UK grants asylum to ex-staffer at its Hong Kong consulate

A former employee at the British consulate in Hong Kong has been granted political asylum in what he believes is the first successful U.K. asylum case from the former British colony

LONDON -- A former employee at the British consulate in Hong Kong has been granted political asylum in what he believes is the first successful U.K. asylum case from the former British colony.

Simon Cheng, who alleges that he was detained and tortured in China last year, told The Associated Press that he hopes his successful application encourages other democracy activists from the semi-autonomous Chinese territory to seek protection in the U.K. as Beijing clamps down on the city’s protest movement.

Cheng, 29, also said that while he is relieved asylum was granted, he remains worried "they will take my family members as hostage and send more agents to crush down the pro-democracy cause and activities outside of Hong Kong.”

Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the city this week, bypassing Hong Kong’s legislature in a move that has been condemned by the U.S., the European Union and Britain, among others. Critics say the law effectively ends the “one country, two systems” framework that guaranteed the territory a high level of autonomy and civil liberties when it reverted from British to Chinese rule 23 years ago.

Cheng, who was a trade and investment officer at the British consulate tasked with attracting Chinese investment in Scotland, said he joined massive anti-government protests in the city last year to collect information for the consulate.

He went missing on Aug. 8 after being detained while returning to Hong Kong from a business trip to Shenzhen, a mainland Chinese city just across the border.

Cheng has said he was hooded, beaten and deprived of sleep during 15 days of detention as agents sought information on protesters. He said he was also questioned about Britain's alleged role in supporting the demonstrations.

China has not directly addressed Cheng’s allegations, but the Foreign Ministry has dismissed protests from the British government over the affair as “so-called concerns or complaints.”

The ministry has cited a statement by Shenzhen police issued in August saying Cheng’s legal rights had been protected and that he had “admitted his offense completely,” an apparent reference to a confession of soliciting prostitution.

Cheng said he confessed to the offense of soliciting prostitution in order to avoid harsher treatment.

He said he applied for asylum in Britain late last year and received it Tuesday.

“My case is about political persecution intrinsically,” Cheng said Thursday in London. “I hope my case could be a precedent for other Hong Kongers who are not protected by the British National Overseas lifeboat scheme. They can quote my case to apply for asylum and seek protection.”

Several other asylum cases involving people from Hong Kong are pending, he said.

Nathan Law, a leading member of Hong Kong's opposition movement, posted on Facebook that he had left Hong Kong for an undisclosed location out of concern for his personal safety and that of others.

Britain announced Wednesday that amid widespread concern about the security law and Hong Kong’s future, the U.K. would extend residency rights for Hong Kongers eligible for British National Overseas passports.

The passports were introduced in the 1980s under colonial rule. British officials estimate some 2.9 million people are eligible. But those born after 1997 cannot apply, leaving out many young student activists at the core of the pro-democracy movement.

China condemned the British move, saying that holders of the BNO passports are Chinese citizens and that the U.K. had violated a commitment it had made not to grant them the right to stay in Britain.

“The British side disregarded China’s solemn position and insisted on changing the policy,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Thursday. “The Chinese side strongly condemns this and reserves the right to make further responses. All resulting consequences will be borne by the British side.”

Australia has said it is considering options “to provide similar opportunities” to those offered by Britain.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters Thursday that a final decision has not been made, “but if you’re asking: are we prepared to step up and provide support, the answer is: yes.”

Zhao, asked about the comments, said Australia should “immediately stop interfering in China’s internal affairs with the so-called Hong Kong issue and avoid going further down the wrong path.”

Cheng urged protesters not to give up and pledged to help their cause from abroad.

“We’re developing the alternative way, a pro-democracy cause overseas to reinforce those helpless people who have no choice or chose to stay in Hong Kong,” he said. “I do believe in the future we have less and less legal ground to fight for democracy within the system, within Hong Kong, peacefully, safely and legally.”