China shelves plans for London “super embassy”

The Chinese government has temporarily abandoned its plans for a “super embassy” in east London.

The plan, which had already been resisted by residents of the London borough of Tower Hamlets, including Tibetans, was effectively abandoned last week, after the Chinese government allowed the deadline for an appeal with the local council to expire. Beijing may still ask the UK government to intervene.

The Chinese government bought the site where it had hoped to place its new embassy in 2018, purchasing the Royal Mint building for £255m. The 200-year-old Grade-II listed building was used to make Britain’s coins until 1975, and with 65,000 square metres of space, is ten times the size of China’s existing embassy in central London.

The purchase initially prompted Free Tibet and other campaign groups to work with members of Tower Hamlets council that would have seen streets around the new embassy renamed “Tibet Hill”, “Tiananmen Square”, “Uyghur Court” and “Hong Kong Road”. The plan gained momentum when nearly 2,000 Free Tibet supporters sent letters to the local mayor and councillors, ensuring that the renaming project received financial backing and full debate by Tower Hamlets council in 2021.

Free Tibet outside Royal Mint Court in 2021

Free Tibet outside Royal Mint Court in 2021

But just as the plan began to unfold, there was a dramatic turn of events. In October 2022, a demonstration by pro-democracy activists outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester was interrupted when men emerged from the building and attacked a protester after dragging him inside the gates of the consulate.

Barely a month later, in December 2022, Tower Hamlets Council’s Strategic Development Committee met to carry out what would otherwise have been a formality: approving the Chinese government’s embassy plan. Instead, locals inundated the Council with objections, stressing that the new embassy could trigger a repeat of the Manchester incident.

Free Tibet staff joined the committee meeting to speak to journalists and councillors. During the committee meeting, staff heard how protests by groups such as Free Tibet were a key concern, with councillors noting the large demonstrations at the existing embassy and the likely security implications for the proposed new location.

After hours of evidence, questions and discussion, the council not only refused to give approval to the embassy project, but surprised those present by voting unanimously to block the plan.

The Chinese government were left hoping that Mayor of London Sadiq Khan or Housing Secretary Michael Gove would step in to reverse the decision, but neither have intervened.

Sensing it could not reverse the decision of Tower Hamlets Council, the Chinese government let the appeal period pass without any challenge.

It has, however, criticised the British government over the failed plan, and urged it to use its powers to force through the embassy plan “on the basis of reciprocity and mutual benefit”.

For the time being, Free Tibet will continue to carry out its protests at the existing embassy at Portland Place, central London.

We are Free Tibet, and we stand with Tibetans around the world. For their homeland, for their future and against China’s brutal occupation.