(Bloomberg) -- China has detained an employee of the U.K. consulate in Hong Kong during a trip to the mainland, according to his girlfriend, in a case that threatens to further strain ties between Beijing and London.
Simon Cheng, 28, was reported missing after failing to return from an Aug. 8 meeting in the adjacent city of Shenzhen. The Hong Kong police said it has launched a “missing person” investigation and was keeping “close contact” with Chinese authorities. News site HK01 first reported Cheng’s disappearance.
“Simon’s disappearance and detention without reason will create panic among investors and entrepreneurs all over the world,” said Annie Li, Cheng’s girlfriend. “I call on relevant authorities in the mainland to release Simon as soon as possible and restore confidence of foreign investors and the public.”
The incident comes at a sensitive time for the U.K. and China, which has accused the British government of meddling in its former colony by defending the rights of pro-democracy demonstrators. U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab spoke with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Aug. 9 to discuss “concerns about the situation in the city and the protests there,” the foreign office said in a statement that made no mention of Cheng’s case.
Concerns about the safety of foreign diplomatic staff operating in China have increased since Michael Kovrig, a global security analyst on leave from the Canadian foreign service, was detained in December and later accused of espionage. The move came amid a spat between Beijing and Ottawa over the arrest of a Chinese executive accused of sanctions violation in the U.S.
The U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office said Tuesday it was providing Cheng’s family with support and seeking information from authorities in Hong Kong and Guangdong, the southern Chinese province which includes Shenzhen.
Cheng was concerned about his safety as he prepared to pass through immigration on his return home to Hong Kong, according to text messages shown by Li. “Passing through. Pray for me,” he told his girlfriend.
China has stepped up border controls near Hong Kong as authorities seek to prevent the financial hub’s unrest from spreading. Travelers into China are being asked to unlock their smartphones so Chinese agents can examine their chats and social media, Bloomberg News reported last week, citing a person familiar with the procedure.
Read more: China Border Agents Probe Hong Kong Travelers’ Devices
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Cheng successfully crossed the mainland border and made it to the high-speed railway station staffed by mainland agents on the Hong Kong side. Also unknown was what, if any, diplomatic protections were available to Cheng.
He’s employed by the U.K. Consulate General and works for Scottish Development International, a body that encourages companies to do business with and invest in Scotland. SDI said it was seeking further information, and that Cheng’s welfare was its priority.
Immigration authorities told Li that Cheng was being held in administrative detention, though they don’t know why or where he is being held in. Authorities can hold people for as long as 15 days under that process. He holds a British national overseas passport, the New York Times reported, which entitles him to consular representation but does not grant automatic rights to live or work in the U.K.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular press briefing Tuesday in Beijing that he wasn’t familiar with the reports on Cheng’s disappearance.
The Chinese government has said “foreign forces” are interfering in Hong Kong, and its envoy in London accused British politicians of behaving as though the territory was still part of the U.K. Liu Xiaoming said Hong Kong faces the “gravest situation” since the 1997 handover due to the unrest.
The Hong Kong Immigration Department told Bloomberg News that the agency has reached out to the city’s trade office in Guangdong seeking information about the case. The Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Guangdong confirmed it received the request, and said it would follow up with the agency.
“We are extremely concerned by reports that a member of our team has been detained returning to Hong Kong from Shenzhen,” Foreign Office said.
--With assistance from Peter Martin, Iain Marlow, Dandan Li, Karen Leigh and Michael Sin.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sheryl Tian Tong Lee in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at email@example.com, Stuart Biggs, Mark Williams
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