There are few keener eyewitnesses to British history than London’s Royal Mint Court. In 1348, Black Death decimated a quarter all Londoners. Thousands of people were then thrown into the huge plague pit. This burial ground was dedicated as a Cistercian Abbey, then became a Royal Navy chandlering yard and, later, a tobacco warehouse. It was only in 1809 that the site adopted the function that today still bears its name, when the smelting of silver and gold coinage announced Britain as the world’s predominant military and financial superpower.
Those days are long gone, of course, though the Royal Mint Court—tucked inside London’s raffish East End, gazing toward Tower Bridge and the 11th century Tower of London—continues to serve as a barometer of our time. Now, however, it’s the world’s rising superpower that will write the next chapter: China, which purchased the site for $250 million in 2018 to house its new U.K. Embassy, its largest in Europe and, in a perhaps notable augury, a third bigger than London’s new U.S. Embassy four miles away. The proposal to redevelop the 700,000.ft site was filed in June. However, planning permission has yet not been granted. It will probably take many years for the building to become occupied.
The upgrade was needed to create a “welcoming public face for China,” according to the architect commissioned in 2020 to lead the refurbishment, with office space and staff accommodation far exceeding its current premises in Marylebone. Locals have been less welcoming, however, and ever since the sale have voiced their opposition to the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ensconcing themselves in this storied landmark given Beijing’s ongoing abuses against Uyghur Muslims, Tibetans and the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong.
“It is disgraceful,” local community activist Mohammad Rakib tells TIME. “The government of China should not have been able to purchase such a prominent site. [By] sticking an unobstructed Chinese flag by Tower Bridge and the Tower of London… the authorities may as well have allowed neo-Nazis to occupy the building and fly a swastika from it.”
Such is the groundswell of opposition that last year local politicians for Tower Hamlets borough, where Royal Mint Court is situated, passed a cross-party motion in support of renaming nearby roads in commemoration of CCP atrocities, such as “Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong Road, Uyghur Court and Tibet Hill.” Councilor Rabina Khan, who proposed the motion, said it was to “stand up against the CCP’s human rights violations.”
In recent weeks, China’s support for Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine has only galvanized opposition. “For decades, China and Russia have collaborated on human rights abuses and suppression of civil liberties,” says Finn Lau, founder of pro-democracy advocacy group Hong Kong Liberty, who had previously helped organize a joint demonstrationAlong with Uyghur, Tibetan, and Uyghur activists, we are against this embassy. “And when you look at the timeline, Russia deliberately avoided invading Ukraine during the Winter Olympics [in Beijing], so they clearly had a deal.”
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Approached by TIME, a spokesperson for China’s U.K. embassy declined to comment on the controversy. However, in a letter to Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs last year, China’s outgoing Ambassador to the U.K. Liu Xiaoming said that the alleged abuses highlighted by the proposed street name changes were “all lies fabricated by a few irresponsible politicians and media from the West.”
Although Sino-U.K. relations are ostensibly set by central governments, Britain’s traditions of free speech provide myriad outlets for all strata of British society to register objections. Fans of Donald Trump’s baby blimp can confirm that they did not only troll the U.S. president on U.K. visit. Popular protest is an important aspect of democracy, but the Chinese state has struggled for years to understand it, despite being thinly veiled under President Xi Jinping.
“Gesture politics like renaming streets won’t have any real effect in terms of how the Chinese behave,” says Prof. Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. “But it will have a very strong negative effect on China’s relationship with the U.K. generally.”
An English member of “Hong Kong”, a community that lives in Manchester, shows solidarity with Ukraine’s people at a demonstration around Manchester’s central area on April 9.
Andrew McCoy—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
It has highlighted the challenges democracies must face in engaging with a regime on which they are financially dependent, but whose actions are completely unacceptable to the people they represent. China’s relationship with the U.K. had already been on a downward spiral following the exclusion of Chinese telecoms firm Huawei from Britain’s 5G network on national security grounds, as well as growing calls to block China’s state nuclear agency from its power grid. The war in Ukraine is giving China’s skeptics a new impetus, and they are now focusing on the proposed embassy. On April 29, a spokesman for China’s Foriegn Ministry hailed ties with Russia as “a new model of international relations.”
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“China is capable of doing something the old Soviet Union couldn’t do, which is to threaten us economically and militarily at the same time,” says Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative Party and a supporter of the Tower Hamlets motion. “Today, we’re dealing with Russia, but we’ve got an even bigger problem coming down the track, which is China.”
Street names politics
It is not uncommon for streets to be renamed around consular offices. A congressional proposal in 2016 to rename International Place NW outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. to “Liu Xiaobo Plaza,” after the now deceased democracy activist and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, only failed after the Obama Administration promised to veto the move. The 2020 Congress proposal to rename the same street after Wuhan whistleblower Dr Li Wenliang drew sharp criticism from Beijing.
China’s history has shown that it does the exact same thing. Following the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s, the Soviet Embassy in Beijing sat for a while on “Oppose Revisionism Street,” though the name reverted after the Cultural Revolution. Another road in the Beijing’s foreign legation quarter was renamed “Anti-Imperialist Street” around the same time, while there was an official campaign to have any mail set to Hong Kong to be addressed to “Expel-the-Imperialists-City,” which the territory’s postal service even acquiesced to service.
However, it is clear that the renaming of central London streets with heritage properties and potentially billions of dollars worth of real estate will not be easy, regardless of the Tower Hamlets motion. There is however a slip road just outside Royal Mint Court, which currently has a taxi rank. The council could very easily “adopt” this 50-yard strip of tarmac and give it its own symbolic name without disrupting nearby stakeholders. This is the main focus of the campaign.
Tower Hamlets Councilor Andrew Wood says “Tiananmen Square” would be his preference for the new road’s name, since while passers-by would immediately recognize the reference to the 1989 massacre of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators, “for the Chinese to object would mean explaining why it’s appropriate for a square in Beijing, but not here.” Not least since, according to the CCP’s official scrubbed narrative, “everything was fine and dandy and nothing really happened there,” he adds.
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However, some critics claim that this is outside the authority of any local council. They cannot interfere in foreign affairs. Wood even claims that he opposed a council motion in 2015 to recognize Somaliland, a breakaway African country. However, he argues that the embassy case is very different, given the Beijing government’s actions, particularly its erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong, are having a direct effect here.
When the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, it was under an agreement that the territory would enjoy significant autonomy for 50 years in an arrangement dubbed “One Country, Two Systems.” However, Beijing’s arrest of pro-democracy activists and imposition of a draconian new National Security Law has shredded that accord, prompting the U.K. government last year to launch a new visa program to potentially allow almost three million Hong Kongers to apply for a five-year British visa and a route to citizenship beyond. In March, the program had been used to grant visas to 103,900 Hong Kongers.
Hong Kong, today’s largest source of property ownership in Tower Hamlets, is also the most important. “So for us, it’s not just the embassy that’s an issue,” says Wood, who has been helping some new arrivals from Hong Kong resolve school placement issues. “Our community demographics are actually changing because of the actions of the Chinese government.”
China’s abuses against Muslims are likewise not abstract events here. This borough is home to 38% Muslims, the most of them either of Muslim heritage or practicing Islam. It is home to 47 mosques, including East London Mosque, Europe’s largest, which has welcomed worshippers for over a century. Royal Mint Court also sits toward the end of Cable Street, which is steeped in anti-racist lore after East End residents drove back a march of British fascist leader Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts in 1936.
“The Embassy represents the country, and that country is committing a genocide, terrorizing Tibetans and eradicating democracy in Hong Kong,” says Rahima Mahmut, a former Tower Hamlets resident and the U.K. director of the World Uyghur Congress. Also, she was present at 1989 Tiananmen square pro-democracy demonstrations. “So the least that we can do is remind people of the human rights abuses.”
Is this a hub for espionage
The nature of the work being done in Royal Mint Court is another concern. On Nov. 20, Richard Moore, the chief of British foreign intelligence service MI6, told the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London that Beijing is mounting “large-scale espionage operations” against the U.K. and its allies in order to steal technology and distort political decision-making. Calling the Chinese threat his “single greatest priority,” Moore said Chinese operatives were instructed to “monitor and attempt to exercise undue influence over the Chinese diaspora.”
In January, British domestic security service MI5 issued a rare warning that a 59-year-old legal adviser to the Chinese Embassy named Christine Lee was in fact an agent for the CCP’s foreign influence wing, the United Front Work Department. The statement alleged that Lee, a political networker who even received an award in 2019 from the U.K. prime minister’s office, has for almost three decades attempted to influence lawmakers and political parties by facilitating financial donations from China. (A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson dismissed the claims, saying that “certain people may have watched too many ‘007’ movies.”)
And China’s growing diplomatic presence is raising eyebrows. There were 94 Chinese diplomats in the U.K. back in 2010. This number rose to 116 by 2020 and is now at 121. There are also consulates of China in London, Belfast, and Edinburgh. It is not clear what these officials are doing. In 2019, a U.K. foreign affairs select committee report found “alarming evidence” of Chinese interference on British University campuses, some of which had been coordinated by the Chinese Embassy. “That the Chinese government trying to infiltrate us is a given,” says Tsang. “It is a Leninist party state and so infiltrates when and where it can. They are not being paid to do nothing.”
Locally, influence is also an issue. The Tower Hamlet motion to change street names noted that the Chinese Embassy had written to some neighborhood schools to explore opportunities for potential collaboration, and expressed worried that the CCP promoting its own aberrant ideas about ethnic harmony may chafe with the borough’s “proud history of standing up for each other as one community and celebrating our differences.”
Overall, there’s a huge question mark over what benefit residents get out of having the Embassy in their midst. It’s certainly not economic. The council could assess the area and charge a Community Infrastructure Levy to pay for transport improvements. However, because the borough has never had an embassy before, diplomatic usages weren’t included in the levy categories and so are currently exempt. Although the Chinese Embassy might attract additional Chinese investment, given that the borough is home to the U.K headquarters of HSBC, and Bank of China, it’s likely any increase in Chinese investment will be modest. “So we probably lose out financially slightly from the [Embassy] as compared to an office use as was originally planned,” says Wood. In a report published in January, Tower Hamlets Council’s director of community safety Ann Corbett also warned that protests around the embassy building are “inevitably likely to be very disruptive to residents and traffic.”
Planning permission for the site refurbishment still hasn’t been granted and therein lies another raft of problems. Due to national security concerns, installing an embassy is not like building an office block—many nations prefer to fly in developers from their homeland given that local contractors could install bugs or other vulnerabilities. The building must be gutted, and the sensitive areas of the building secured with a concrete shell. However, the Royal Mint Court still has centuries worth of historic artifacts hidden under its Greek Revival portico. Apart from the skeletons of Black Death dead, there are the original foundations of St Mary Graces Abbey and countless artifacts of “enormous historical importance,” says Tower Hamlets Councilor Peter Golds.
“The last thing I want is the Chinese government digging a great big hole in the ground and picking through historic remains that date from the 14th century,” says Golds. “And then plowing through the graves of several thousand Londoners who died in the Black Death.”
It is not clear how this valuable history could be kept while meeting security demands for China’s paranoid state. It’s incumbent upon Tower Hamlets to find a solution that works for all. Under British law, while planning approval is a local matter, the decision can be “called in” by either the Mayor of London or central government should they deem necessary. Given already frosty relations with the world’s number two economy, the British government may decide this is not a fight worth their while.
The council must have the final word on the name for the unadopted road. It could be Tiananmen Square or Uyghur Court, but it should not matter. Some remain positive. Wood believes that the community is strong enough to stop the Chinese from destroying it. It is possible that the opposite may be true. “Tower Hamlets is one of the most multi-ethnic, international places in the globe, let alone London,” he says. “So I think it would be good for the Chinese to see how that works.”
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