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Why China’s plans to move its UK embassy to historic Royal Mint Court sparked a row

Had China managed to shift its embassy here, it would have been the largest in the UK. Here's why local residents are opposing it.

Notably, this comes at a time when China is battling a wave of protests against its brutal zero-Covid strategy and rare calls for Chinese President Xi Jinping to step down. (AP/File)

China’s controversial plan to shift its embassy in the United Kingdom to the historic Royal Mint Court estate was rejected by local authorities on Thursday. Constructed over two centuries ago and once owned by the British monarchy, the Royal Mint Court was purchased by Beijing in 2018.

China hoped to move its embassy to east London from Portland Place in central London. But many of the estate’s current residents objected to China’s ambitious plan, citing security and privacy concerns.

What is the Royal Mint Court?

Located opposite the Tower of London, the 5.4-acre plot was home to the Royal Mint from 1809 to 1967. Before that, it was the site of a Black Death plague cemetery and was later used by the Royal Navy, BBC reported.

When the monarchy still owned the land about 30 years ago, it decided to build apartments for ‘key workers’ like police officers and nurses, CNN reported. At the time, owners of the new apartments were given a 126-year lease over the land.

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In 2010, the estate was sold to a property developer before Beijing eventually bought the site in 2018 for £255 million ($311 million), Bloomberg reported. It was bought with the intention of replacing China’s current embassy in the Marylebone neighbourhood.

What were China’s plans for the site?

China’s plans for the property involved partially tearing down some of the Grade II-listed buildings and restoring others, according to a BBC report. The planning application, drafted by David Chipperfield Architects, also vowed to deliver “significant improvements” to the area and generate jobs.

The application also states that the new development would “safeguard” the Tower of London.

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Had China managed to shift its embassy here, it would have been the largest in the UK.

Why were the residents objecting to China’s plan?

The local Tower Hamlets Borough Council received as many as 51 objection letters from residents. For many of the residents, their leases include strict clauses that restrict activity in the buildings, CNN reported. In some cases, it permits the landlord to enter the leaseholder’s property and also enables them to ban residents from hanging certain items, like flags, outside their homes.

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According to the CNN report, some of the residents feared how China would interpret these rules if they managed to shift the embassy here. Many raised concerns about the estate becoming a terrorist target and a site of constant protest against the Chinese regime.

Notably, this comes at a time when China is battling a wave of protests against its brutal zero-Covid strategy and rare calls for Chinese President Xi Jinping to step down.

What happened at Thursday’s Council meeting?

On Thursday, Tower Hamlets Council refused to grant China permission for its plan following a heated meeting. The Council took cognisance of the resident’s concerns about their security and privacy.

According to the BBC, Housing association Tower Hamlets Homes said it was “reasonable to expect that the relocated embassy in its new location will continue to see a sizable number of gatherings and protests in response to international political events”.

Last year, the council said that it had briefly contemplated renaming the streets around Royal Mint Court to Tiananmen Square, Uyghur Court and Hong Kong Road, to protest against China’s treatment of minority groups, Bloomberg reported.

First published on: 03-12-2022 at 08:13 IST
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