A Chinese diplomat who was filmed pulling the hair of a Hong Kong pro-democracy protester on the grounds of his consulate in Manchester, England, has defended his actions – saying it was his “duty” to maintain China’s dignity.
“Any diplomat” would have done the same, Chinese Consul-General Zheng Xiyuan said on Wednesday when asked about video footage that has emerged of a group of men assaulting the protester.
The confrontation took place on Sunday, when a group of pro-democracy protesters turned up to the consulate with banners featuring satirical images of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The demonstration coincided with the start of a key week-long meeting of the 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 – since identified as Bob Chan – being dragged through the gate into the consulate grounds and being beaten by the group of men. It also shows Manchester police entering the consulate grounds to break up the violence.
In an interview with Sky News on Wednesday, Zheng defended his actions and those of his staff, claiming the pro-democracy protesters had incited the violence with “rude banners.”
“I didn’t beat anybody. I didn’t let my people beat anybody. The fact is, the so-called protesters beat my people,” Zheng said.
However, when the Sky News interviewer asked about an image showing him pulling Chan’s hair, Zheng seemed to concede he had been involved, saying: “Yeah, the man abused my country, my leader. I think it’s my duty.”
“To pull his hair?” the interviewer asked – to which Zheng responded, “Yeah!”
He added that he was maintaining 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 been “respectful of the right to protest,” and claimed that the consular grounds had been “stormed” by protesters.
China’s Foreign Ministry has been quick to defend Zheng, describing the protesters as “harassers” who had illegally entered the Chinese consulate, “endangering the security of Chinese diplomatic premises.”
The incident now threatens to further damage UK-China relations, which have soured in recent years with disagreements over Hong Kong, a former British colony, a major point of contention.
On Tuesday, Britain’s foreign secretary summoned China’s second-most senior diplomat in the UK, Charge D’Affaires Yang Xiaoguang, to demand an explanation and express deep concern at the incident.
Manchester police have launched an investigation into the assault, but said on Wednesday that there had been no arrests so far, calling it a “complex and sensitive inquiry” that will take time.
‘I fear I may be silenced’
Speaking publicly at a news conference Wednesday, Bob Chan said he now feared for his safety, and that of his family – echoing fears voiced by other members of Britain’s Hong Kong diaspora.
He claimed he had been trying to stop consular staff from ripping down protest banners when they began to assault him.
“I held onto the gate where I was kicked and punched. I could not hold on for long and was eventually pulled into the grounds of the consulate,” Chan said.
“My hair was pulled and I felt punches and kicks from several men,” he said, adding the assault did not stop until a police officer pulled him back out through the consulate gate.
He showed photos of his injuries, saying he had bruises on his head, neck, back and around his eye. “I fear I may be silenced by the powers that be. 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.”
Britain is home to a large number of Hong Kongers, many of whom left the city after Beijing introduced a sweeping national security law in 2020. Under the law, protesters and activists have been jailed, newsrooms shut, civic society dismantled and formal political opposition effectively wiped out.
Hong Kong 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 tightening grip on the city and its stringent Covid-19 restrictions have prompted an exodus from the city in recent years.
In August, Hong Kong logged its biggest population drop since official records began in 1961.
As the size of the Hong Kong diaspora has grown, and Beijing has become more assertive on the world stage, the UK-China relationship has also deteriorated – with British public sentiment souring as well, experts say.
“The Manchester incident reflected the hardening of UK attitudes toward China since the 2019 protests in Hong Kong and the resultant cooling of UK-China relations,” said Chi-kwan Mark, a senior lecturer in international history at the University of London, adding that it partly reflected “the intensified ideological clash between China and the West.”
And it has become a bipartisan issue, with members of both Britain’s Conservative and Labour parties supporting “a hard-line approach to China,” he said.
In remarks to the UK’s House of Commons on Tuesday, Conservative lawmaker Alicia Kearns called the incident “a chilling escalation,” a sentiment echoed by Labour lawmaker Afzal Khan, who said: “The aggressive, intimidating tactics of the Chinese Communist Party have no place on the streets of my city or my country.”
“The British government … is under pressure to do something concerning China, and to stand up for Hong Kong,” Mark said – though he added that those authorities are now in the difficult position of having to “strike a balance between confrontation and engagement with China.”