Zheng had been expected to attend a summer reception of the All Party Parliamentary China Group, a group of lawmakers broadly in favor of engagement with Beijing, and the China-Britain Business Council at the Terrace Pavilion at the House of Commons on Wednesday evening.
An email from the group sent Tuesday confirmed that the event would be postponed but that a “replacement event” would be planned at an alternative venue.
In a statement, British lawmakers Iain Duncan Smith, Nus Ghani and Tim Loughton — Conservative members of Parliament sanctioned by Chinese authorities in March for alleged “lies and disinformation” — welcomed the decision to bar Zheng.
“It would have been an insult to Parliament and to the principle of free speech upon which democracies are founded if the official representative of a regime which had just banned Parliamentarians from entering Chinese territory because they had stood up in the House of Commons to call out China’s appalling human rights abuses was allowed to set foot in the Mother of Parliaments which cherishes those freedoms,” the three lawmakers wrote.
In a statement released Tuesday, the Chinese Embassy in London condemned what it called the “despicable and cowardly action of certain individuals of the UK Parliament.”
Tit-for-tat sanctions between Britain and China escalated this year after Western powers joined to impose sanctions on Chinese officials in Xinjiang for their alleged role in the region’s human rights abuses.
Under those sanctions, Britain, along with Canada, the United States and the European Union, announced travel bans and asset freezes on Chinese officials, including the former head of the Communist Party’s political affairs committee in Xinjiang.
A week later, Beijing followed up with sanctions targeting European politicians and researchers, including private entities such as London law firm Essex Court Chambers. The high-profile firm had worked with activist groups at odds with China, such as the World Uyghur Congress, an international organization that represents Uyghurs, a largely Muslim minority in Xinjiang that Chinese officials have been accused of abusing. The U.S. State Department has classified the sweeping crackdown as “genocide.”
In the statement Tuesday, the Chinese Embassy in London said the sanctions imposed on U.K. lawmakers were “beyond reproach because they are justified responses to the unilateral sanctions imposed by the British side on relevant Chinese individuals and entities based on disinformation and under the pretext of so-called human rights abuse in Xinjiang.”
In a draft letter to the speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, seen by The Washington Post, some of the sanctioned British lawmakers had called for action to prevent the Chinese ambassador from appearing at an iconic home of British democracy.
“It is unthinkable therefore that parliamentarians should have to suffer this infringement on our liberty whilst the prime representative of the Chinese Government in the UK is still apparently free to come to Westminster and to use facilities here as a mouthpiece for his regime,” read the draft letter, which was signed by Duncan Smith, Ghani and Loughton as well as fellow Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs select committee.
Hoyle told British news organizations that the ban would only last as long as the sanctions on British lawmakers were in place. He said he saw no issue with hosting foreign diplomats in general, but added, “I do not feel it’s appropriate for China to meet on the Commons estate and in our place of work when his country has imposed sanctions against some of our members.”
Though Chinese leaders were once courted by British politicians, in recent years relations between the two states have frayed amid concerns about Hong Kong, a former British colony, and Xinjiang, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping.
China’s long-standing ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, had resigned in January following a decade in his post and was later replaced by Zheng, a high-ranking diplomat who had served as vice minister of foreign affairs of China.
Liu had become a controversial figure in Britain, publicly condemning British government policy on China; at one point he told the BBC that leaked documents that appeared to show abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang were “fake news.”