UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab apparently made quite the impression when he spoke out in support of Hong Kong demonstrators earlier this month: Because, in an incident that is perhaps unsettlingly reminiscent of Beijing's arrest of a former Canadian diplomat and a Canadian businessman, as well as Turkey's arrest of Turkish nationals who worked in the American consulate, an employee of the British consulate in Hong Kong has gone missing after failing to return home from a conference in Shenzen.
According to BBG, the UK said it was "extremely concerned" by reports that a Hong Kong consulate worker was detained during a recent trip to mainland China, a case that threatens to add to strains between Beijing and London.
"We are extremely concerned by reports that a member of our team has been detained returning to Hong Kong from Shenzhen," a spokesman for the UK’s Foreign Office said in a statement. "We are providing support to his family and seeking further information from authorities in Guangdong Province and Hong Kong."
Raab spoke with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Aug. 9 to discuss "concerns about the situation in the city and the protests there." But even before that, Beijing had accused the UK of meddling in the affairs of its former colony by standing up for the pro-democracy demonstrators.
The employee, Simon Cheng Man-kit, is a trade and investment officer at the Hong Kong consulate’s Scottish Development International section, according to the Telegraph.
It is unclear whether he entered China on a diplomatic passport. Cheng, an HK permanent resident, reportedly crossed into China via the Lo Wu border crossing and planned to return the same day using the Express Rail link.
Simon Cheng Man-kit
As BBG reminds us, the safety of diplomatic staff, who technically should have immunity from persecution, has been under threat since Michael Kovrig, a Canadian who was on leave from the Canadian diplomatic service, was arrested in China last year. He has since been charged with espionage.
Text messages published by Hong Kong radio station HK01 suggest that Cheng and his Taiwanese girlfriend were concerned about his safety as he prepared to pass through immigration on his return to Hong Kong from the conference.
He reportedly texted "pray for me" to his girlfriend, identified only by her surname Lee, before trying to cross back into HK.
Beijing has sought to stop the unrest in HK from spreading over the border by cracking down on border controls in the mini-financial hub that lies just across the border from Hong Kong. Travelers into China are reportedly being asked to unlock their smartphones so Chinese immigration agents can look at their chats and social media.
Immigration authorities reportedly told Lee that Chen was being held in administrative detention. Authorities can hold people for as long as 15 days under that process, though if Cheng has been held since Aug. 8, then his limit is coming up.