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LONDON — Local authorities in London flatly rejected plans for a massive, new Chinese embassy on Thursday.
The decision on the long-planned project is a bitter blow to the Chinese government, which currently operates its embassy from a townhouse in central London. It also comes after a once-promising “golden era” in relations between the two countries has soured in recent years.
In rejecting the Chinese government’s plans, councilors in London’s Tower Hamlets cited the need to protect the 14th-century ruins within the proposed embassy, as well as concerns about potential terrorist attacks. public protests and traffic jams. The 870,000 square foot complex was to be housed in the old UK Royal Mint near the Tower of London and was to be the country’s largest embassy.
But it’s not just about protecting old ruins
“It was a big defeat for them tonight,” said Peter Golds, a local councillor, referring to the Chinese government. “I’m absolutely delighted. It’s real people power.”
While local officials focused on planning issues, speakers at the hearing also raised political ones, including the behavior of Chinese officials on British soil and their respect for human rights at home. They referred to Chinese beating of consular staff a pro-democracy protester at the consulate building in Manchester in October.
They also raised the issue of the Chinese government’s imprisonment of an estimated 1 million Uyghurs in detention camps in western China and its crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Among the speakers was Simon Cheng, an activist from Hong Kong who was detained by Chinese authorities in 2019 while working for the British Consulate in Hong Kong and eventually fled to London.
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“We must not compromise and give an authoritarian state the power to upgrade their facilities to suppress dissent in the UK,” Cheng said after the ruling.
The local councilor argued that the decision was on the merits
Councilor Shafi Ahmed insisted the council made its decision based on merit.
But in his Tower Hamlets area, which has a large Muslim population, the community also sympathizes with the persecuted Uighurs, China’s predominantly Muslim ethnic minority.
Asked about China’s policy towards the Uyghurs, Ahmed said he felt “discouraged, broken”.
The Chinese government, which spent more than $300 million to buy the vacant property, did not immediately comment on the decision. At a ceremony to mark the purchase in 2018, Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to London at the time, hailed the acquisition as a milestone in Sino-British relations.
“I hope our two countries will work together to write a new chapter for the China-United ‘Golden Era’.” Liu said.
Earlier this week, the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that era is over.
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The Chinese government can still appeal the rejection of its embassy plan to the British government.
NPR London producer Morgan Ayre contributed to this story.