By Michael Holden and Farouq Suleiman
LONDON (Reuters) -A man who was protesting outside a Chinese consulate in Britain said he was dragged inside the grounds by masked men, kicked and punched in an attack British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly described on Wednesday as “unacceptable”.
China has disputed the account of events which took place during a demonstration on Sunday against Chinese President Xi Jinping outside the consulate in Manchester, northern England, saying protesters had stormed its grounds.
It is the latest diplomatic spat between Britain and China, whose relationship has soured in recent years.
Footage on social media showed a man, wearing a black cap and with a ponytail, being hauled through a gate into the consular grounds, where he was assaulted by five men as he lay on the ground.
Bob Chan, who is aged in his 30s and originally from Hong Kong, said the attack started when masked men came out of the consulate to take away banners from peaceful protesters.
“I then found myself being dragged into the grounds of the consulate. I held on to the gate where I was kicked and punched,” he told reporters. “I could not hold on for long and was eventually pulled into the grounds of the consulate.”
He said the attack only stopped when a police officer moved in to free him. He was left with bruising to his eye, head, neck and all over his back, he told reporters.
“I am shocked and hurt by this unprovoked attack,” he said, adding he was concerned about his and his family’s safety.
Britain on Tuesday summoned China’s Charge d’Affaires in London to explain what had happened, with Cleverly saying the protest, which involved 30 to 40 people including Hong Kong citizens now resident in Britain, had been peaceful and legal.
“They were on British soil and it is absolutely unacceptable for this kind of behaviour,” Cleverly told broadcasters.
Beijing said it had lodged representations with Britain “about the malicious harassment incident”.
‘GOD KILL CPC’
Zheng Xiyuan, the Chinese Consul-General, wrote to police to say he was disappointed with how they handled the protest which had included images of Xi with a noose around his neck and slogans written in Chinese reading “God Kill CPC” (Communist Party of China).
“At one point the consulate grounds were stormed by a group of protesters and members of consular staff were required to physically fend off unauthorized entry and subsequent assaults,” he wrote in a letter released to media.
He said that a protester had grabbed a member of staff during a scuffle and refused to let go. Colleagues had pulled them inside and the attacker “continued assaulting our staff member and so our staff were forced to disentangle his hands”.
The protest took place at the start of a twice-a-decade congress of China’s ruling Communist Party in Beijing at which Xi is widely expected to win a third leadership term.
Police said they were investigating and appealed for more videos of the incident, saying there had been no arrests yet.
Cleverly said Britain would decide “what more we might need to do” once the police conclude their inquiry.
Some lawmakers said the diplomats involved should be immediately expelled.
Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of the governing Conservative Party, said the government should have told the ambassador they were sending a series of people home.
He said video footage showed that the Consul-General’s claims were “complete nonsense”. Duncan Smith was among the lawmakers and other Britons sanctioned by China last year for spreading “lies” about alleged human rights abuses in the Chinese region of Xinjiang.
Relations between Britain and China have been increasingly tense since Beijing brought in a national security law in Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise that its freedoms would be protected.
Britain has been highly critical of the law, which it says has been used to suppress dissent, while Beijing has accused London of interfering and creating trouble.
Points of contention include a British programme allowing almost three million people in Hong Kong to apply for visas.
(Additional reporting by Farouq Suleiman, Muvija M and William James in London; Liz Lee and Eduardo Baptista in Beijing; Editing by Kate Holton, Nick Macfie, William Maclean, Philippa Fletcher)