China has withdrawn six UK diplomats, ahead of their likely expulsion following an attack on a pro-democracy protester in the grounds of the Chinese consulate in Manchester.
Ministers had asked Beijing to waive diplomatic immunity for its consular officials so police could question them about the October incident, in which Hong Kong demonstrator Bob Chan was injured.
Instead, China removed the group of diplomats from the UK on Wednesday, including consul-general Zheng Xiyuan.
The decision came 24 hours before Britain was expected to expel the group, according to UK government sources. “They knew exactly what we were going to do next,” said one.
Foreign secretary James Cleverly said he was “disappointed that these individuals will not be interviewed or face justice”, referring to the officials.
“Nonetheless, it is right that those responsible for the disgraceful scenes in Manchester are no longer — or will shortly cease to be — consular staff accredited to the UK,” he added in a written parliamentary statement.
Chan, a Hong Konger, had been among a crowd of around 40 pro-democracy protesters outside the Manchester consulate on October 16, when he was dragged into its grounds and attacked by a group of men.
The consul-general was pictured pulling Chan into the grounds by the hair in the incident. He later said the protesters were being violent and that it was his “duty” to take action as a result.
The Chinese embassy in London called the protest at its Manchester consulate “a violent disruptive provocation” and accused the British government of failing to protect “the safety and dignity” of its premises.
A spokesman said: “The Chinese consul general in Manchester has completed his term of office and has returned to China on instruction not long ago. This is a normal rotation of Chinese consular officials.”
Greater Manchester police launched an investigation following the incident. Earlier this month, the Foreign Office requested the Chinese government waive diplomatic immunity for Zheng and five other men so they could be interviewed by law enforcement authorities.
When that permission was not forthcoming, Cleverly is said by colleagues to have concluded that he had no choice but to expel the diplomats, an announcement had been planned for Thursday. Beijing had been forewarned of what was about to happen.
British sources said that China was embarrassed by the behaviour of its staff in Manchester and accepted that it was better to “take back some agency” by removing its officials before Cleverly declared them personae non gratae.
Chan welcomed the outcome. “While it may have taken two months for this to happen, I believe this is one way of solving this complicated diplomatic problem,” he said.
“I relocated to this country with my family to live freely. What happened on 16 October 2022 was unacceptable and illegal and the withdrawal of these Chinese diplomats gives me a sense of closure.”
The apparent diplomatic compromise will help to de-escalate the situation and avoid “tit-for-tat” expulsions of British diplomats from Beijing, while fitting into a more general attempt by London and China to reduce tensions in their relationship.
UK prime minister Rishi Sunak said in his first big foreign policy speech last month: “We cannot simply ignore China’s significance in world affairs — to global economic stability or issues like climate change.”
In words that concerned some China hawks in the Conservative party, Sunak told his audience in the City of London that the west would collectively “manage this sharpening competition, including with diplomacy and engagement”.
Greater Manchester police said it was continuing its investigation.