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London says no to a big Chinese Embassy, in a blow to Beijing ties

The Royal Mint Court office complex, bought by the Chinese government for 255 million pounds ($311 million) in May 2018, in London, on Friday. China's controversial plan to build a new embassy on the site near the Tower of London was rejected in a Tower Hamlets council meeting on Thursday.
Hollie Adams/Bloomberg/Getty Images
The Royal Mint Court office complex, bought by the Chinese government for 255 million pounds ($311 million) in May 2018, in London, on Friday. China's controversial plan to build a new embassy on the site near the Tower of London was rejected in a Tower Hamlets council meeting on Thursday.

LONDON — Local officials in London overwhelmingly rejected plans for a massive, new Chinese Embassy on Thursday.

The decision over the long-planned project is a bitter setback for the Chinese government, which currently operates its embassy out of a townhouse in central London. It also comes as a once-promising "golden era" in relations between the two countries has deteriorated in recent years.

In turning down the Chinese government's plans, councilors in the London borough of Tower Hamlets cited the need to protect 14th century ruins inside the proposed embassy grounds as well as concerns about potential terrorist attacks, public protests and traffic jams. The 870,000-square-foot complex was to be housed inside the United Kingdom's old Royal Mint near the Tower of London and was to be the biggest embassy in the country.

Hundreds of demonstrators gather outside the Chinese Embassy in London on Saturday to protest the Chinese government's "zero-COVID" policy. Participants also hold blank sheets of white paper to express their dissatisfaction toward the leadership of Chinese Communist Party and demand that its leader, Xi Jinping, step down.
/ Alexander Mak/NurPhoto/Reuters
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Alexander Mak/NurPhoto/Reuters
Hundreds of demonstrators gather outside the Chinese Embassy in London on Saturday to protest the Chinese government's "zero-COVID" policy. Participants also hold blank sheets of white paper to express their dissatisfaction toward the leadership of Chinese Communist Party and demand that its leader, Xi Jinping, step down.

But it's not just about protecting old ruins

"It was a big defeat for them tonight," said Peter Golds, a local council member, referring to the Chinese government. "I'm absolutely delighted. It's real people power."

While local officials focused on planning concerns, speakers at the hearing also raised political ones, including Chinese officials' behavior on British soil and their human rights record at home. They cited Chinese consular staff beating a pro-democracy protester inside consulate grounds in Manchester in October.

They also raised the Chinese government's incarceration of an estimated 1 million Uyghurs in detention camps in western China and its crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Among the speakers was Simon Cheng, a Hong Kong activist who was detained by Chinese mainland authorities in 2019 while working for the British Consulate in Hong Kong and eventually fled to London.

Simon Cheng, an activist from Hong Kong in exile in Britain, speaks at a rally at Parliament Square in London on June 12. Thousands of Hong Kongers in London gathered in support of a pro-democratic social movement in Hong Kong.
/ Hesther Ng/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
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Hesther Ng/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
Simon Cheng, an activist from Hong Kong in exile in Britain, speaks at a rally at Parliament Square in London on June 12. Thousands of Hong Kongers in London gathered in support of a pro-democratic social movement in Hong Kong.

"We should not compromise and grant an authoritarian state the power to upgrade their facilities to suppress dissenting thoughts in the U.K.," Cheng said after the decision.

Local councilor argues the decision was based on the merits

Councilor Shafi Ahmed insisted the council had made its decision based on the merits.

But in his area of Tower Hamlets, which has a large Muslim population, the community also sympathizes with the persecuted Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in China.

When asked about China's policies toward the Uyghurs, Ahmed said he felt "disheartened, broken."

The Chinese government, which spent more than $300 million to buy the empty property, did not have an immediate comment on the decision. At a ceremony celebrating the purchase in 2018, Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador to London at the time, praised the acquisition as a milestone in Chinese-British relations.

"I hope our two countries will work together to write a new chapter for the China-U.K. 'golden era,'" Liu said.

Earlier this week, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declared that era was over.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks at the Lord Mayor's Banquet at the Guildhall in London on Monday, making his first major foreign policy speech as prime minister.
/ Jason Alden/Bloomberg/Getty Images
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Jason Alden/Bloomberg/Getty Images
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks at the Lord Mayor's Banquet at the Guildhall in London on Monday, making his first major foreign policy speech as prime minister.

The Chinese government can still appeal the rejection of its embassy plan to the British government.

NPR's London producer Morgan Ayre contributed to this story.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.