A senior Chinese diplomat involved in the recent violence against pro-democracy protesters in Manchester has suggested Chinese students in Britain should “resist distorting and discrediting” China’s Covid policies.
The comments by China’s consul general in Manchester, Zheng Xiyuan, at a symposium to discuss the work of international students were said by Lyndon Lee, 23, a second-year law student at the University of York, to appear threatening.
Zheng was filmed in October pulling the hair of a protester, Bob Chan, who had been dragged into the grounds of the consulate where he was kicked and punched to such a degree that he required hospital treatment.
An official account of the student symposium last week, posted on a WeChat social media account used to share information with the university’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), reported Zheng as championing the “remarkable advantages” of China’s socialist system.
“Students are invited to fully understand and believe in the great significance behind every decision made by the party and the government, and consciously resist distorting and discrediting China’s epidemic prevention and control policies, so as to jointly win this regular epidemic prevention and control battle,” the account reports.
Lee said he took Zheng’s remarks to be an attempt to chill debate in the UK. He said: “It is put as a request but that is not how things work in China. It is threatening. They should not be trying to influence the way international students act, to tell them what to do and say. Where is the freedom of expression?”
There have been protests in recent days by Chinese citizens studying in the UK who have wished to show solidarity with those at home who have taken to the streets in rejection of Beijing’s Covid rules.
Demonstrators had called for an end to restrictions, and their calls appear in recent days to have hit home. There has also been anger directed at the authoritarian government and its leader, Xi Jinping.
Chen Wei, a counsellor at the consulate who was also at the scene when Chan was beaten, also addressed the symposium, to welcome the work of Chinese student societies.
The account reported that Wei “pointed out that for a long time, the CSSAs in the consulate have assisted the consulate general to actively carry out preventive consular propaganda and consular protection, and have done a lot of work to ensure the safety of Chinese students.”
Lee said the comments provided further evidence that the societies were being used as tools of the Communist party. In 2019, the Commons foreign affairs select committee highlighted the role of CSSAs as an instrument of political interference.
Greater Manchester police, who have been investigating the situation at the Chinese consulate, said two weeks ago that they had identified a number of offences including assaults and public order offences.
Zheng was seen grabbing a protester in front of the consulate by the hair and ripping down posters. He said at the time: “I didn’t beat anybody. I didn’t let my people beat anybody. The fact is, the so-called protesters beat my people.”
When asked about the footage of him seemingly pulling Chan by the hair, Zheng added: “The man abused my country, my leader – I think it’s my duty. I think it’s an emergency situation – that guy threatened my colleague’s life and we tried to control the situation. I wanted to separate him from my colleagues – that’s a very critical point.”
The Chinese embassy did not respond to a request for comment.