China has removed six officials from Britain – including one of its most senior UK diplomats – two months after violence at its Manchester consulate.
The UK had requested the officials waive their right to diplomatic immunity to allow detectives to question them about October’s incident.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly expressed his disappointment that none of the six would now face justice.
The group included consul-general Zheng Xiyuan, who denied beating a protester.
Pro-democracy protester, Bob Chan, a Hongkonger, was injured after being dragged onto the consulate grounds and beaten by men on 16 October.
Mr Zheng, who was effectively in charge of China’s Manchester outpost, denied attacking Mr Chan after he was identified in photographs, and accused of doing so by a senior Conservative MP.
But he later told reporters he had been trying to protect his colleagues, adding that Mr Chan was “abusing my country, my leader. I think it’s my duty”.
China’s decision to remove the diplomats is seen by some as an attempt to de-escalate the dispute and avoid further tit-for-tat exchanges between it and the UK.
However, the spokesman for the Chinese embassy in London said on Wednesday the UK had failed to protect its staff, adding it had launched its own representations with Britain over the incident.
It said Mr Zheng had returned to China under a “normal rotation of Chinese consular officials” after completing a term of office.
UK officials made clear the embassy was fully aware that if the diplomats did not agree to take part in the police investigation, then there would be consequences.
This is likely to have included the men being declared persona non grata and expelled from the UK.
Instead, China has chosen to avoid that outcome by recalling the diplomats themselves.
Mr Cleverly said China’s removal of Mr Zheng and five other officials demonstrates the seriousness of the UK’s response to the incident.
“We will continue on the world stage and domestically to abide by the rule of law and we expect others to do likewise,” he said.
He added in a written statement to the House of Commons: “I am disappointed that these individuals will not be interviewed or face justice.
“Nonetheless, it is right that those responsible for the disgraceful scenes in Manchester are no longer – or will shortly cease to be – consular staff accredited to the UK.”
The UK government had informed China the six officials needed to waive their right to diplomatic immunity, a status reserved for foreign diplomats, by this week.
It followed a request by Greater Manchester Police, Mr Cleverly said.
Mr Chan said of the officials’ departure: “It has been two months since I was attacked in Manchester by staff members of the Chinese Consulate.
“Today, I hear that some members from that consulate have been sent back to China. While it may have taken two months for this to happen, I believe this is one way of solving this complicated diplomatic problem.
“I relocated to this country with my family to live freely. What happened on 16 October 2022 was unacceptable and illegal, and the withdrawal of these Chinese diplomats gives me a sense of closure.”
In theory, diplomatic immunity means officials and their families cannot be arrested or prosecuted for any crime or civil case.
China had initially claimed that there had been attempts to illegally enter the consulate grounds.
Police said at the time that up to 40 protesters had gathered outside the consulate – a smaller diplomatic office that is UK territory but cannot be entered without consent.
Greater Manchester Police said a group of men “came out of the building and a man was dragged into the consulate grounds and assaulted”.
“Due to our fears for the safety of the man, officers intervened and removed the victim from the consulate grounds,” a statement said.
Former Conservative Party leader, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, said the UK should have formally declared the diplomats persona non grata.
“The flagrant assault on a peaceful democracy campaigner in Manchester needs more than allowing those responsible to leave the UK uncharged and with their heads held high. Letting China take them back isn’t justice,” he said.
“We should have kicked them out weeks ago.”__BBC