An employee at Britain’s Consulate General in Hong Kong has been detained at the Chinese border for allegedly breaking the law. Hong Kong resident Simon Cheng had been missing for nearly two weeks – since August 8 – before Chinese authorities confirmed his arrest on Wednesday.
Local authorities claim that Cheng, 28, violated public security laws and gave no details of what he had done. However, there is speculation that his arrest was linked to bilateral tension over the massive protests that have rocked the former British colony since early June.
The UK Foreign Office in London expressed concern on Tuesday that a staff member from the British Consulate General in Hong Kong was detained while traveling back from Shenzhen, where he attended a business event.
“We are extremely concerned by reports that a member of our team has been detained returning to Hong Kong from Shenzhen,” a Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson said in a statement.
“We are providing support to his family,” it said.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said its diplomats had made “stern representations” to the UK over comments made since the protests began in Hong Kong.
“We request they stop making these irresponsible statements, stop meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs,” he said.
The spokesman said Cheng was a Chinese citizen and his detention was an internal affair.
The BBC’s China correspondent said Cheng should be due for release in the 48 hours and that China insisted the detention was not a diplomatic incident.
Hong Kong’s Immigration Department confirmed on Tuesday that they had received an assistance request from Cheng’s family, and were following up on the case with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Guangdong.
The police force also confirmed that they received a report from a woman, saying her boyfriend went missing after leaving home in Kowloon on August 8. She reported his disappearance to the police.
Cheng is said to be an officer with the Scottish Development International section at the consulate in Hong Kong.
Cheng’s girlfriend surnamed Lee told news website HK01.com that Cheng left home in Jordan district on the morning on August 8 to go to Shenzhen via Lo Wu Control Point to attend a business conference.
He planned to take the high-speed train to return to Hong Kong in the evening.
According to screengrab images, at around 10.35pm, Lee checked Cheng’s whereabouts via WhatsApp and WeChat, with Cheng texting back: “On the high-speed train still”, and subsequent messages “Ready to pass through the border”, “Pray for me”. But after that, she was unable to contact Cheng anymore.
She suspected that Cheng could have been detained at the joint checkpoint at the Express Rail Link, which is considered Chinese territory.
The incident comes at during the third month of huge protests in Hong Kong, a former British colony which was handed back to Beijing in 1997.
Government officials in Beijing have claimed repeatedly that ‘foreign hands’ are behind the protests in Hong Kong.
Cheng’s case has been likened to the arrest of Canadian expatriates in mainland China for alleged espionage after the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver last December.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained amid a diplomatic crisis sparked by the arrest of Meng, the chief financial officer for tech giant Huawei (and daughter of its founder Ren Zhengfei), who the US is seeking to extradite for breaching bans on dealing with Iran.
Former diplomat Kovrig and consultant Spavor were picked up in China on suspicion of espionage days after her arrest in moves widely seen as retaliation.
Friends of the missing employee Cheng staged a protest outside the British Consulate in Hong Kong on Wednesday afternoon to pressure the UK government to “save Simon”.
“Hong Kong people are still fighting to oppose the extradition bill, yet something like this happened without such a bill,” organizer Max Chung said.
“If the Beijing government doesn’t explain to the public why this happened, then it is playing with fire. This is a warning to Hong Kongers and to whoever wants to come to Hong Kong.”
Chung told the rally that “to our best understanding” his detained friend had not been involved with the ongoing protests that have engulfed the financial hub.
“Simon is a very good guy, and smart guy… I don’t think he would do anything stupid,” he said.
With reporting by AFP