Burning the British mission in Beijing

Society & Culture

In 1967, one of the great breaches of diplomatic immunity took place during this week in Beijing.

British Embassy in Beijing, 1967
British mission in Beijing, 1967 (picture via Robert Bickers's website)

This Week in China’s History: August 22, 1967

Last week, scenes of the Canadian ambassador addressing the media about the sentencing of Michael Spavor was a reminder of the unique position of international diplomats. Living in another nation, but through diplomatic agreement in protected exclaves with special status, these diplomats are a vital link in the international order.

The uniqueness of these missions can be overstated. Diplomatic compounds like embassies are not, as is commonly assumed, sovereign territory of the nations being represented. Embassy grounds are still the territory of the nation where they are located, but special agreements protect the diplomats and their staff from prosecution. The embassy or consulate itself (according to the United Nations’ 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations) “shall be inviolable…. Immune from search, requisition, attachment, or execution.” These same principles apply to the ambassador’s residence, any transportation belonging to the mission.” Moreover, “the person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention.” In general, diplomats are immune to the civil and criminal laws of the host nation (a fact New Yorkers lament when observing double-parked cars with diplomatic plates).

The embassy is also a refuge. According to the treaty, agents of the host nation may not enter a diplomatic mission without permission, and “the receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.” This can, and has, led to scenes of soldiers or police restraining their own citizens as they protest or attack another nation’s embassy in times of crisis.

All of this is often taken for granted. Embassies and diplomats are seen as off-limits, able to move and work freely even in times of great tension and danger.

It isn’t always this way.

In 1967, one of the great breaches of diplomatic immunity took place during this week in Beijing. Tension had been building for months outside what would become Great Britain’s embassy. A growing, and angry, crowd outside the gates hurled epithets — and sometimes more solid representations of their rage — intent on delivering the message that China’s “century of humiliation” was over.

That the trouble had started in Hong Kong made the symbolism just a little too on-the-nose. A century earlier — actually, some 125 years earlier — Hong Kong had become a British possession as a result of the first Opium War. From that beginning, European imperialism spread across the Qing empire. Whether presented as treaty ports, spheres of influence, colonies, or territories annexed outright, more and more pieces of the Qing empire fell under foreign control. And though half a dozen countries played major roles in “slicing the melon,” Britain was — at least until the Japanese invasion of the 1930s — always viewed as the primary imperialist predator.

Many pieces lost to colonialism had been recovered after the People’s Republic reasserted Chinese sovereignty in 1949. Not, however, the most glaring example of European colonialism: Hong Kong. But as China took aim at all things foreign and imperialistic during the Cultural Revolution, the colony seemed in jeopardy. Bombings, riots, and strikes rocked Hong Kong as 1967’s spring turned to summer. It took British troops and helicopters, mass arrests, newspaper shutdowns, and the firing of striking employees to fend off the movement.

The British response in Hong Kong fed into the rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution, which had begun a year earlier and was at its violent peak. After Hong Kong, there was no greater symbol of British imperialism in China than Shanghai’s Bund, the waterfront strand of (mostly) Western-designed skyscrapers. At one end of the row sat Britain’s consulate, opened in the 1870s after its predecessor burned down. Britain oversaw its imperial project from this perch until the Japanese knocked them off in December 1941, but they came back.

Britain was not in lockstep with its American allies regarding the Communist government in Beijing. Great Britain had recognized the PRC government in 1950, though diplomats would not be exchanged until 1954 (and full ambassadorial ties would not be established until 1972). Robert Bickers in his definitive Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Imperialism cites the chief of mission as saying that Britain had “sentimental reasons” for wanting to keep the compound. So, after war and revolution, Britain reoccupied the space in 1954.

That came to an end in 1967 though: Red Guards attacked the compound in May. Consular staff hurriedly destroyed records before escaping to the airport and flying to Beijing, where they could take refuge in the mission there.

Frying pan, fire.

The anger over how the Hong Kong protests were suppressed — especially the arrest and detention of pro-PRC journalists — was not confined to Shanghai. If anything, it was even more virulent in Beijing. The British not-quite embassy (formal ambassadorial ties between the UK and PRC were still a few years off) was at the center of the storm. Beginning in spring, crowds gathered regularly outside the British diplomatic compound, hurling insults and objects, carrying banners opposing British imperialism. Occasionally, Red Guards would make their way into the compound, where they would verbally and sometimes physically assault the members of the staff.

By August, the atmosphere had worsened. Crowds were well into the thousands. On August 20, the crowd issued an ultimatum, giving the British government 48 hours to reopen three suspended left-wing newspapers in Hong Kong.

On the night of August 22, the 54 members of the diplomatic staff took refuge in the chief of mission’s chancery (effectively the ambassador’s residence). Although the situation was extreme, it had by that time become commonplace: for months, the compound had been surrounded by crowds of protesters. The embassy staff watched a Peter Sellers film (which one?!) while others played bridge.

At 10:45 p.m., at the expiration of the ultimatum, a crowd of some 10,000 burst through the gates. Shouting “death!” they “set fire to the mission’s official cars, two minibuses and a truck,” according to press reports. The crowd “smashed mirrors, windows and furniture.” When the cars exploded, gasoline was thrown onto the fire and “several thousand people danced shouting around the blaze as camera teams filmed the whole proceedings, first by floodlight, then by the light of the bonfire.”

Staffers moved quickly into action, destroying files and documents, but soon had to abandon their task as the crowd breached the buildings. Eventually, fire trucks arrived and the embassy staff — protected by People’s Liberation Army soldiers — was able to leave. Peter Hodson, the ranking officer, left the compound wearing a bandage on his head and a bloodstained jacket. No one was killed or badly injured, though many in the embassy were “roughed up,” according to press reports, including sexual assaults against both men and women.

In Out of China, Bickers points to this moment as underscoring the weakness of the British position relative to the People’s Republic in foreign relations. Although the diplomatic mission was restored (the site remains to this day the British embassy), the staffers who had endured the siege and arson were not free to go: exit visas would be denied to British citizens for several years, the staff confined to their supposedly “inviolable” home as the political winds swirled around them.

What I found especially compelling about this event was not the breach itself, shocking as that was, but the reminder that foreigners were traveling in China at the start of the Cultural Revolution. As Bickers writes, at the time of the embassy takeover, “there were at least twelve Britons in detention, a dozen Japanese, five West Germans, and another twelve Americans…. Tourism to China from Western Europe and Asia, which had commenced in 1963, sputtered on into 1967 and then collapsed. Few who were not ardent political pilgrims would risk visiting.”

Today, the environment for foreign travelers and expatriates in China is far different. Before the pandemic, there were more than half a million foreigners in China, including perhaps 100,000 Americans. But for the first time in a long time, the feeling of security that foreigners living and working in China felt has been seriously undermined, with the sentencing of Michael Spavor just the latest chill.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.