Hong Kong

China Escalates Hong Kong Conflict By Detaining Consulate Staffer

Simon Cheng Man-kit, a staffer at the British Consulate in Hong Kong, hasn't returned from a trip he took to mainland China nearly two weeks ago.


Simon Cheng Man-kit, a 28-year-old staffer at the British Consulate in Hong Kong, hasn't returned from an August 8 trip to mainland China. Many fear Cheng's disappearance is a harbinger of hostile actions against people suspected of supporting the Hong Kong protests.

On August 8, Cheng left Hong Kong for a business conference in Shenzhen, China. According to his girlfriend, Annie Li, Cheng had planned to come home that same day via the high-speed rail that connects the two cities. Li and Cheng's family reported him missing on August 9. 

Under Chinese law, authorities can legally detain people for up to 15 days without providing them access to legal representation or a court hearing. Families are supposed to be notified, but Cheng's family says they have heard nothing and do not know Cheng's whereabouts.

Yesterday afternoon, The New York Times reported that a spokesperson for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed Cheng is "being held under a 15-day administrative detention, without citing specifics of his alleged wrongdoing."

Cheng is a low-level staffer in the Scottish Development International wing of the British consulate. He reportedly holds a British National (Overseas), or BN(O), passport—the type held by Hong Kong residents before 1997, when Hong Kong was under British rule. Holders of BN(O) passports occupy murky legal territory; they're British nationals, but not British citizens (some of them are Chinese nationals as well), but the main benefit is that BN(O) holders are entitled to British consular assistance abroad. It's unclear whether he entered China on a BN(O) or a home return permit, which allows visa-free visits to China at a much cheaper cost, but also complicates your status and means you're effectively treated as a Chinese citizen. Other journalists have noted that the British government erred in not giving Cheng diplomatic protection, considering the rising tensions between Beijing and Hong Kong.

Hong Kong police are handling Cheng's disappearance as a missing person case. It's unclear why Cheng was targeted; there's no indication that he has been participating in the anti-extradition treaty, pro-democracy protests that have been shaking Hong Kong for nearly three months. Jack Hazlewood, an activist who has lived in Hong Kong most of his life, tells Reason Cheng's detention is intended to scare residents into submission. "They're very much holding him to make an example of him and strike fear into pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong."

"There's nothing he's done specifically except put up a Facebook profile frame in support of a pro-democracy march, which is of course completely legal in Hong Kong," notes Hazlewood.

The extradition treaty, which on June 9 sparked protests, would allow the extradition of suspected criminals to the People's Republic of China (PRC). Hong Kong is technically part of China but enjoys significant autonomy under the "one country, two systems" policy. Though the extradition treaty was subsequently suspended, many Hongkongers want it to be fully pulled. They're also calling for Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resign, given her interest in ceding more political power to mainland China.

More generally, the protests have symbolized Hongkongers' interest in protecting their democracy and freedom from steadily-increasing Chinese intrusion.

Since the news of Cheng's disappearance became public, protesters and concerned citizens in Hong Kong have started putting up "missing" posters—a necessary caution to dissident Hongkongers who might want to travel to Shenzhen or other parts of mainland China.