Steerpike Steerpike

Will Beijing block Britain’s embassy?

Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

It’s not been the best few years for Sino-British relations, what with Huawei, Hong Kong and the whole Covid thing. So it was no surprise when, last month, Tower Hamlets council voted to block China’s new ‘super-embassy,’ with councillors citing security fears and the concerns of local residents. The borough of Tower Hamlets is more than 38 per cent Muslim: many constituents were outraged by the ongoing atrocities by the Chinese Communist Party against Uyghur Muslims.

The local authority’s decision has been greeted with delight by many Sinosceptics – but not by some in the Foreign Office. Mr S understands that mandarins there are privately fearful about what happens if the proposed Tower Hamlets site is blocked because London is currently trying to get an upgrade to Britain’s own embassy in Beijing through the local planning processes there. In colourful language, one Whitehall source said the department was ‘shitting themselves’ about the project, which was first announced by Philip Hammond in January 2016.

In November 2020, Liu Xiaoming, the-then Chinese Ambassador to the UK, wrote to the mayor of Tower Hamlets last month explicitly linking the two projects. Asked for an update on the progress of the Beijing site, the Foreign Office declined to provide a comment. A Chinese Ministry Foreign Affairs spokesman told a press conference last month that ‘host countries have the international obligation to facilitate and support the building of premises of diplomatic missions. The Chinese side urges the UK side to fulfil its relevant obligation.’

Good luck to Sir Humphrey in handling this one. Still it could be worse: a previous incarnation of Britain’s embassy in Beijing was burnt down during Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution.

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Steerpike is The Spectator's gossip columnist, serving up the latest tittle tattle from Westminster and beyond. Email tips to or message @MrSteerpike

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