China’s plans for giant new London embassy unexpectedly rejected by local officials on security grounds | CNN



China’s plans for a massive new embassy opposite the Tower of London have been unanimously rejected by local councilors as posing a security risk to local residents.

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets had indicated it was preparing to wave goodbye to proposals from the embassy’s architect, David Chipperfield, as late as Wednesday. “on this basis, officials have advised that a building permit and a monumental building permit be issued.”

But at a marathon meeting that lasted late into the night on Thursday, the council was persuaded to block the proposals because they posed a risk to local people’s safety and would impede traffic in this densely populated part of east London, close to the capital’s financial district and a stone’s throw from Tower Bridge.

A spokesman for Tower Hamlets Council told CNN: “The committee decided to reject the application due to concerns about the impact on the safety of residents and tourists, the heritage, police resources and the overcrowded nature of the area. The application will now be referred to the Mayor of London before a final decision is made.”

The council’s decision puts the UK government in a difficult position. It could use its powers to “invoke” the plans and override the city council’s decision, which could be politically controversial; or refrain from intervening and risk antagonizing Beijing.

China bought the historic plot, dubbed Royal Mint Court, in 2018 for about $312 million from a real estate company, planning to convert most of the 2.4-acre plot into a super-sized diplomatic mission, with space for hundreds staff and a cultural exchange. Formerly owned by the British monarchy, Royal Mint Court was once home to the factory that manufactured Britain’s coins.

Among those speaking at the council meeting was David Lake, president of the Royal Mint Court Residents’ Association, representing 100 families whose apartments are now on Chinese-owned land next to what would have been the embassy’s rear perimeter wall.

Thursday’s decision came the day after CNN revealed that Lake King had written to Charles to highlight residents’ concerns and request that the Crown repurchase the rights to the land from their property after multiple, fruitless appeals to local and national legislators.

When it still owned the land about 30 years ago, the Crown Estate, which manages the British monarchy’s non-private property holdings, built a series of low-rise apartments on part of the site as part of a government scheme to provide homes for “key workers” such as police officers and nurses. Queen Elizabeth II was pictured opening the estate in 1989.

Owners of the new apartments were given a 126-year lease on the land, a common practice in UK property law whereby residents own the bricks and mortar of their property, but another entity, a leaseholder – now China – owns the land on which it is built. built.

The rejection of the plans at the local level – while the national government was reluctant to get involved – is likely to embarrass Beijing at a time when the behavior of Chinese diplomats is under scrutiny after a protester stormed the country’s consulate in Manchester dragged in and beaten.

Police in Manchester are currently investigating the episode. Consul General Zheng Xiyuan said he acted because he found the protester’s posters offensive to his home country.

China has also recently been accused of effectively using its diplomatic outposts and loosely affiliated community associations as overseas police stations to track Chinese citizens abroad and force them to return home. UK lawmakers have expressed concern over reports of three such properties in the UK.

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry told CNN the purchase of the new London property was “in line with international practice and approved by the British side”.

“The planning and approval of the new premises of the Chinese Embassy in the UK was carried out on the basis of compliance with local laws and regulations regarding construction planning,” the spokesperson’s statement read.

“It should be noted that it is the international obligation of the host country to facilitate and support the construction of diplomatic buildings, and China urges the British side to fulfill its relevant obligations.”

CNN has also approached the Chinese embassy in London for comment.

The Chinese embassy’s proposals were met with fierce opposition from locals in this part of London, concerned about the impact of potential protests outside the complex and inadequate protection against a potential terrorist attack. Many complained repeatedly that they were not adequately informed by the Chinese advisers when they were preparing the blueprints for the site.

During the debate, Tower Hamlets councilors heard people living nearby express fears and concerns about being spied on, hacked or monitored.

Residents repeatedly questioned the council’s procurement of a contractor, who was brought in to independently assess the embassy’s impact on the safety of local residents, who they said already worked for the Chinese project and was therefore at odds.

Simon Cheng, a prominent Hong Kong activist from Tower Hamlets, delivered an impassioned speech, decrying the lack of local consultation on the project and paying scant attention to Beijing’s track record of spying on Chinese people traveling to countries like Britain have fled.

“Many people from communities like mine are not even aware of what is coming to the area. The planning application does not provide a high level of certainty about cybersecurity and could endanger human lives,” said Cheng.

After the decision by the Tower Hamlets, Lake, president of the residents’ association, told CNN: “This shows that you have to stand your ground, even if it’s against a superpower like China.”

“However, we know this is only the first round,” said Lake, who launched a crowdfunding page on Thursday to raise money for what he expects will degenerate into a legal battle over the terms of his estate’s leases and who the owner.

China’s planning representatives can appeal the decision or submit alternative plans for review.

Beijing can also more discreetly seek support from Britain’s central government in Westminster, where China has often reminded decision-makers of the economic ties that underlie UK-China relations.

Last month, a minister from the UK’s Department for Leveling Up, Housing and Communities indicated that the government could use its powers to submit the application for further scrutiny at a national level. It is unclear whether Thursday evening’s decision by the city council will change the government’s position.

However, the UK’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, recently signaled that the “golden era” of trade between the two countries was over, saying China would instead be viewed with “robust pragmatism”.

By rejecting the Chinese embassy’s grand designs, local officials in a London neighborhood this week put that “robust pragmatism” to the test for the first time.

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