Exclusive: UK must grant Hong Kong people asylum as China imposes security laws, says tortured Cheng

Sophia Yan
Simon Cheng was tortured by Chinese secret police for two week in 2019 after being labelled an 'enemy of the state' while working at the British consulate in Hong Kong - OLIVIER MARCENY/COPYRIGHT 2019 OLIVIER MARCENY

Simon Cheng Man-kit, a former UK consulate worker tortured by Chinese secret police, is urging the British government to give Hong Kong people the opportunity to come to the UK as Beijing imposes a national security law in the territory.

The law – set to be approved Thursday by China’s parliament, bypassing Hong Kong's legislature – will criminalise separatism, subversion, terrorism and acts of foreign interference, and paves the way for the ruling Communist Party to quash dissent under the guise of national security. 

“It’s a disaster – I cannot imagine any other scenario worse than this,” Mr Cheng told The Telegraph, who fears the torture he endured in China last year over Britain’s role in Hong Kong, will soon become commonplace. “Once they ‘legalise’ it, then it will become undeniable reality.”

“The UK government has no excuse to turn a blind eye,” he said. British authorities should “grant asylum to Hong Kong citizens and equalise the rights of British National Overseas holders.”

British authorities must “take care of the Hong Kong people,” rather than spouting “words [that] are still quite constrained and moderate.”

Thirteen asylum applications have been filed in the UK by people from Hong Kong, including Mr Cheng’s, since the start of 2019; a decision on his application is expected next month. During the same time frame, two applications were refused and four were withdrawn, according to government data.

 

Mr Cheng, a Hong Kong citizen, applied for asylum last year after being disappeared by Chinese secret police for more than two weeks, during which he was subjected to physical torture, psychological intimidation, political indoctrination, and repeated interrogations, sometimes by a team of 15 men.

Before speaking, he had to seek permission by saying, “Report, my master,” and was shackled for hours at a time. The nameless men threatened to kidnap him again if he ever revealed his ordeal.

Authorities called him an enemy of the state for working at the British consulate, threatened to charge him with espionage, and demanded he confess the UK government was masterminding protests in Hong Kong as a direct challenge to China. For months, Beijing had accused unspecified “foreign black hands” for fomenting unrest.

The UK government publicly acknowledged Mr Cheng’s treatment and granted a visa for him to arrive in the UK, after the Telegraph reported details of his detention, while the Chinese government retaliated with a smear campaign against him.

Mr Cheng also urged the British government to extend the right to abode to British Nationals Overseas, giving Hong Kong people another option to come to the UK.

Introduced near the end of colonial rule, BNO status affords a passport and consular assistance, but no right to live and work in the UK. It’s long been a point of contention, especially after Portugal extended citizenship rights before returning its colony of Macau to mainland Chinese rule in 1999.

About 315,000 people currently hold BNO passports, though about 3 million people who let their status lapse upon expiry would be eligible to renew. 

An activist holds up a sign with Mr Cheng's face after his disappearance last August - AFP/AFP Contributor#AFP

The UK government has so far resisted calls to grant full citizenship to BNO passport holders, a move that would further aggravate China. 

But Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, among other MPs, are renewing a push to extend greater rights to BNO holders. Last year, as pro-democracy protests roiled the streets of Hong Kong for months, a petition seeking citizenship for BNO holders received nearly 102,000 signatures.

The UK could also implement sanctions against China or raise a debate at the United Nations over whether Beijing’s actions breach the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty meant to guarantee Hong Kong’s unique way of life until 2047, said Mr Cheng, who now leads the Umbrella Union, an overseas activist group. 

While that could encourage greater global scrutiny regarding the rise of China, it would be too little, too late to diminish Beijing’s encroaching influence on the city.

“It’s already the end of ‘one country, two systems,’” said Mr Cheng, referring to the territory’s unique system of governance, aimed at preserving the former British colony’s rights and freedoms, unseen in mainland China. “China wants to build the world order themselves, rather than comply with the international order.” 

He fears “Hong Kong is becoming another Xinjiang or Tibet,” two regions in China that have suffered severe crackdowns under what Communist authorities justified as rooting out separatists and terrorists. In Xinjiang, millions of Muslims are being tortured in detention camps, according to Telegraph interviews with former detainees, and Tibet remains sealed. 

Simon Cheng demonstrates one of the positions security officers made his stand in for hours each day as part of his torture. If his muscles shook, he would be hit with a rod - OLIVIER MARCENY/OLIVIER MARCENY

Chinese authorities are “paving the road to detain protesters by saying they are terrorists,” said Mr Cheng. Then the Communist Party “can legitimise and legalise dealing with the protesters with an iron fist and heavy hand.” 

As Hong Kong braces for more clashes, China’s military has warned ominously that it stood ready to “safeguard” sovereignty in Hong Kong, Chen Daoxiang, commander of the garrison stationed in the territory told state television. 

Fear is so pervasive about what life in Hong Kong will be like under the new national security law that providers of virtual private networks, or VPNs, which mask internet traffic, have seen demand spike in recent days.

In mainland China, police routinely detain people whose comments online go against the Party’s official line – a harrowing ordeal that some of Mr Cheng’s friends have experienced Most recently, thousands of Chinese have been punished by police for online speech about the coronavirus pandemic, even as the government crowed success in curbing the disease.

“It is not rule of law; it pretends to be rule of law, but it is definitely rule by law,” said Mr Cheng. It’s an “opaque system...the status of the highest court is still lower than the Party apparatus. There is no judicial independence at all.”