Arrests for espionage chill Hong Kong's thriving British community

Simon Cheng is still visibly tense when describing his detention in China. In 2019, Mr Cheng, a pro-democracy activist from Hong Kong and former employee of the British consulate there, was arrested after a business trip to mainland China.

For 15 days he was interrogated and tortured, according to his account. Beijing confirmed his detention but denied that he had suffered mistreatment. When he was finally released, he no longer felt safe in Hong Kong and in early 2020 he fled to Britain and claimed asylum.

“In some ways it's not difficult to adjust to a new life in the UK,” said Mr Cheng, 33. “But at the same time I can't abandon the fate of my hometown.”

His activism – and China's pursuit of him – didn't stop once he moved to London. Last year, Hong Kong authorities placed a bounty on Mr. Cheng and other activists, offering $128,000 for information leading to their arrest. However, like many Hong Kong activists living in self-imposed exile in Britain, he hoped his newfound distance from the Chinese authorities would put him beyond their reach.

This month, three men were charged in London with gathering intelligence for Hong Kong and forcing entry into a British residence. While the men have not yet been found innocent or guilty – the trial won't begin until February – news of the arrests has highlighted concerns among many activists about China's ability to surveil and harass its citizens abroad, particularly those who have been critical of the government.

A spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry on Friday denounced what it called “false accusations” and “cowardly actions” by British authorities in accepting the case. Last week, one of the accused men, a former British marine called Matthew Trickett, was found dead in a park while on bail. The death was classified as “unexplained” by police, which in Britain refers to unexpected deaths whose cause is not immediately clear, including suicide. During Mr Trickett's first court appearance, the prosecutor alleged that Mr Trickett had attempted to take his own life after being charged.

Anxiety over the arrests has spread to the wider Hong Kong diaspora in Britain, even among those who are not politically active.

“You might expect something like this to happen, but it's still so surreal,” said Cheng, speaking from the central London office of Hong Kongers in Britain, an organization he founded to help new arrivals. Pinned to his sweater was a bright yellow umbrella, a symbol of the pro-democracy demonstrations that filled the streets of Hong Kong in 2014 and again in 2019.

China imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, granting authorities in the former British colony broad powers to crack down on dissent. In response to the law, Britain introduced a new visa for Hong Kong citizens. Since then, at least 180,000 Hong Kong citizens have moved under the visa program. Many have rebuilt their lives in Britain and continue to participate in the pro-democracy movement from afar.

Britain's Foreign Office said this month that recent intelligence-gathering allegations appear to be part of a “pattern of behavior directed by China against the UK”, which includes bounties issued for information on dissidents.

Thomas Fung, 32, hopes the arrests will mark the start of a concerted effort by the British government to fight Chinese repression. “We always knew there was some sort of intelligence, or spying on people, or just monitoring what we're doing here,” he said.

Mr Fung came to England in 2012 to study accountancy. After graduating he found a job in Oxford and decided to stay. As pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong grew, he felt compelled to show his support.

He participated in solidarity protests in London and later volunteered to help new arrivals in Hong Kong resettle. Eventually, he founded Bonham Tree Aid, a charity that supports political prisoners in Hong Kong. The first time his organization's name was mentioned in a pro-Beijing newspaper in mainland China, he said, “I knew there was no going back.”

Politically active Hongkongers like Fung and Cheng are not the only ones who fear being targeted by Beijing. Families seeking better education and young professionals seeking job opportunities also feel threatened, said Richard Choi, a community organizer in the south London neighborhood of Sutton.

Sutton is sometimes referred to as “little Hong Kong” because nearly 4,000 former Hong Kong residents have resettled there as of 2021.

Mr Choi, 42, came to London in 2008 for work and now runs a Facebook group for newcomers to Sutton. He carefully obscures the community's faces in the photographs he shares, as many fear they are being monitored.

“I feel like they are very nervous or have lost confidence,” he said of the newcomers. The community became even more nervous, he said, after Hong Kong passed a law known as Article 23 in March that provides penalties including life imprisonment for political crimes and extends to Hong Kongers abroad.

“Maybe there was a period when people relaxed a little,” Choi said, but those with family in Hong Kong fear that if they return, they could be jailed. “They feel they have to behave and not say anything.”

Some in the diaspora remain pro-democracy activists despite the risks. “I'm very proud of my identity as a Hong Kong person,” said Vivian Wong, who moved to London in 2015 and opened a restaurant, Aquila Cafe, in east London in 2021.

The restaurant serves popular Hong Kong dishes and has become a place where members of the diaspora can gather for events and support each other. Inside, a noisy kitchen is manned by Hong Kong chefs serving steaming bowls of shrimp wonton soup and plates of crispy Hong Kong French toast filled with salted egg yolk.

Photographs of protests hang on the walls and the blue flag of British Hong Kong flies above the cash register. Ms Wong knows that these symbols are seen by China as provocative, but she remains steadfast in her opposition to communist rule.

“They try to threaten us,” he said, “but I'm not afraid.”

Catherine Li, 28, moved to London in 2018 to study theatre. She began organizing solidarity protests in London in 2019. For a time she used an online pseudonym to hide her identity. But when some of her political art went viral, she felt she couldn't hide anymore and started using her real name.

Her political views have put her at odds with her family in Hong Kong, and she knows she risks arrest if she returns. “It took me a long time to accept that,” she said, a tension she explores in her one-woman show, “In an Alternate Universe, I Don't Want to Live in the UK.”

Despite these challenges, Ms Li said she has found a sense of community in London.

That's where she met her partner, Finn Lau, 30, after moving to the city in 2020. Their lives are now an intense balance between their day jobs: Ms Li as a video game tester and actress, Mr Lau as an actress, building surveyor – and activism.

Lau was among eight dissidents for whom Hong Kong authorities offered a bounty last July. He and others on the list have been warned they will be “persecuted for life”.

And he hasn't always found London a refuge. He was brutally attacked under suspicious circumstances by masked men in London in 2020. His face still bears the scars.

Mr Lau believes the attack was linked to his activism, but police told him it was likely a hate crime. The investigation was closed after a few weeks. He has also been approached by fake journalists whom he suspects are working on behalf of the Chinese government.

Arrests in London this month gave him new hope after he was frustrated by what he saw as British inaction in the face of the growing Chinese threat.

“This is the first real and critical action by the British authorities taking the threats to the people of Hong Kong seriously,” Lau said.

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