on Wednesday. There is no response to an email inquiry sent to the Chinese embassy in the UK
The diplomatic rift represents another blow to the already tense relationship between Beijing and London. National security concerns prompted the British government to crack down on Chinese involvement in the UK’s technology infrastructure, to Beijing’s annoyance. China has also expressed frustration after local authorities in London rejected a plan to locate a new Chinese embassy building near Westminster.
According to an official, two of the diplomats have yet to leave the UK but are expected to do so shortly.
“In response to our request, the Chinese government has now removed those officials from the UK, including the Consul General himself,” Cleverly said in a video statement. “This shows that our adherence to the rule of law, the seriousness with which we take these incidents has had an effect and we will continue on the world and national stage to respect the rule of law and expect others to do so.”
However, British MPs have expressed concern about how the diplomatic incident has been resolved.
“The flagrant assault on a peaceful pro-democracy activist in Manchester needs more than allowing those responsible to leave the UK without charge and with their heads held high,” said Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative leader who served in the government. “Letting China take them back is not justice. We should have kicked them out weeks ago.
Alicia Kearns, chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, asked for statements from the six Chinese diplomats persona non gratawhich would prevent them from returning to the UK in the future.
“The British people rightly expect those who commit crimes on our shores to face the consequences – that is what it is like to live in a country with the rule of law,” Kearns said. “The Chinese diplomats who attacked the protesters fled the UK like cowards, making their guilt clear. They should never have been given seven days’ notice, allowing them to flee the country and deny justice to those seriously assaulted protesters.”
Luke de Pulford, coordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, said Cleverly took the “wrong path” to resolve the diplomatic scandal. “This is the right result, but the wrong way to achieve it. Make no mistake: the UK has not kicked these diplomats out of the country. Instead, they chose to allow China to withdraw them. We must stand stronger in the face of China’s growing diplomatic arrogance and not let them go with a slap on the wrist like this.”
This story has been updated.