A Chinese diplomat filmed pulling the hair of a pro-democracy Hong Kong protester on the grounds of his consulate in Manchester, England, has defended his actions – saying it was his “duty” to uphold China’s dignity.
“Any diplomat” would have done the same, Chinese Consul-General Zheng Xiyuan said Wednesday when asked about video footage showing a group of men attacking the protester.
The confrontation took place on Sunday when a group of pro-democracy protesters with banners bearing satirical images of Chinese leader Xi Jinping emerged in front of the consulate. The demonstration coincided with the start of a key week-long gathering of Chinese Communist Party elites in Beijing, at which Xi is widely expected to secure a norm-breaking third term as leader.
Video footage shows one of the pro-democracy protesters – now identified as Bob Chan – being dragged through the gate onto the consulate grounds and being beaten by the group of men. It also shows Manchester Police entering Consulate grounds to end the violence.
In an interview with Sky News on Wednesday, Zheng defended his actions and those of his staff, claiming the pro-democracy protesters incited the violence with “rude banners”.
“I didn’t hit anyone. I didn’t let my people hit anyone. The fact is, the so-called protesters are beating my people,” Zheng said.
However, when the Sky News interviewer asked for a picture showing him pulling Chan’s hair, Zheng seemed to concede that he was involved, saying, “Yes, the man abused my country, my leader. I think it’s my duty.”
“To pull his hair?” the interviewer asked – to which Zheng replied, “Yeah!”
He added that he would uphold the dignity of China and its people and that “any diplomat” would have done the same in such a situation.
In a letter to Manchester Police on Thursday, Zheng insisted the consulate had “respected the right to protest” and claimed the consulate grounds were “stormed” by protesters.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry was quick to defend Zheng, describing the protesters as “harassers” who illegally enter the Chinese consulate and “endanger the security of Chinese diplomatic premises.”
The incident now threatens to further damage Britain-China relations, which have soured in recent years over disagreements over Hong Kong, a former British colony, a major bone of contention.
On Tuesday, the British Foreign Secretary called China’s second-highest diplomat in the UK, Chargé d’Affaires Yang Xiaoguang, to demand an explanation and express his deep concern over the incident.
Manchester Police have opened an inquiry into the attack but said on Wednesday there had been no arrests so far, calling it a “complex and sensitive investigation” which would take time.
Speaking publicly on Wednesday, Bob Chan said he now fears for his safety and that of his family, echoing fears from other members of the British Hong Kong diaspora.
He claimed he was trying to stop consulate staff from tearing down protest banners when they began attacking him.
“I held on to the gate where I was kicked and punched. I couldn’t hold on for long and was eventually dragged onto the consulate grounds,” Chan said.
“My hair was pulled and I felt punches and kicks from several men,” he said, adding that the attack didn’t stop until a police officer pulled it back through the consulate gate.
He showed photos of his injuries and said he had bruises on his head, neck, back and around his eye. “I fear I may be silenced by those in power. I fear for the safety of my family,” he continued. “I’m shocked because I never thought something like this could happen in the UK.”
The UK is home to a large number of Hong Kongers, many of whom left the city after Beijing introduced sweeping national security law in 2020. Under the law, protesters and activists have been jailed, newsrooms shut down, civil society smashed up and formal political opposition effectively wiped out.
Hong Kong’s leaders have repeatedly claimed that the city’s freedoms remain intact and that the law has restored order and stability after massive pro-democracy protests in 2019.
But the combination of China’s tighter grip on the city and its tough Covid-19 restrictions has prompted an exodus from the city in recent years.
In August, Hong Kong saw its largest population decline since official records began in 1961.
As the size of Hong Kong’s diaspora has increased and Beijing has grown more assertive on the world stage, Britain-China relations have also deteriorated – and so has sentiment among the British public, experts say.
“The Manchester incident reflected the hardening of Britain’s stance on China since the Hong Kong protests of 2019 and the resulting cooling in Britain-China relations,” said Chi-kwan Mark, Lecturer in International History at the University of London. adding it partly reflected “the intensified ideological conflict between China and the West.”
And it has become a cross-party issue, with members of both the UK Conservative and Labor parties supporting “a no-compromise approach to China,” he said.
Speaking to Britain’s House of Commons on Tuesday, Conservative MP Alicia Kearns called the incident “a startling escalation,” a sentiment shared by Labor MP Afzal Khan, who said: “The Chinese Communist Party’s aggressive, intimidating tactics have no place on the streets of my city or my country.”
“The UK government … is under pressure to do something about China and to advocate for Hong Kong,” Mark said – although he added those authorities are now in a difficult position of “balancing confrontation and engagement.” have to China.”