East London councillors raise concerns over Chinese embassy move

China’s plans to relocate its UK embassy to the East End of London is facing opposition owing to its repression of the predominately Muslim Uighur people and clampdown on dissent in Hong Kong.

The embassy is moving from the West End to a large site in Tower Hamlets opposite the Tower of London. Tower Hamlets has the highest proportion of Muslim residents (38%) of any borough in the country, according to the latest census.

Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors in the borough are pushing for an emergency motion about the relocation to be debated at the local council’s annual general meeting on Wednesday.

The Lib Dem councillor Rabina Khan, who is seconding the motion, said: “Our call in this motion is for all elected members to come together to issue a letter to the People’s Republic of China, stating that although its new UK embassy is due to open on the site of the historic Royal Mint in Tower Hamlets, our council condemns the treatment of the Uighur Muslims in China and stands with the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.”

Although the motion does not oppose the relocation, a spokesperson for Tower Hamlets Conservatives questioned whether it should go ahead.

“We need to have a discussion as a borough about whether we are comfortable or not to allow China to open its biggest overseas embassy here in Tower Hamlets,” they said. “There is a growing body of evidence of appalling human rights atrocities committed by the Chinese government against Uighur Muslims and other detainees. Do we really want to host the embassy of a nefarious regime in our borough?”

At the site handing-over ceremony in March 2018, China’s ambassador Liu Xiaoming said the embassy would become “a new landmark in London” and “write a new chapter for a China-UK golden era”. The Tower Hamlets mayor, John Biggs, said it showed the borough was “an open and dynamic place to live and work”.

In July this year the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, condemned what he called “gross and egregious” human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang region. A report last week said China had built nearly 400 camps to imprison members of the Uighur population. Escapees from the region have described programmes of forced sterilisation for Uighur women.

In Hong Kong, China has imposed new security laws curbing freedoms.

Mark Baynes, who runs the Love Wapping website, was broadly supportive of the embassy move when he became aware of it in 2018 but now says the abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang have changed his perspective. “My view now is I’m against it and I think a lot of other people here would be against it [if they knew about it],” he said.

“Our history in the East End, a lot of it is based around the battle of Cable Street and literally giving the fascists a kicking. And I think the people who were at Cable Street fighting would, if they were here today, look at what the Chinese government is doing and they’d say the same thing.”

The Chinese embassy was approached for comment.

A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets council said the embassy was in the initial stages of pre-application discussions with its planning department. “We are likely still some considerable time away from a formal planning application being submitted,” they said.


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