China plans to refurbish the building and establish its biggest diplomatic mission in the world at the site, set just back from the River Thames on the outskirts of London’s financial center. It could be years until the embassy actually moves, but it’s already facing opposition from some local councilors and residents.
But accounts of abuse at the camps — including forced labor, forced sterilizations of women and sexual assault — are growing.
“I’m very perplexed as to why the People’s Republic of China would want to be on the edges of a neighborhood that is so multi-ethnic, multi-religious. The Muslim community has a large base here,” said Mo Rakib, a Muslim resident who is active in community affairs.
“The Muslim community is very linked with each other, regardless of what part of the world we’re from. There’s always a feeling of affinity from one community to the other based on shared values and shared faith. And that’s no different for the Uyghur community.”
Some local opposition councilors say that they too are concerned about the implications of embassy’s move and want the issue debated at council meetings. But they don’t outright oppose the mission coming into their neighborhood.
What’s playing out at this borough and its council isn’t so different from what’s happening in the UK’s national government, as well as those of many other democracies, for that matter — striking the right balance between reaping the economic benefits of working with China and criticizing it for rights abuses is difficult.
The motion calls on the council to send a letter to Chinese Ambassador Liu Xiaoming expressing its concerns over the country’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslims, as well as its clampdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
“What we want is to send a message to China that if they move here, they need to be aware that our borough — in all of its diversity — is a place where we’re very proud to stand up for human rights,” Khan said.
Biggs said in a statement to CNN that Tower Hamlets was “open and tolerant” but also wants “to be good partners and support good relationships.”
He acknowledged, however, that he and the community were concerned about China’s rights record, “in particular the appalling treatment of the largely Muslim Uyghurs,” and that it was right to challenge the Chinese government on the issue.
In a statement, the Chinese embassy in London said the move had “approval and support from the UK government” and that “the relocation of the Chinese embassy to [Tower Hamlets] will bring more vitality into the area.”
The embassy added that the “Chinese government attaches great importance to safeguarding human rights,” and said critics should “abandon their lies and deceptive words on Hong Kong and Xinjiang” and “stop using human rights as an excuse to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.
Trade vs. Rights
Demonstrators on Thursday gathered in dozens of cities around the world to protest China’s treatment of certain groups in the country, including Uyghurs, Tibetans and people in Hong Kong.
One of the organizers, Rahima Mahmut from the World Uyghur Congress in London, said countries were choosing trade over human rights.
“It’s very obvious that trade relationships are being prioritized, not just in the UK. We see this in African countries and China’s neighboring countries that are already trapped in debt to China. And Turkey too. Turkey was the country that we Uyghurs always felt we could rely on or seek refuge in,” said Mahmut, a Uyghur who left Xinjiang in 1997.
The UK took some action against China following its implementation of the National Security Law for Hong Kong, which has stifled a pro-democracy movement in the former British colony. Westminster opened a pathway for citizenship for Hong Kong residents with the right to a British National Overseas passport, which includes potentially 3 million Hong Kongers.
The UK has also condemned China several times over the camps in Xinjiang, including at the recent UN Rights Council meeting, where the Foreign Office’s junior minister Tariq Ahmad called on Beijing to allow a UN team “unfettered access” to Xinjiang to investigate allegations of abuse there.
But activists like Mahmut say they want so see the UK go further and impose sanctions on the people and organizations running the camps in Xinjiang.
China has shown that it’s not afraid to wield retaliatory economic tools in response to political pressure, as it did in the case of Australia, imposing tariffs of 80% on barley imports soon after Prime Minister Scott Morrison led calls for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, which was first reported in central China late last year. Beijing said that the tariffs were in response to Australia selling the grain too cheaply.
There are calls by opposition parties in the UK to do the same, but Steve Tsang, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies’ (SOAS) China Institute in London, said the US may struggle to get its usual allies to follow its lead.
“What would be useful is if countries, not just in Europe, but if all countries that care about human rights and ethical trading insist they will stop working with companies operating in Xinjiang unless they can independently verify the supply chain conditions,” he said.
“But the Trump administration has discredited itself in terms of moral leadership. I mean, who believes Donald Trump when he says he defends human rights?”
While Tsang does see the public growing more interested in the Uyghur issue, he says more evidence needs to come out about the alleged abuse in Xinjiang to really galvanize a public response that will force governments to confront China more aggressively.
In Tower Hamlets, councilors are mulling how to welcome the opportunities the new embassy will bring to their neighborhood while sending a clear message to Beijing that it does not approve of rights abuses.
One of them, Andrew Wood, suggested a symbolic gesture to show support for people who have challenged Beijing, such as the student protesters of Tiananmen Square in 1989, or the people of Taiwan seeking formal independence from China.
“There is a little lane near the embassy site that doesn’t have a name. We’re wondering if we could call it Tiananmen Road or Taipei Road. It might be just one way of sending a message that governments have to look after all their people.”
This story has been updated with a comment from the Chinese embassy in London.