The family of a British Consulate official in Hong Kong have rejected a "made-up" report by Chinese state media that he was detained in the mainland for visiting prostitutes.
Simon Cheng, 28, who works as a trade and investment officer at the Hong Kong consulate’s Scottish Development International section, disappeared on August 8 on the way back from a business event in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, which borders the financial hub.
His Taiwanese girlfriend was the last to hear from him when he messaged her from the Express Rail link in the evening on his way back to Hong Kong to say: “Passing through. Pray for me.”
After the UK expressed “extreme concern” about the case this week, China's foreign ministry finally broke its silence on Wednesday, confirming that he had been detained in Shenzhen but not releasing any further details.
The idea that Mr Cheng would have gone to a prostitute was met with widespread derision on Hong Kong’s social media channels, with some pointing out that he had only been on a day trip on official business.
A Facebook page run by Cheng's family dismissed the report. "This is a made-up crime of soliciting prostitution, everyone should see it's a joke," the comment said.
On Thursday, The Global Times, published by the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily and often viewed as a government mouthpiece, cited in a report on its English-language website that Shenzhen police said Mr Cheng had been detained for 15 days for "solicitation of prostitution".
Police in Shenzhen's Luohu district said Cheng had violated article 66 of the law on administrative penalties for public security, the newspaper said.
The law stipulates that people who engage in prostitution or visit prostitutes shall be detained for no less than 10 days but no more than 15 days, and may also be fined 5,000 yuan (£580).
An FCO spokesperson said that the UK was continuing to “urgently seek further information” about his case. “Neither we nor Simon’s family have been able to speak to him since his detention. That is our priority and we continue to raise Simon’s case repeatedly in China, Hong Kong and London and have sought to make contact with Simon himself,” said the spokesperson.
Jeromy-Yu Chan, one of Mr Cheng’s Hong Kong-based friends, told The Telegraph the “horrendous” charge was a “Communist tactic” from their “old tricks book.”
Mr Cheng, who grew up in the city but studied in Taiwan, Japan and at the London School of Economics was “very nice, righteous and with good morality,” he said. “I would rather say he is so pure.”
With tensions rising between China and the West, the Canadian Consulate in Hong Kong said on Friday it had suspended travel to mainland China for local staff.
It remains unclear exactly where and when Mr Cheng’s arrest took place but his detention while travelling on the well-trafficked high speed rail link to Shenzhen has revived fears about the misuse of a controversial immigration arrangement in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon train station.
The train linking the two cities only passes through one immigration point, based at the station and shared by both China and Hong Kong.
Last year a widely-criticised deal between China and the city’s authorities placed part of the station under Chinese law, allowing Chinese immigration officials and police to operate for the first time in the heart of Hong Kong.
Critics of the decision fear that the unusual process could set a dangerous precedent and be used by China to extend its control over Hong Kong.
With Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests now in their eleventh week, the Chinese authorities have stepped up checks on travellers going in and out of Hong Kong and Shenzhen, with reports of officials searching through phones for signs of photos or support for the demonstrations.
At a rally in support of Mr Cheng outside the British Consulate on Wednesday, his friends expressed fears about the immigration controls in West Kowloon station. Mr Chan said he did not dare enter the building.
“Even if I am in the Hong Kong zone I could be dragged into the China zone,” he said. “And once you are in the so-called China zone there will be no help or support.”