The UK foreign secretary, James Cleverly, is facing demands to take action against the Chinese government after police began inquiries into claims that a pro-democracy protester was attacked inside the grounds of the Chinese consulate in Manchester .
The man who was reportedly beaten up, named only as Bob, said he was punched and kicked after being dragged inside the consulate grounds before being rescued by British police and other protesters. A photograph published by VOA Cantonese showed some of his injuries, just below his eyes, which left him bleeding and bruised.
“They shouldn’t have done that. We are supposed to have freedom to say whatever we want here [in the UK],” Bob, originally from Hong Kong, told the BBC.
Images from the attack circulating on social media show a grey-haired man in a blue scarf holding Bob by his hair just inside the consulate gates, as other men attack him and a British police officer tries to pull him away.
The grey-haired man had previously come out of the consulate, demanded the removal of satirical posters of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and torn down a protest banner. Police are not allowed to enter consular grounds without permission.
A spokesperson for Greater Manchester police said the force was “aware of an incident” that took place at about 3pm on Sunday.
“Officers were present and responded immediately to defuse the situation. Inquiries are ongoing at this time to understand the full circumstances,” the spokesperson said.
The Labour MP David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, demanded the Chinese ambassador be summonsed by Cleverly to give a full account, describing the allegations as “deeply concerning and, if accurate, totally unacceptable”.
He said: “The UK stands for freedom, the rule of law and democracy. The quashing of peaceful protest will never be tolerated on our streets.”
The alleged victim was part of a small group demonstrating on Sunday at the start of the 20th Communist party congress in Beijing, which is expected to extend Xi’s leadership for a further five years.
Several protest banners had earlier been placed outside the consulate, one with the words “Heaven will destroy the Chinese Communist party”, and a caricature of Xi wearing a crown.
A spokesperson for the consulate told the BBC the protesters had “hung an insulting portrait of the Chinese president at the main entrance”. The spokesperson added: “This would be intolerable and unacceptable for any diplomatic and consular missions of any country. Therefore, we condemn this deplorable act with strong indignation and firm opposition.”
There was widespread condemnation of the attack in Britain and calls for a strong response from activists and politicians across the political divide.
The former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith called for the home secretary, Suella Braverman, to “look into this urgently”.
“The UK government must demand a full apology from the Chinese ambassador to the UK and demand those responsible are sent home to China,” he tweeted.
Sarah Owen, the Labour MP for Luton North who is of Chinese descent, shared video of the attack, saying it threatened the security of refugees. She said: “This is deeply worrying. An investigation needs to happen immediately, with answers given, to ensure people fleeing persecution feel safe our country.”
The exiled Hong Kong politician Nathan Law said the attack had terrifying implications for Hong Kong citizens who had fled China’s crackdown to the UK, and called for a strong British government response.
“If the consulate staff responsible are not held accountable, Hongkongers would live in fear of being kidnapped and persecuted,” he tweeted. “Foreign and home secretaries must investigate and protect our community and people in the UK.”
Benedict Rogers, the chief executive of the campaign group Hong Kong Watch, said: “This appalling act of thuggery by CCP (Chinese Communist party) in Manchester cannot go unpunished.
“[The Foreign Office] must summon [Chinese ambassador] Zheng Zeguang first thing tomorrow morning, prosecute those responsible, and if they can’t be prosecuted, expel CCP officials responsible – without delay.”
In his speech opening the party congress in Beijing, Xi celebrated China’s crushing of Hong Kong’s autonomy, and warned Taiwan that the “wheels of history” were turning towards Beijing taking control of the island democracy.
Britain opened a path to citizenship for Hong Kong residents after Beijing’s crackdown on a pro-democracy movement swept away the city’s autonomy and rights including freedom of expression and protest.
There have already been more than 140,000 applications for visas under the scheme and the British government expects hundreds of thousands of people to move to the UK within five years.