Jerry Lee (right) is seen at a Christie's exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' in Hong Kong in October 2017. Photo: AFP

Documents recently declassified by the United Kingdom National Archives could help unravel the mystery behind how Barry Cheung Kam-lun, the colonial-era Hong Kong business partner of an alleged CIA mole, was locked up, interrogated and eventually recruited by Chinese agents.

Jerry Lee Chun-shing, a Hong Kong resident who spent 13 years working in the field for the US Central Intelligence Agency, was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation after he touched down at New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport at the beginning of the year.

Lee fell afoul of US counterespionage agencies because his suspected defection compromised the CIA’s covert operations in China and its network of informers that took decades to build. Lee’s tip-offs via a middleman helped Chinese agents outmaneuver their US rivals and allegedly led the imprisonment and even executions of “some of the CIA’s most valuable assets in China.”

Before his arrest, Lee’s last job was as security manager at Christie’s regional office in Hong Kong.

Former CIA case officer Jerry Lee was arrested in the US early this year on suspicion of divulging classified information. Photo: Handout

Media reports back then alleged that Lee’s business partner Cheung, who had been a superintendent with the former Royal Hong Kong Police Force, could have been a detainee-turned-middleman for China.

A file among documents declassified by the UK National Archives, titled “Hong Kong Residents Detained in China,” says a Hongkonger bearing the same name as Cheung was intercepted in Shenzhen across the border on June 11, 1992, and transferred to a detention center in Quanzhou in the southeastern province of Fujian, when Cheung was working for the Michigan-based private security company Pinkerton.

The reason for Cheung’s arrest was an investigation he had been commissioned to conduct by Kodak a year earlier to monitor manufacturers of counterfeit Kodak film in Fujian.

Cheung was injured in prison fights after his fellow inmates in a Quanzhou prison were asked by the warden to “treat him well,” according to the file.

In a forced confession after more than a week of interrogation about his work and family background, Cheung stated that his investigation “was done out of lack of respect for the Chinese authorities.”

Back in Hong Kong, Stephen Bradley, political adviser to the colonial authorities, persuaded the government to mount an operation in a bid to rescue Cheung, and even contacted the Hong Kong office of the Xinhua News Agency, which was then Beijing’s de facto consulate in the British colony. Cheung’s employer Pinkerton also sent people directly to Quanzhou to negotiate for his release.

Cheung was then allowed to return to Hong Kong on June 22, 1992, albeit with a reminder from the local national security bureau that he must remember what to do for the sake of his family members living in China.

Copies of declassified files about Cheung’s detention in China and the colonial Hong Kong government’s internal memos. Photos: UK National Archives
A letter sent by Pinkerton to ‘express sincere appreciation and gratitude’ to Stephen Bradley, political adviser to the colonial Hong Kong government, after Cheung’s release. Photo: UK National Archive

More than two decades later, it transpired that Cheung had been acting as Beijing’s intermediary and was heavily involved in Lee’s case since the two founded a detective agency in Hong Kong in 2009, two years after Lee ended his tenure as a CIA case officer.

Cheung conveyed to Lee letters and gifts from Beijing as well as its interest in the CIA’s operations, and arranged a dinner for him to meet Chinese agents in Hong Kong in 2010. In return, Lee had been feeding Beijing names and US defense intelligence, as well as floor plans of a vital CIA facility outside the US, according to Lee’s indictment.

But Cheung has not been charged by the US Department of Justice, while Lee’s case will be heard in February.

Read more: Case of CIA ‘mole’ sheds new light on Hong Kong as spy hub

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