UK summons Chinese ambassador over ‘completely unacceptable’ beating and arrest of BBC journalist

The UK government has summoned China’s ambassador to Britain over the “completely unacceptable” arrest and assault of a BBC journalist while covering protests in Shanghai.

British foreign secretary James Cleverly called China’s Zheng Zeguang to the Foreign Office in Whitehall, according to a government source.

Foreign Office officials have been in contact with the BBC’s camera operator Edward Lawrence following his arrest and release, and are also in contact with local authorities about the case, The Independent understands.

Speaking of the Chinese ambassador’s summons, a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) source said: “The BBC has been clear one of their journalists was detained and beaten by police when covering these protests.

“We have made it clear this behaviour by the Chinese authorities is completely unacceptable.”

It came shortly after China accused the BBC of “maliciously playing the victim card” over the incident and accused the British government of interference in its internal affairs, triggering a fresh diplomatic row between the two countries.

The broadcaster has alleged that its journalist was “beaten and kicked” by Chinese police while covering anti-lockdown protests in Shanghai over the weekend. Social media videos shared online have shown the moment Lawrence was dragged away by police; he was released several hours later.

The BBC said it was initially told by the authorities that Lawrence was arrested “for his own good” in case he caught Covid at the protest, an explanation which the broadcaster said was not credible.

Holding a press briefing for the first time since unprecedented protests against Covid restrictions broke out in major cities across the country, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian called out the British government for its “hypocritical double standards”.

He accused the UK of “a grave interference in China’s internal affairs” and added: “How come the BBC is always involved in trouble at the scene?”

Mr Zhao said journalists should not engage in activities unrelated to their duties, suggesting that BBC journalist was taking part in the protests rather than covering them.

In a speech on Monday, British prime minister Rishi Sunak accused China of a lurch towards greater “authoritarianism” and said the “golden era” of UK-Chinese relations was over, adding that the Chinese authorities’ treatment of Lawrence was “shocking and unacceptable”.

“Instead of listening to their people’s protests, the Chinese government has chosen to crack down further, including by assaulting a BBC journalist,” Mr Sunak said.

Separately, British foreign secretary James Cleverly said the arrest and alleged beating of Lawrence were “deeply disturbing” and business secretary Grant Shapps underscored there was “absolutely no excuse” for it.

The BBC said that it was “extremely concerned” over the arrest and treatment of camera operator Lawrence, who it said was “beaten and kicked” in Shanghai on Sunday night.

“He was held for several hours before being released. During his arrest he was beaten and kicked by police. This happened while he was working as an accredited journalist.

“It is very worrying that one of our journalists was attacked in this way whilst carrying out his duties.”

Videos of Lawrence’s purported arrested showed him being dragged by the police while he was live tweeting from the site.

In one video, he could be heard saying: “Call the consulate now!”

Lawrence tweeted that Swiss journalist Michael Peuker was arrested along with one local, who Lawrence said had tried to stop the police from beating him.

Mr Zhao said the BBC reporter failed to identify himself and “didn’t voluntarily present” his press credentials to the authorities.

“Foreign journalists need to consciously follow Chinese laws and regulations,” Mr Zhao said.

He called out the British government to stop “hypocritical” double standards, saying British police forces used force to crackdown on lockdown protesters in the UK last year.

Responding to the ongoing protests, the foreign ministry official said: “China is a country with rule of law and all rights and freedoms of Chinese citizens are protected but they must be exercised within the framework of the law.”

Largescale protests spread across major Chinese cities, including the capital Beijing and Shanghai, for days over the weekend amid simmering discontent and frustrations over stringent zero-Covid policies that have been imposed for almost three years.

Chinese police were out in heavy numbers on Tuesday to clamp down on the protests which have included calls for president Xi Jinping to step down, a rare mass show of dissent in a country with tight controls on public assembly and the dissemination of information.

The deaths of 10 people on Thursday in a fire in a high-rise block in Urumqi, western China became a tipping point that has angered people in China as enforced quarantine strategies were blamed for keeping the victims in their homes. Local authorities have denied that claim.

Prominent Chinese figures have blamed the so-called rumours about the Urumqi fire on “foreign forces” who were meddling in China’s internal affairs.

Nationalist bloggers, such as Ren Yi, the grandson of Communist Party leader Ren Zhongyi, and Yu Li, who uses the pen name Sima Nan, wrote that the protests were fomented by “foreign forces”.

“What is their purpose? On one hand it is to intensify internal conflicts. On the other hand, it is to see if they can completely politicise the issues around our epidemic prevention and health policies,” Mr Ren wrote in his blog.