Sinlung /
23 March 2021

As the Chinese embassy in London prepares to move into its new location...

Councilors voted to consider naming roads and buildings in the surrounding area of the site Tiananmen Square, Uyghur Court, Hong Kong Road, and Tibet Hill.

Tiananmen Square, Uyghur Court: Tower Hamlets plans name changes in solidarity

As the Chinese embassy prepares to move in, councillors vote to support the ‘freedom and diversity of our borough’

view of the Royal Mint building in Tower Hamlets, London
The Royal Mint building on Little Tower Hill in London has been purchased by the Chinese government to house its UK embassy. Photograph: Nigel Bowles/Alamy
By Haroon Siddique

At the handing-over ceremony for the site in the East End of London where the Chinese embassy is to be relocated, the ambassador boldly proclaimed that it would “write a new chapter for a China-UK golden era”.

Three years later, before the redevelopment has begun, those hopes appear in tatters after councillors in Tower Hamlets voted to consider naming roads and buildings in the surrounding area of the site Tiananmen Square, Uyghur Court, Hong Kong Road and Tibet Hill, to assert “support for the freedom and diversity of our borough”.

In a move that is likely to infuriate the Chinese government, the councillors said they welcomed the relocation of the embassy from the West End but “we must continue to make clear where our own standards and principles apply”.The motion was passed after months of campaigning by opposition councillors for the local authority to issue a statement about human rights abuses by China, in light of Beijing’s purchase of the Royal Mint site in the borough for its embassy. The repression of Uighur Muslims is particularly sensitive for Tower Hamlets, which has the highest proportion of Muslim residents (38%) of any borough, according to the latest census.

The motion states: “This council resolves that Tower Hamlets council investigates whether roads or possibly new buildings near the location of the proposed Chinese embassy could be renamed appropriately as acts of solidarity with historic symbols or placenames of Chinese significance; for example Tiananmen Square, Tibet Hill, Uyghur Court, Hong Kong Road and/or Xiaobo Road (in memory of Liu Xiaobo).”

Liu, a Nobel laureate and democracy campaigner, died in Chinese custody aged 61 in 2017, having been sentenced to an 11-year jail term for demanding an end to one-party rule.

The motion also notes that the Chinese embassy in the UK has written to a number of schools in the area to explore opportunities for potential collaboration, and calls for the nature of this to be ascertained to ensure it reflects the borough’s “proud history of standing up for each other as one community and celebrating our differences”.

It extends a welcome in the borough to Hong Kong residents taking up British citizenship under a new visa scheme and says the council will investigate what other actions it can take to show solidarity.

It is a far cry from the March 2018 handing-over ceremony for the historic Royal Mint site facing the Tower of London, when China’s ambassador Liu Xiaoming said the embassy would become “a new landmark in London” and the Tower Hamlets mayor, John Biggs, said the move showed the borough was “an open and dynamic place to live and work”.

Since then China has faced international condemnation of its repression of the predominantly Muslim Uighur people and clampdown on dissent in Hong Kong.

There have been heightened tensions between China and the west of late. Last year the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, condemned what he called “gross and egregious” human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang region, and last week he accused China of breaching the legal deal over the governance of Hong Kong.

The Liberal Democrat councillor Rabina Khan, who proposed the council motion, said: “Tower Hamlets has a unique history of welcoming people and at Wednesday’s full council meeting politicians unanimously came together on the amended motion that whilst we welcome the proposed relocation of the Chinese embassy, we also stand up against the CCP’s [Chinese Communist party’s] human rights violations.”

The motion assures the borough’s constituents that there will be no financial cost to them associated with the naming of the roads or buildings.

Last month council officers raised concerns about a separate issue in relation to the embassy: the impact on views of the Tower of London.

In a previous statement to the Guardian, the Chinese embassy in the UK said the new building would be a symbol of a “robust relationship” between the countries and that people should “stop using human rights as an excuse to interfere in China’s internal affairs”.

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