was involved in previous brawl with Taiwanese officials
Exclusive by foreign affairs reporter Stephen Dziedzic and Bang Xiao
November 2, 2022
A Hong Kong pro-democracy protester is dragged into a consulate and beat up.
A Chinese diplomat embroiled in a violent brawl with pro-Hong Kong protesters in the United Kingdom was also accused of attacking Taiwanese officials in Fiji two years ago.
Gao Lianjia is one of four Chinese diplomats who were filmed fighting with protesters outside China's consulate in the city of Manchester last month.
Now the ABC has learned that Mr Gao was one of the two Chinese diplomats who created headlines in 2020 when they allegedly assaulted a Taiwanese representative outside the Grand Pacific Hotel in Fiji's capital, Suva.
The details of both confrontations have been hotly contested by China.
In Fiji, the fight outside the Grand Pacific happened on October 6, as Taiwanese diplomats hosted Fijian politicians, officials and community members at a reception to mark the country's national day.
Fiji doesn't have any formal diplomatic links with Taiwan, but maintains an unofficial embassy in its "trade office" in Suva.
China has also stepped up efforts internationally to diplomatically isolate representatives from the island democracy.
Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said the two Chinese diplomats showed up at the Grand Pacific Hotel event uninvited, and tried to photograph guests who were attending.
Gao Lianjia was also involved in an alleged assault at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, Fiji.(Supplied)
The ministry said that, when the diplomats were confronted by Taiwanese officials outside the venue, they responded violently, beating one of the Taiwanese staffers so severely that he was taken to hospital with concussion.
That confrontation also stoked a war of words between Beijing and Taipei.
Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said China's behaviour was unacceptable and a "serious violation of the rule of law and civilised norms".
However, China's unofficial embassy in Fiji accused Taiwanese officials of "acting provocatively" against Chinese embassy staff and "causing injuries and damage to one Chinese diplomat".
China's Foreign Ministry also suggested that Taiwan's diplomats provoked the conflict by displaying the flag of Taiwan, including on a cake.
"A false national flag was openly displayed at the scene, The cake was also marked with a false national flag," Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing.
The ABC has confirmed that Mr Gao — who, at the time, was working as a First Secretary with the Chinese unofficial embassy in Suva — was one of the Chinese diplomats involved in the fracas.
A photo provided to the ABC shows Mr Gao outside the Grand Pacific Hotel immediately before the brawl.
Neither of the Chinese diplomats accused of assault faced any consequences for the violence.
Both China and Taiwan lodged protests with Fiji over the fight, but police declined to pursue the matter, saying it was being "handled at the diplomatic level".
Gao involved in Manchester scuffle
One diplomatic source in Suva told the ABC that both Mr Gao and the other diplomat involved in the brawl claimed diplomatic immunity, and Fiji's government — which has built robust commercial and diplomatic ties with Beijing over the past 15 years — wanted to defuse the crisis as quickly as possible.
The fight between Chinese and Taiwanese officials in Suva happened in October 2020.(Wikimedia commons: Matthias Süßen)
Chinese officials are also continuing to closely monitor any events hosted by Taiwan's office in Suva — including National Day commemorations in Suva last month — although there have not been any further outbreaks of violence.
What happened during the confrontation in Manchester is also furiously disputed by both sides, although it's easier to sift through the competing claims because the episode was filmed by multiple people.
Videos posted by pro-Hong Kong protesters outside the Manchester consulate show four Chinese officials — including Mr Gao, who is now working as a consul in the embassy — leaving the compound to tear down posters and signs mocking the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.
Two of the staff members were wearing riot gear, including helmets and vests.
Protesters respond angrily, and a melee began almost immediately.
The Chinese consulate said one of the protesters "grabbed a member of consular staff by the neck and refused to let go" and "in an effort to free the staff member, other members of staff pulled their colleague into our compound".
However, two separate videos posted online paint a different picture, clearly showing that Chinese officials dragged a protester — later identified as Hong Kong man Bob Chan — into the compound, where they punched and kicked him.
British police then briefly entered the embassy grounds to pull Mr Chan out.
The Chinese consulate in Manchester said officials were defending themselves from protesters.(Reuters: The Chaser News/Matthew Leung)
The Chinese consulate has released its own vision of the incident from its CCTV camera and insists that its officers were simply defending themselves from violent protesters.
Mr Gao recently told reporters in Manchester that he was choked by a protester who, he said, had knocked him over and assaulted him.
In his statement, he said: "I was standing close to the front gate when all of a sudden the protester knocked me down by running against my belly."
"He then knocked off my eyeglasses and attacked me on the face," he said.
"In a split second, he grabbed my collars tightly and knelt forcefully on my body with my back on the ground. I struggled, but to no avail. I had difficulty breathing and lost consciousness."
'Licence to use violence'
Video of the scene does appear to show that Mr Gao was knocked down when Mr Chan was dragged into the compound.
Mr Chan appears to be lying on top of the Chinese diplomat, but it's impossible to tell from the vision whether Mr Chan attacked his face in any way, nor whether Mr Gao became unconscious.
Bob Chan (right) was dragged into the Chinese compound in Manchester.(Reuters: Toby Melville)
Afterwards, Mr Chan denied engaging in any violence, and told journalists in London that he was left shaken by the "barbaric" attack, which left him with bruises to his face, head, neck and back.
Still, the videos online do make it clear that some protesters did engage in violence, kicking a Chinese diplomat in the head three times after he fell to the ground during the chaos.
Graeme Smith from the Australian National University said that, while there were some differences between the two confrontations, there were also some parallels.
"The two episodes show us that China's representatives abroad have [a] licence to use violence to defend China's territorial integrity, even when threatened by protesters' placards and a cake decorated with a Taiwanese flag," he told the ABC.
Dr Smith said that Chinese diplomats such as Mr Lianjia had been given a clear direction by China's leaders to take an increasingly aggressive and nationalistic stance, particularly on sensitive issues such as Taiwan and its crackdown on Hong Kong.
"This willingness to go the biff over minor slights to China's 'sovereignty' looks to be a case of putting on a show for the higher-ups, because there's no downside to looking tough, and there's a big downside to appearing to be weak on these issues," he said.
"It's striking that the same consul has been involved in violent diplomatic incidents a couple of years apart.
"There are strong parallels in terms of what sparked the violence — manifestations of separatism from the PRC [People's Republic of China] state."
The ABC approached both the Chinese embassy in Suva and the Chinese consulate in Fiji for comment, but neither has responded.