Spying Arrests Send Chill Through Britain’s Thriving Hong Kong Community

Simon Cheng still visibly tenses when he describes his detention in China. In 2019, Mr. Cheng, a pro-democracy activist from Hong Kong and a former employee of Britain’s Consulate there, was arrested after a business trip to mainland China.

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

“It’s not hard to adapt to a new life in the U.K. in some ways,” said Mr. Cheng, 33. “But also, I can’t move on from the fate of my home city.”

His activism — and China’s pursuit of him — did not end once he moved to London. Last year, the Hong Kong authorities put a bounty on Mr. Cheng and other activists, offering $128,000 for information leading to their arrest. Still, like many Hong Kong activists living in self-imposed exile in Britain, he hoped his newfound distance from the Chinese authorities put him far from 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 will not begin until February — the news of the arrests threw a spotlight on many activists’ existing concerns about China’s ability to surveil and harass its citizens abroad, particularly those who have been critical of the government.

A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry on Friday denounced what he called the “false accusations” and “vile actions” of the British authorities in taking the case. Last week, one of the accused men, a British former marine called Matthew Trickett, was found dead in a park while on bail. The death was categorized as “unexplained” by the police, which in Britain refers to unexpected deaths where the cause is not immediately clear, including suicide. During Mr. Trickett’s initial court appearance, the prosecutor said that Mr. Trickett had tried to take his own life after being charged.

Anxiety over the arrests has rippled through the broader Hong Kong diaspora in Britain, even among those who are not politically active.

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

China imposed a draconian national security law in Hong Kong in 2020, granting the authorities in the former British colony sweeping 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 Kongers have relocated through 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 the recent accusations of intelligence gathering appeared to be part of a “pattern of behavior directed by China against the U.K.,” which includes the bounties being issued for information on dissidents.

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

Mr. Fung came to England in 2012 to study accounting. He got a job in Oxford when he graduated and decided to stay. As Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations swelled, he felt compelled to show his support.

He participated in solidarity protests in London and later volunteered to help newly arrived Hong Kongers 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 turning back.”

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

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

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

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

“Maybe there was a period where people relaxed a bit,” Mr. 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 vocal pro-democracy activists despite the risks. “I am 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 one another. Inside, a noisy kitchen is run by chefs from Hong Kong slinging out steaming bowls of shrimp wonton soup and plates of crispy Hong Kong French toast stuffed with salted egg yolk.

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

“They try to threaten us,” she said, “but I am not afraid.”

Catherine Li, 28, moved to London in 2018 to study theater. She began organizing solidarity protests in London in 2019. For a time, she used a pseudonym online to hide her identity. But when some of her political art went viral, she felt she could no longer hide and began using her real name.

Her political views have left her at odds with her family back in Hong Kong, and she knows that she risks arrest if she were to return. “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 U.K.”

Despite those difficulties, Ms. Li said she had found a sense of community in London.

It is where she met her partner, Finn Lau, 30, after he resettled in the city in 2020. Their lives are now a busy balance of their day jobs — Ms. Li as a video game tester and actress, Mr. Lau as a building surveyor — and activism.

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

And he has not always found London to be a haven. 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 related to his activism, but the police told him it was probably a hate crime. The investigation was closed after a few weeks. He has also been approached by fake journalists he suspects were working on behalf of the Chinese government.

The arrests in London this month have given him new hope after being frustrated by what he saw as British inaction to a growing Chinese threat.

“It’s the first real, critical action from British authorities to take the threats to Hong Kong people seriously,” Mr. Lau said.

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