- The council of Tower Hamlets borough has backed a motion to rename streets nearby the area to ‘call out the CCP’s human rights violations’
- The move is the latest controversy to surround the site, where the Royal Mint was formerly located and where thousands of Bubonic Plague victims may be buried
China’s plans for a huge new embassy complex in the British capital faces more controversy, after the local authority in charge of approving the construction on the former Royal Mint site supported a motion to rename streets nearby to Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong Road, Uighur Court and Tibet Hill.
Councillor Rabina Khan, who seconded the motion on Wednesday evening, said she was delighted the Tower Hamlets London Borough Council was “making sure that we call out the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights violations against the Uygur Muslims, and also the fact we are standing for the people of Tibet and stand in solidarity with Hong Kong”.
The motion was approved on the condition the renaming process would not cost the council any money.
A request to fly the banned Tibetan flag at Tower Hamlets’ offices on March 10, the anniversary of a failed 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, was turned down by the borough’s mayor John Biggs, but Khan and Golds then held up the Tibetan flag outside the offices themselves.
Tower Hamlets has the largest Muslim population in the UK, with most of them originally from the Sylhet district of Bangladesh. The borough is also home to the glittering headquarters of HSBC bank at Canary Wharf.
From 1880 until the end of World War II, it was also home to London’s first Chinatown due to its proximity to the East India Docks, where tea and silks were shipped in from Asia.
The push to rename the streets comes as Beijing is in discussions with Tower Hamlets’ planning authorities on the proposals for the walled 2.2-hectare site for an estimated US$292 million.
China bought a site opposite the iconic Tower of London in 2018 with the aim of building Beijing’s largest overseas diplomatic mission. The former Chinese Ambassador Liu Xioaming earlier this year said in his parting address that the site was one of his proudest achievements in his 10 years of holding the post.
The fortresslike site includes an 1810 building where until the middle of the last century, coins were minted for the UK and the former British Empire.
The Royal Mint received tonnes of silver that China was forced to pay as part of settlements to Britain, including the “unfair treaties” that ended the opium wars and made Hong Kong a British colony.
The motion submitted to the council on Wednesday also raised concerns about another little-known fact surrounding the historic building. It stands on the site where possibly thousands of victims of the 1347-1351 bubonic plague, or Black Death pandemic, that wiped out a quarter of London’s population are buried.
Another Tower Hamlets councillor, Conservative Peter Golds, is lobbying British Heritage, which is in charge of the UK’s historic sites, to ensure that a proper survey of the plague pits will be undertaken before any work on the Chinese embassy begins.
British planning authorities must take archaeology into consideration when determining planning applications, and in cases such as the former Royal Mint site, it would be normal for excavation and recording of archaeological evidence to be undertaken.
Councillors have also raised concerns about the Chinese embassy building possibly becoming a terrorism target as well as a magnet for political protests.
In a pre-application planning meeting in Tower Hamlets last month, Councillor Andrew Wood said: “My major concern is the public realm outside the embassy. We are guaranteed to have hopefully peaceful protests outside the embassy on a regular basis. We need to plan ahead for where protesters are likely to gather.
“My second concern is about terrorism. What we will have in this part of London is some of the most likely terrorist targets in London. Opposite this site we have got the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, the City of London nearby, St Katharine Docks and then the embassy itself. We, together with the embassy, need to be thinking about security precautions.”
Beijing has yet to comment on the motion to rename the streets.
“The current Royal Mint Court Estate offers nothing to the local economy and areas behind have been used as fly-tipping sites sporadically. We want to bring new footfall and spending to the local area, with workers at the embassy visiting local businesses,” the embassy said in a recent letter to local residents.
Not all residents are opposed to the siting of the embassy in the borough.
“It’s quite exciting, but I’m just a bit disappointed about the design of the building,” said Julian Cole, owner of the boutique Cable Street Inn which is around the corner to the new site. “I was rather hoping the style would be Chinese and we would have our own Forbidden City.”
According to a presentation to the council, the huge complex will include shops and a cultural centre, as well as offices for about 300 embassy workers.