Dave v People’s Republic of China: Chairman of small residents’ association spearheads campaign to stop China building huge embassy on his doorstep after Hong Kong dissident was dragged into consulate and beaten by officials
- Dave Lake, 68, is spearheading a campaign to stop a new Chinese embassy
- The proposed London development is a £750million on site of former Royal Mint
- Final decision could be ‘called in’ by Sec of State for Housing, Michael Gove
When Dave Lake watched as a Hong Kong dissident was dragged into the Chinese consulate in Manchester and beaten by officials — in full view of police — he realised the enormity of what he had taken on.
As chairman of a small residents’ association, the 68-year-old retired engineer was spearheading a campaign to stop the People’s Republic of China building a massive and intimidating embassy on his doorstep.
But he hadn’t realised the stakes would be so high.
‘I bumped into a friend in the street after that and he said, “Watch out for people coming towards you with umbrellas”,’ says Dave.
David Lake, 68, a retired engineer, has been leading a campaign to stop a £750million Chinese embassy being built on his doorstep
A scuffle between a Hong Kong pro-democracy protester and embassy officials took place in October in Manchester
The proposed development being opposed by Dave’s Royal Mint Court Residents’ Association is for a £750 million embassy on the 5.5-acre site of the former Royal Mint, opposite the Tower of London
‘I think he was joking. At least, I hope he was.’
The warning actually related not to China, but the assassination by the Russian KGB and Bulgarian secret service of the anti-communist dissident Georgi Markov, who died in London in 1978 after being injected with ricin thought to have come from the tip of an umbrella.
But the reference wasn’t lost on Dave. ‘I’m not saying I’m having sleepless nights, but comments like that do make you think,’ he says.
‘And when I watched the Chinese consular staff beating up that dissident in front of the police, it was worrying. They think they’re above the law.’
The proposed development being opposed by Dave’s Royal Mint Court Residents’ Association is for a £750 million embassy on the 5.5-acre site of the former Royal Mint, opposite the Tower of London.
Coins were minted there for 160 years, until 1967. It was sold by the Crown Estate in the late 1980s and acquired by property firm Delancey — owned by Tory donor Jamie Ritblat — in 2010 until its purchase by China in 2018 for £255 million.
Plans for the site — also home to a Black Death burial plot — drawn up by architect David Chipperfield involve demolishing sections of the Grade II-listed building, renovating some of the structures and building housing for more than 250 embassy staff.
If completed, it would be one-third bigger than the new American embassy opened in London in 2018, making it the largest in western Europe.
Dave and his fellow campaigners scored a major but potentially short-lived victory this month when Tower Hamlets borough councillors unanimously rejected the plans at an impassioned planning meeting that went on into the night.
The American embassy in London, which was completed in 2018. The proposed Chinese development would be a third bigger and house up to 250 embassy staff members
The decision was unexpected as council officials had recommended the application be approved, but moving speeches from residents, councillors, Hong Kong expatriates and supporters of Uyghur muslims, who are being rounded up and ‘re-educated’ in Chinese prison camps, won the day.
Councillor Peter Golds said the victory, so far, was a ‘triumph for local democracy’ and said he believed the Chinese plans were ‘all about prestige’. ‘Every person coming out of the Tube, looking to see the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, would turn left and see the flag of the Chinese Communist Party flying,’ he says.
‘It would look ridiculous. Can you imagine President Macron permitting this next to the Arc de Triomphe or Eiffel Tower? It’s like flying the flag of the Chinese Communist Party on the site of the Vatican.’
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has six weeks to decide whether to endorse Tower Hamlets’ decision or overturn the rejection, which was made on the grounds of residents’ safety and the prospect of demonstrations outside the embassy causing traffic chaos.
It could also be ‘called in’ by housing minister Michael Gove, who has the power to make a final decision.
The final decision on the £750million embassy could be ‘called in’ by Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Housing
The timing couldn’t be worse, with diplomatic relations between China and the UK at an all-time low, but the Royal Mint Court Residents’ Association is already preparing for the next stage of their fight.
‘We didn’t celebrate,’ says Dave. ‘The first thing we did was to set up a project on crowdfunder.co.uk to raise £8,000 for legal representation. We think we’re going to need it.’
The 100 or so residents objecting to the plans live in St Mary Graces Court on Cartwright Street, which backs on to the site of the Mint.
According to Dave, this makes them ‘human shields’ for the embassy.
‘There are so many groups who oppose what the Chinese are doing to the Uyghurs and the oppression in Tibet and Hong Kong that we feel it isn’t a matter of if the embassy will face some kind of terrorist attack, but when,’ he says.
‘We asked Tower Hamlets to conduct a bomb threat evaluation to assess the impact of an explosion on our homes. One was carried out, but we were told by the police that the results were “sensitive” so we haven’t been allowed to see them.’
I asked Tower Hamlets, the Metropolitan Police and Arup, the design and engineering consultants thought to have conducted the assessment, what the findings said about residents’ safety.
The police and Arup declined to comment. The council did not reply.
St Mary Graces Court estate was opened by the Queen in 1989. It featured affordable, part-owned properties intended for key workers and was built on Crown Estate land, with the Crown being the freeholder.
Dave is waiting for a response from several senior politicians, including Lisa Nandy, Shadow Housing Secretary
However, with the sale to China, residents found the freehold had been sold, too — giving the Chinese unfettered access to their homes.
‘There is a clause in the lease that gives the freeholder the right of entrance in case a leaseholder is doing something that causes the freeholder concern,’ says Dave.
‘That was alright when our freeholder was the Crown. But what if someone wanted to put up a poster in support of the Uyghurs or a free Tibet?
‘Would they have a bunch of Chinese officials bursting into their home and pulling it down? Will they have us under surveillance, listening to our phone calls and watching what we’re doing on the internet? It’s really rather frightening.’
Dave is so concerned that he’s written to King Charles to ask him to negotiate a return of the freehold to the Crown Estates. He’s awaiting a reply.
He’s also awaiting replies to three messages he has sent to Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, two to Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, and two to Shadow Housing Secretary Lisa Nandy.
‘It’s very disappointing. We feel like we’re on our own and are being ignored,’ he says.
The one politician who has supported the ‘David’ in this David and Goliath contest has been Lord Alton of Liverpool.
Lord Alton said the site would give the Chinese a ‘great deal’ of prestige and it would be wrong to allow the former Royal Mint to be used as promotion for the CCP
He says: ‘The idea that the Royal Mint should become a prime site for the promotion of the Chinese Communist Party is wrong. It will give them a great deal of prestige and I am sympathetic to the security issues and the concern from nearby residents. I think the secretary of state [Michael Gove] should call it in.’
Campaigners claim the embassy will be used for espionage, electronic surveillance and the identification and harassment of critics of the communist regime.
After the Tower Hamlets decision, Simon Cheng, founder of Hongkongers In Britain, who was detained by the Chinese authorities while working for the British Consulate in Hong Kong in 2019, said: ‘We should not compromise and grant an authoritarian state the power to upgrade their facilities to suppress dissenting thoughts in the UK.’
But are residents and dissidents right to be afraid?
According to China watchers, intelligence experts and human rights groups, they are.
‘China has been building huge and disproportionate embassies in various countries and staffing them with large numbers of “diplomatic” and consular officials,’ says Clive Hamilton, co-author of Hidden Hand: Exposing How The Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping The World.
‘Many of these have no apparent function but are actually used to monitor, intimidate and report on local Chinese communities, and to house Ministry of State Security officers whose job is spying. It’s mystifying that Western governments permit these Chinese fortresses in their cities. They are imposing, secretive and often sinister in construction and purpose.’
Dr Paul Lashmar, author of Spies, Spin And The Fourth Estate, says the Chinese Communist Party has been imposing ever-growing pressure and threats on expatriates who don’t toe the party line.
Most recently, he says, the Spanish civil rights group Safeguard Defenders said it had identified more than 100 unofficial Chinese police stations in ‘dozens’ of countries — including three in the UK (two in London and one in Glasgow) — thought to be keeping dissidents under surveillance.
‘The behaviour of Chinese officials overseas has become more and more aggressive in recent years under the authoritarian dictatorship of President Xi Jinping,’ says Dr Lashmar.
‘They’ve put a high premium on spying and industrial espionage, and have put into place a wide range of mechanisms to clamp down on Chinese students or any Chinese person who’s living abroad, if they think they are acting as some kind of dissident.
‘The most recent evidence suggests they’ve set up their own secret police stations and courts around the Western world, where if a Chinese citizen is suspected of acting against the Chinese government, they are summarily brought in and then prosecuted. They have no right to do this in these countries, but they are, and Chinese people overseas are aware that if they misbehave, their families back home could be threatened.’
Asked what he thought of the proposed location, Dr Lashmar says: ‘They’ll be smack in the middle of London, and that’s significant. Until recently, the Chinese were thought to be technologically backward, but now they are worldwide leaders in the production of batteries for electric vehicles, in solar panel technology and electronic surveillance.
‘If they can find a way of tapping into the flow of the City of London’s business data, they could gain great economic opportunities. And at some point, it seems likely that tensions with the West will be ratcheted up when — rather than if — they make a move on Taiwan.
‘The Chinese Communist Party will want to know what the British Government and the Ministry of Defence are thinking, and what their next moves might be, so having your embassy bulging with intelligence people and electronic equipment, right on the doorstep, would give you a huge advantage.’
What happens next is in the hands of Sadiq Khan and Michael Gove.
I asked the People’s Republic of China’s representatives in London to comment and address whether the residents of St Mary Graces Court had reason to fear their homes being invaded by embassy staff.
It didn’t address the questions but issued this statement: ‘To improve the working and living conditions of the diplomatic personnel at the Chinese Embassy in the UK, the Chinese side purchased the new Embassy premises in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
‘This has been conducted in line with international norms and received consent from the UK side. The planning application for the new Embassy premises has been carried out on the basis of local laws and regulations, which includes thorough technical analyses on security and other issues.
‘It should be pointed out that host countries have the international obligation to facilitate and support the building of premises of diplomatic missions. The Chinese side urges the UK side to fulfil its relevant obligation.’
When campaigners against the embassy raised the treatment of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province, the embassy demanded that the UK government observes this convention and protects the project.
‘A handful of anti-China elements use so-called Xinjiang-related issues to harass the Chinese diplomatic mission in the UK and disrupt local public order. This must not be allowed,’ it said.
‘According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the British government has the responsibility to take appropriate measures to ensure the safety of foreign diplomatic missions and personnel.’
But according to Andrew Sangar, Associate Professor of International Law at the University of Cambridge, while this is true, it does not extend to automatically allowing a country to open an embassy anywhere it chooses.
‘The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations — and international law generally — does not prevent the local government from refusing permission for an embassy at a specific location, provided that it is not acting in a discriminatory or arbitrary way,’ he says.
So, while Dave Lake and his fellow residents aren’t taking their victory for granted, at least they know that there is nothing, legally, preventing Sadiq Khan and Michael Gove from upholding the Tower Hamlets decision to refuse permission for China’s new diplomatic fortress.
Politically, however, the decision might not be so clear cut.
And if the development is approved out of a desire to kowtow to China, then the victor won’t be David. It will be Goliath.
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