HONG KONG – The U.K. has accused Chinese authorities of torturing a former employee of the British Consulate in Hong Kong, a move likely to further damage relations strained in recent months by London’s gestures of support for pro-democracy protesters in its former colony.
The intervention comes after Simon Cheng — a Hong Kong resident who worked for the consulate’s business development team before he went missing in mainland China for 15 days in August — said on Wednesday he was beaten and forced to confess while detained by Chinese agents, who pressed him for information on participants in the city’s protests.
“Simon Cheng was a valued member of our team,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement. “We were shocked and appalled by the mistreatment he suffered while in Chinese detention, which amounts to torture.” Raab said he had summoned the Chinese ambassador to demand an investigation into the “brutal and disgraceful treatment of Simon in violation of China’s international obligations.”
Raab also said the Foreign Office is supporting Cheng and his fiancee, “including to come to the U.K.”
The U.K. returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997 on the promise that Beijing would maintain the city’s independent courts, democratic institutions and capitalist financial system. But the protests have raised tensions between the two sides, with Beijing accusing the British government of meddling in its affairs. London has urged Hong Kong authorities to resolve protesters’ concerns through dialog and criticized the “disproportionate” use of force by the police.
Cheng was released on Aug. 24 after being held in extrajudicial detention for what state media said was a prostitution-related offense. He denied those allegations in his statement on Facebook.
Cheng said he was initially detained while returning via a high-speed railway station where Hong Kong agreed last year to let mainland agents operate despite fierce opposition from rights advocates.
In his statement, Cheng said he got a massage “for relaxation” during a work trip to Shenzhen. He acknowledge participating in some peaceful protests in Hong Kong and said he had collected money from the parents of a mainland resident facing prosecution in the city for taking part in demonstrations.
Cheng denied “arbitrary accusations against me made by the authorities which were obtained through an illegal process, includes using torture, threats and coercion.”
Cheng said his interrogators described him as a mastermind behind the protests, and one promised to keep him in jail indefinitely, causing him to contemplate suicide. He acknowledged sharing details about people in his social media groups to cut short his detention.
“I was hung (handcuffed and shackled) on a steep X-Cross doing a spread-eagled pose for hours after hours,” Cheng said in a post on Facebook. “Sometimes, they ordered me to do the ‘stress tests’, which includes extreme strength exercise such as ‘squat’ and ‘chair pose’ for countless hours. They beat me every time I failed to do so using something like sharpened batons.”
In an 8,000-word description of his experiences, Cheng relates a nightmare of repeated physical abuse, threats and questioning about Britain’s alleged meddling in the protests.
At one point in the interrogation by secret police, he was given a bizarre lecture about astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, whose unpopularity in the 16th century was used to justify the argument that China was not ready for democracy.
Cheng was accused of being a British spy and questioned at length about protest leaders and their links to the London School of Economics. Eventually, it was proposed, he should work for the Chinese “motherland.”
“I was suspected of being a mastermind and British proxy to incite and organize the protests in Hong Kong,” Cheng said.
Hong Kong’s justice secretary said Cheng should report the matter to the Chinese authorities.
Cheng said he would not seek judicial redress because he had no faith in the Chinese legal system.
Cheng was forced to give a written confession for betraying the motherland, a statement of apology and a confession for “soliciting prostitution.” He was instructed to sing the Chinese national anthem and recorded doing so.
He was told that if he spoke about his experiences he would be spirited out of Hong Kong back to mainland China.
“I won’t give up the fight for human rights, peace, freedom and democracy for the rest of my life, no matter the danger, discrimination and retaliation I will face, and no matter how my reputation will be stained, and no matter whether my future would be blacklisted, labelled, and ruined,” Cheng said.
“I speak out now because the case is relevant to the public interest on knowing the flawed judicial process in mainland China,” Cheng added. “I have not fully recovered from the trauma of what happened to me and because of the greater risk of retaliation that I face, I will give no further comment on the case.”
Opposition lawmakers have argued that Cheng’s case illustrates the arbitrary nature of the legal system in China, which has fueled recent protests in the city.
“Beijing is throwing down further signs of disrespect for the rule of law and taking a vindictive attitude toward Hong Kong citizens, particularly those with links to foreign countries,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Center for China Studies who has written numerous books on Chinese politics. “This might resonate very badly, poison the atmosphere and prevent a peaceful and rational solution to the confrontation between the protesters and the SAR government.”
During his meeting with Raab on Tuesday, Chinese Ambassador Liu Xiaoming expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with the British government’s “wrong” remarks on Hong Kong, according to a statement posted on the Chinese Embassy’s website.
At a regular news briefing in Beijing, Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said the case is not a diplomatic matter because it involves a Chinese national and referred questions to “relevant authorities.” He said Cheng had admitted to wrongdoing.
“We hope the U.K. side will be prudent and stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China’s domestic affairs because that will eventually harm U.K. interests,” Geng told reporters.