China has confirmed it is detaining an employee of Britain’s consulate in Hong Kong for violating the law, the country’s foreign ministry said today, a day after the British foreign office said it was looking into reports of the detention.
The worker, Simon Cheng, was detained by mainland Chinese authorities earlier this month while returning to Hong Kong from Shenzhen, according to a statement Cheng’s family posted on Facebook. Hong Kong’s immigration department, after consulting with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade office in Guangdong, told the family that Cheng was being held in “administrative detention,” but said that they could not obtain further information as to why, where, or for how long he would be held.
“We feel very helpless, and are worried sick about Simon,” the family wrote in its statement. “We hope that Simon can return to Hong Kong as soon as possible.”
Cheng’s detention comes amid months of protests in Hong Kong sparked by proposed bill that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China, and which have led to some testy exchanges between China and Britain, which returned the territory to Beijing in 1997.
Speaking at a daily press briefing today (Aug. 21), a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry said Cheng was being detained for violating “public security management regulations,” but gave no further details. The spokesman, Geng Shuang, added that the ministry has made “stern representations to Britain for the series of comments and actions they’ve made on Hong Kong,” and that the UK has been asked to “stop making these irresponsible statements, stop meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.”
The family’s statement said that the 28-year-old Hong Kong resident had traveled to Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, on August 8 to attend a conference, and was returning that same evening via a new high-speed train linking the two cities. At around 10pm he was messaging his girlfriend that he was about to pass customs, when he suddenly ceased contact. He has not been heard from since. A part of Hong Kong’s high-speed train station, which opened nearly a year ago, is administered by mainland authorities—an issue of concern to many in Hong Kong who warned this would chip away at the city’s autonomy.
According to Cheng’s LinkedIn profile, he works as a trade and investment officer for Scottish Development International, a role he has held since December 2017, after graduating with a master’s degree from the London School of Economics. He holds a British national overseas passport, according to the New York Times, a status created for Hong Kong residents before the handover that doesn’t amount to citizenship.
In a statement yesterday, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office said, “We are extremely concerned by reports that a member of our team has been detained returning to Hong Kong from Shenzhen… We are providing support to his family and seeking further information from authorities in Guangdong province and Hong Kong.”
Cheng’s family has learned from their lawyer that his case is being handled by the Shenzhen Municipal Public Security Bureau. The family sought help from the immigration department the day after Cheng was supposed to return to Hong Kong, but was told that their only course of action was to personally travel to mainland China and report a missing case to the public security bureau there, according to the statement.
Under mainland Chinese law, a person can be held in administrative detention for up to 15 days, and a written notice must be issued within 24 hours of detention. According to the family’s statement, no such written notice has been sent. Meanwhile, Hong Kong police are handling Cheng’s disappearance as a “missing person” case, according to a police spokesman during yesterday’s daily press briefing.
Cheng’s detention is likely to add to the anxieties that have sparked demonstrations calling for greater democracy amid anger at what is seen as growing interference by China in the special autonomous region. More than a thousand people commented on the family’s statement to express their fears for Cheng, and for the city’s future, with one calling the detention, “a perfect demonstration of why the extradition bill must be withdrawn: Hongkong and Beijing have completely different attitude towards law!” (The extradition bill was suspended in June, but not withdrawn.)
“The detention is exactly what Hong Kong people fear,” said Emily Lau, former chair of the Democratic Party. “And the fact that he was detained, and lost contact with the family, and no access to a lawyer—these are the things that people fear most, and that set us part from the mainland, because here we have rule of law.”
Last week, protesters in Hong Kong staged a large rally calling on the international community, including the UK and the US, to support Hong Kong’s fight to maintain its freedoms and bring in democracy. The UK warned China against repressing protesters last month, and has called on China to uphold a 1984 agreement governing Hong Kong’s return.
Citizens called for a protest this evening outside the British Consulate to demand Cheng’s release.
Tripti Lahiri contributed to this article.