A senior Chinese diplomat in the UK has admitted to pulling a protester’s hair in a scuffle that is threatening to worsen relations between the countries.
In two interviews, Zheng Xiyuan, the Chinese consul-general in Manchester, acknowledged his involvement in the Sunday clash and sought to justify his actions by blaming demonstrators for erecting placards that ridiculed Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“I don’t attack anybody. I am there peacefully,” the diplomat said in an interview with Sky News on Wednesday. When the correspondent Inzamam Rashid pointed out it was not true as he was pictured yanking the hair of the protester, Zheng replied: “Because he abused my country, my leader. It’s my duty.”
“To pull his hair?” Rashid asked.
“Yeah, I think any diplomat, if faced with such kind of behavior, should maintain the dignity of country, of people,” Zheng said. The protester “threatened his colleague’s life,” and members of the consulate were trying to control the situation, he added.
In another interview with Manchester Evening News, Zheng accused protesters of displaying and shouting slogans that were “deliberately designed to provoke, harass, alarm and distress our consular staff.”
His extraordinary admission came as the diplomatic incident heightened tensions between China and the UK. Under pressure to defend citizens’ rights to protest, the British government has summoned a Chinese envoy and is considering further actions. The Chinese foreign ministry, on the other hand, has stood its ground. And a top Chinese official defended the country’s assertive approach to foreign policy on Thursday, saying its diplomats “dare to fight.”
Zheng and a group of men in protective vests and helmets—identified as consular staff in the UK Parliament—disrupted a peaceful protest against the Chinese Communist Party’s rule outside the consulate on Sunday. One man was kicked by protesters during the ensuing chaos, while a Hong Kong protester was dragged by multiple men into mission grounds and punched repeatedly.
Speaking in a press conference on Wednesday, the protester, Bob Chan, condemned the attack as “barbaric.” He and his wife fled from Hong Kong to the UK last year, as Beijing’s security crackdown on the semi-autonomous city vastly curtailed civil liberties and prompted a mass exodus.
He suffered injuries to his back and face, and was hospitalized after the assault. “I thought I might be beaten to death because once you’re through the gates, anything can happen,” he said. Under international law, embassy premises have special privileges and security forces cannot enter without permission.
Chan also rejected the Chinese foreign ministry’s claim that protesters had attempted to “storm” the embassy. “Let me say it again, so it is clear. I was dragged into the consulate. I did not attempt to enter the consulate,” he said, backing growing calls for the British government to expel the Chinese officials found involved in the assault.
Speaking in the same conference, Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of the governing Conservative Party and a critic of Beijing, said the UK government’s response is inadequate. The British had summoned China’s chargé d’affaires on Tuesday to demand an explanation, which Duncan Smith described as “a gentle rap on the knuckles.”
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the government would decide on the next steps once the police concluded its investigation. “My officials made it absolutely clear that this behavior was unacceptable, that this peaceful and lawful protest was an important part of our culture and values, and those must be respected,” Cleverly told LBC radio on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, China has lodged representations over what a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman called malicious harassment by lawless elements.
“To dare to fight is the spiritual character of Chinese diplomacy,” said China’s vice foreign minister, Ma Zhaoxu, speaking in a news conference, as the country’s top officials gather in Beijing for a twice-a-decade party congress that is expected to hand Xi an unprecedented third term.
“Chinese diplomacy will continue to display fighting spirit, improve our ability to fight, and always stand ready at the front line to protect our national interest and dignity,” he added.