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Diplomatic tensions grow over UK arrest of Hong Kong trade office official
Diplomatic tensions grow over UK arrest of Hong Kong trade office official
Asia
Diplomatic tensions grow over UK arrest of Hong Kong trade office official
by DZRH News15 May 2024
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee speaks during the National Security Education Day opening ceremony in Hong Kong, China April 15, 2024. REUTERS/Lam Yik/ File Photo

By James Pomfret and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) -Hong Kong leader John Lee on Tuesday called for full information from British authorities on the arrests of three men, including a manager at a Hong Kong government office in the UK, who were charged with assisting Hong Kong's foreign intelligence service.

Speaking to reporters a day after the men appeared in a British court, Lee confirmed that one of the men, Bill Yuen, was a university classmate who was photographed with Lee in a group graduation photograph in 2002.

Lee cited a statement from the Chinese Embassy in London rejecting what it called "the UK's fabrication" of the case and its "unwarranted accusation" against the Hong Kong government.

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The three men are charged with assisting a foreign intelligence service between December 2023 and May 2024 by "agreeing to undertake information gathering, surveillance and acts of deception" in Britain.

Britain's foreign ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador to say that espionage and cyber attacks weren't acceptable.

The Chinese Embassy earlier said the case could jeopardise China-UK relations amid lingering tensions over a sweeping national security crackdown in Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The three are also charged with conducting "foreign interference" by forcing entry into a residential home.

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All the offences fall under the UK's National Security Act, which introduced new measures last year against foreign threats, including espionage and interference. The charges do not name the specific Hong Kong intelligence service.

Bill Yuen Chung-biu is listed as the office manager of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office (HKETO) in London, and is a former Hong Kong police officer.

A small group of black-clad individuals staged a protest outside the office, holding up a sign that read: "HKETO = Espionage and Trace Office"

Another defendant, Peter Wai, 38, a dual British and Chinese national, is a UK Border Force officer and ran his own private security firm. The third defendant, Matthew Trickett, is a former Royal Marine with a private security firm.

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Yuen, Wai and Trickett did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

ACTIVITIES AGAINST ACTIVISTS?

They face a maximum possible sentence of 14 years for each charge. They were not asked to enter any pleas and will next appear in London's Old Bailey court on May 24. The men were granted bail but have curfew and travel restrictions.

When asked whether Hong Kong authorities had spent any resources to perform surveillance on individuals in Britain, including Hong Kong activists, Lee did not directly address the question.

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Hong Kong media reported that Yuen had engaged the two others, including making direct payments from the HKETO's bank account, to engage in activities against individuals in the UK including activists.

Hong Kong police in 2023 offered bounties of HK$1 million ($128,000) for information leading to the arrest of 13 overseas-based activists amid a crackdown on dissent under a national security law imposed on Hong Kong in 2020. The law was introduced after months of sometimes violent pro-democracy street protests that swept Hong Kong a year earlier.

Several individuals under this bounty scheme are now based in the UK, including Nathan Law, Finn Lau and Christopher Mung.

"Becoming a target of state surveillance and tracking is definitely unsettling," Mung wrote on X.

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Lee defended the work of the HKETOs, of which there are 14 globally, including in the United States, Britain, Germany, Australia and Canada, saying they benefited trade and brought economic benefits.

Some overseas Hong Kong groups, U.S. congressmen and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China have pushed a bill called the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office Certification Act, which proposes removing diplomatic privileges from such offices, saying they are bases for Chinese influence activities on foreign soil.

Hong Kong authorities have denied the outposts engage in political activities.

"Any attempt to interfere with the work of the ETO offices in different places will be against free trade and free economy, and will be harming the economies of the countries that try to do bad things to the operations of the ETO offices," Lee said.

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(Reporting by James Pomfret and Jessie Pang in Hong Kong; Sachin Ravikumar in London; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Nick Macfie)

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