Residents of an apartment complex that sits on a historic parcel of land opposite the Tower of London want Britain’s King Charles to buy it back, claiming that its current owner, China, will turn it into a hub for shadowy diplomatic activity.
The British monarchy sold Royal Mint Court, a 5.4-acre plot that was once home to the facility that manufactured Britain’s coinage, to a property company in 2010. Beijing bought the site in 2018, and now plans to invest several hundreds of millions of dollars transforming it into its new embassy in the United Kingdom.
The local council, Tower Hamlets, is due on Thursday to decide on proposals for the site, which consists largely of decommissioned offices and a grand, 19th century building constructed for the Royal Mint. If the plans – drawn up by architect David Chipperfield – are approved, the site will become one of China’s largest diplomatic missions in the world, equipped with lodgings for hundreds of staff, a cultural exchange and a business center.
But Royal Mint Court contains something of a historical anomaly. When it still owned the land about 30 years ago, the Crown Estate, which manages the British monarchy’s non-private property interests, built a set of low-rise apartments on part of the site as part of a government scheme to provide homes for “key workers” such as police officers and nurses. Queen Elizabeth II was pictured opening the estate in 1989.
Owners of the new apartments were granted a 126-year lease over the land – a common practice in British property law where residents own the bricks and mortar of their property but another entity, a freeholder, owns the ground on which it is built.
Such leases often contain clauses that restrict certain activity in the buildings. A lease for one apartment at the Royal Mint Court development, seen by CNN, includes clauses giving the freeholder, or landlord, the right to enter the leaseholder’s property in certain circumstances. It also gives them powers to ban residents from hanging items, such as flags or signs, from the outside of their homes.
Leaseholders are also told they cannot behave in a manner deemed to cause a “nuisance” to the landlord or do anything that the landlord perceives might incite racial hatred.
The Royal Mint Court Residents’ Association, which represents around 300 people living in the buildings, say they are fearful of how China would interpret and implement such rules once its embassy is built next door. China has been accused of using its diplomatic outposts, loosely affiliated community associations, in effect, as overseas police stations to monitor Chinese citizens abroad and coerce them to return home. British lawmakers have expressed concerns over reports of three such premises in the UK.
“I fear a diplomatic incident will occur because the powers available to the Chinese government are far reaching and excessive,” wrote David Lake, chairman of the residents’ group, in a letter to King Charles, seen by CNN.
One such incident occurred in the UK in October, when China’s consul general in Manchester admitted tearing down placards of Hong Kong protesters outside the consulate there. One of the pro-democracy protesters, who had turned up with banners featuring satirical images of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, was dragged into the building’s grounds and beaten, in events captured on camera.
Police in Manchester are currently investigating the episode. The Consul General Zheng Xiyuan said he acted because he found the protester’s posters offensive to his homeland.
Soon after the incident, Chinese officials abruptly canceled a planned meeting with the Royal Mint Court residents, without giving a reason, according to locals who were planning to attend.
One resident, Mark Nygate, who has lived in his apartment on the Royal Mint Court land for 23 years and serves as treasurer of the residents’ group, told CNN he and others had planned to address the Manchester incident at that meeting.
“It’s ramped up our fears,” he said. “This is a lovely place to live right in the center of London but we find ourselves asking how our lives will change once China moves in,” Nygate said.
“For instance, I have an allotment [shared garden] that overlooks the back entrance road into the embassy. When I am out there gardening will China worry that I am spying on them?” he said.
The residents want China and the UK to agree a deal to transfer ownership of the part of the freehold that relates to their buildings. “We feel it is wrong for the Chinese government, as a global superpower, to have the same rights over us as Queen Elizabeth had when she agreed our leases,” wrote Lake, the residents’ representative, in his letter to King Charles.
A Spanish NGO, Safeguard Defenders, claimed China has been running an extensive network of secret overseas police stations around the world. China has not denied it operates what it calls “overseas service stations” but says such centers are not extra-territorial police networks, but rather organizations designed to help Chinese expatriates with paperwork, like renewing their drivers’ licenses.
The British government has promised to act on the reports. Security Minister Tom Tugendhat told the House of Commons on November 1: “Reports of undeclared police stations in the United Kingdom are, of course, extremely concerning and will be taken very seriously. Any foreign country operating on United Kingdom soil must abide by UK law.”
He added: “The protection of people in the United Kingdom is of the utmost importance. Any attempt to repatriate any individual will not be tolerated.”
In the letter to the King, the residents say their unique predicament could have wider consequences – highlighting the pitfalls of England’s often complex and archaic property laws once in the hands of foreign powers.
“The situation could deteriorate further and result in harm to your loyal British subjects and democracy in the United Kingdom,” Lake wrote in his letter. “We appeal to your Majesty to do all you can to afford protection to us at this challenging time,” said Lake, a retired engineer who has lived in the development since 1990.
The planning application will be discussed by Tower Hamlets councilors on Thursday. The plans for China’s embassy have generated 51 complaints, according to documents posted on the council’s website ahead of the meeting.
A spokesperson for the borough said the proposals for the redevelopment of Royal Mint Court “are generally in accordance with the policies in the development plan and on this basis officers have recommended that planning permission and listed building consent are granted, subject to conditions and planning obligations.”
Baroness Scott of Bybrook, a junior minister at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, revealed in parliament this week that the government was considering a request to “call in” the proposals for further scrutiny at a national level.
CNN reached out to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment but had not received a reply at the time of publication.
Suggesting that King Charles attempts to buy back the rights over the site drags the new monarch – an ostensibly neutral figure who as heir to the throne took a particular interest in town planning – into an increasingly heated debate over the UK’s stance on China. The world’s eyes are currently fixed on Beijing’s response to its biggest civil unrest in years, amid rising fatigue over Xi Jinping’s restrictive zero-Covid policies.
Earlier this year, councilors in Tower Hamlets considered renaming the streets around Royal Mint Court site to protest Beijing’s treatment of minority groups, particularly its policies against Muslim Uyghurs in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, suggesting Tiananmen Square, Uyghur Court, Hong Kong Road and Tibet Hill as new street names. Tower Hamlets has the highest percentage of Muslim residents of any London borough according to UK population census data.
China at the time lashed out against the British government, demanding it protect its embassy from “harassment” by protesters.
Successive prime ministers from the UK’s ruling Conservative Party have taken different approaches to balancing the country’s economic interests against national security issues in regard to China.
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson categorized China as a “systemic competitor,” while his short-lived successor Liz Truss indicated she was minded to officially label the nation a “threat.”
The latest prime minister, Rishi Sunak, told an audience in London this week that the so-called golden era of Sino-British relations, once embraced by his party, was now over and said that the “systemic challenge” China presented to UK interests should be met with what he called “robust pragmatism.”
Aside from the issue of human rights there have also been tensions about whether the Chinese embassy plans for Royal Mint Court would include adequate protection for the British residents in the event of a protest or a terrorist attack.
A report earlier this year by Ann Corbett, director of community safety at Tower Hamlets council, said that any protests around the embassy, once China moves in, would likely require a sizable police presence and would inevitably cause disruption for residents nearby.
Documents seen by CNN show a counter-terrorism adviser to the capital’s Metropolitan Police Service was brought in to provide a “blast assessment” to model the damage caused if the embassy was targeted with a bomb, and identified a number of vulnerabilities. Although some findings were eventually shared confidentially with residents, the documents say, most of the inhabitants did not have the adequate security clearance to access the Met’s full findings. It is unclear, based on recent freedom of information requests, whether local councilors, who will be deciding on the Chinese plans, are allowed to view all the sensitive documents either.
Nygate, who says his window is about seven meters (23 feet) away from the future embassy’s perimeter, is particularly worried about China’s longer-term ambitions for the site and whether the residents’ homes could be one day swallowed up into the bigger embassy complex.
“They are effectively using our buildings as a security buffer zone, without providing adequate protection, from bombs, from vehicles, from protesters or intruders,” he said. “It’s left us residents in limbo and has had a huge impact on the value of our homes and we’re stuck,” Nygate said.
Complaints lodged with Tower Hamlets council show residents have also expressed disquiet about the future privacy of their electronic communications and raised fears of physical surveillance. The UK government recently legislated to ban security cameras made by Chinese firm Hikvision from sensitive UK locations, such as parliament, and removed Huawei components from the core part of the country’s 5G telecommunications network. Huawei described the decision as “disappointing,” and Hikvision has denied suggestions it poses any threat to Britain’s national security.
A former Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who has been sanctioned by China for speaking out about the treatment of its Uygur population, described the decision by UK authorities to allow the plans for China’s new embassy to go as far as they have as “naive.”
“It’s unbelievable what China gets away with, here in the UK but also elsewhere around the world because no one wants to upset them,” he told CNN. “This is a really dangerous country, led by a peculiar dictator. I wouldn’t trust the Chinese government one bit.”
Residents at the Royal Mint Court site say they would be reassured if the land was bought back by the British sovereign. “We would like the Crown to once again own our freehold,” wrote Lake, their representative, in his letter to the monarch. “It would help us feel part of the United Kingdom, protected by the Crown, and the laws of England.”