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.

Last week, 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.

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