Photography: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
China’s consul general in Manchester and five other diplomats have returned home and will escape police questioning for their role in the beating of a pro-Hong Kong democracy protester outside the city’s consulate on October 16.
The Chinese, citing diplomatic immunity, decided to recall the diplomats after the British Foreign Office gave the embassy a week to make the diplomats available for questioning by British police.
Tory MPs reacted furiously, saying the diplomats should have been expelled weeks ago, rather than let the matter drag on for two months.
Related: Ministers urged to expel Chinese diplomat over violent Manchester protests
Iain Duncan Smith, a former cabinet minister, said: “The blatant assault on peaceful democracy protesters in Manchester requires more than allowing those responsible to walk out of the UK uncharged with their heads held high. Letting China take them back is not justice. We should have kicked them out weeks ago.
Other MPs say the diplomats should have been declared persona non grata given the evidence against them.
The departure of Consul General Zheng Xiyuan was announced by British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who seems unlikely to take further action, even though he considers the beatings shameful.
The embassy claimed the protesters entered the consulate compound illegally, but video footage shows staff dragging a protester by the hair into the consulate compound. Zheng later said it was his duty to defend his leader, Xi Jinping.
In a statement, Cleverly said: “Features circulating on social media showed what appeared to be completely unacceptable behavior by a number of individuals near the entrance to the consular premises. The right to freedom of expression – including the right to protest and speak out – is absolutely essential to our democratic life.
Cleverly said he had asked the Chinese Embassy to waive diplomatic immunity to allow the talks to continue, but “the Chinese Embassy, acting on instructions from Beijing, notified His Majesty’s Government that the consul-general’s duties in Manchester came to an end and he returned to China.
“The Embassy has further informed us that other staff involved in the incident whom the police wish to interview have either left the UK or will do so soon.”
Defending his approach and expressing his disappointment that the diplomats have not been brought to justice, Cleverly said: “We have been clear with China from the start that we are ready to take firm action if the police determine that he “There were grounds to charge officials for their involvement in the incident. We expect a certain standard of behavior from all foreign diplomats and consular staff in the UK, regardless of their privileges and immunities.”
He added that it was right that due process was involved and that the police began their investigation first.
But the pace of the police investigation gave the Chinese every chance to downplay the incident by sending them home once an official request to question them was made.
Britain is trying to improve relations with China, and both sides may have preferred not to escalate what was already a worsening diplomatic incident.
British officials said that given the seriousness of the matter, it was correct and appropriate for Greater Manchester Police to take the decision to open an investigation. They stressed that it was right for the UK to be seen as upholding the rule of law, following due process and respecting the operational independence of our police.
Chris Sykes, Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, said police were continuing their investigation. “They have also successfully identified a number of offences, including numerous assaults and breaches of public order, as well as potential suspects and victims that we would like to speak with in relation to the incident.
“No arrests have yet been made but our investigations will continue as long as necessary with the support of partners.”
The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations allows states to withdraw members of a consular post at any time.
In a letter to Manchester Police, Zheng said protesters displayed slogans “deliberately designed to provoke, harass, alarm and distress our consular staff”. He said activists were “politely asked” to remove the footage “but refused to do so”.
In another video previously released by the embassy, a spokesperson said: “Providing shelter to independent elements in Hong Kong will, in the end, only bring disaster to Britain.”
He said he wanted to “remind” people of Aesop’s fable of the farmer and the snake, “where the farmer showed sympathy to the snake but was finally bitten”.
He went on to explain at length how dependent the UK was on China as the third largest trading partner and “first source of imports”.
“UK exports to China have also increased strongly, so we see this relationship as a win-win and mutually beneficial,” he said.