Who is Simon Cheng - and why was he ‘tortured’ by China?
British consulate worker ‘fired’ from UK government following detainment by Beijing
A diplomatic spat appears to be brewing amid claims that an employee of the British consulate in Hong Kong was arrested and tortured during a work trip to mainland China.
Simon Cheng, a Hong Kong citizen who worked for the UK government for two years, this week told the BBC that he was detained for 15 days and forced to falsely confess to inciting political unrest in the China-controlled territory.
Who is Simon Cheng?
Cheng was a trade and investment officer at the UK consulate, with a specific brief to to drum up interest in investing in Scotland among the Chinese business community.
He claims that in June, the British consulate asked its staff to collect information about the status of the protests rocking the terrority and to report back - for which Cheng was paid overtime.
His research included signing up to social media groups where pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong coordinated their actions, and attending rallies.
UK government sources say that he attended the events purely to observe and that such civil society monitoring is routine practice for many embassies.
Why was he arrested?
In late August, Cheng travelled to mainland China for a business conference in Shenzhen. Emails on his phone linked him to the observation work that he was carrying out at the Hong Kong protests.
On his return, Cheng was stopped at a Chinese border post at West Kowloon station, in the heart of Hong Kong.
He was transported back to Shenzhen and handed over to plain-clothes officers from China’s National Security Police, who accused him of being a British agent.
What are the claims against China?
Cheng told the BBC that he was “shackled, blindfolded and hooded”, and that he was beaten and forced to sign confessions.
“They said they work for the secret service and that there are no human rights,” said Cheng. “Then they started the torture.”
“They would beat the bony parts, like my ankles... or any vulnerable part.”
British government sources say they believe his claims are credible.
Cheng says he was hung from a chain linking the handcuffs on his wrists, questioned about his involvement with the protests, and accused of provoking unrest on behalf of the British state.
“They wanted to know what role the UK had in the Hong Kong protests - they asked what support, money and equipment we were giving to the protesters,” he said.
He was also allegedly subjected to sleep deprivation, with his captors forcing him to sing the Chinese national anthem to keep him awake.
In order to get further information, his interrogators allegedly strapped him to a chair and held his head up by his hair so they could open his mobile phone using the device’s facial recognition function.
They then allegedly printed out the emails containing the updates that he had given the UK consulate about the protests.
"I told them I want to make it 100% clear, the UK didn’t assign resources or help with the protests,” he said.
He was later made to record video confessions for “betrayal of the motherland” and for “soliciting prostitution”, the BBC reports.
And he believes he was not the only Hongkonger suffering such treatment. “The secret police clearly stated that batches after batches of Hong Kong protesters had been caught, delivered and detained in mainland China,” Cheng told the broadcaster.
What happens next?
Speaking to the BBC this week, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “We are outraged by the disgraceful mistreatment that Mr Cheng faced when he was in detention in mainland China.
“We’ve made clear that we expect the Chinese authorities to review and hold to account those responsible.”
In response, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the Beijing authorities “absolutely cannot accept the UK government’s interference in this case” and would summon the UK ambassador to “express their opposition and anger”.
Cheng told the BBC that his Chinese interrogators had warned that if he spoke publicly about his arrest, he would be “taken back to mainland China from Hong Kong”.
He has since been forced to resign from his role at the British consulate, because the UK government considers him a security risk following his long interrogation by the Chinese secret police.
“I was asked to resign on November 2019, which ended my roughly two-year service and employment,” he said.
Government sources say he has been given support, including a two-year working visa for the UK.
“That someone could be tortured by a dictatorship and then effectively fired by the UK government is horrific and twisted,” said pro-democracy group Fight For Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.