Britain 'extremely concerned' by reports Hong Kong consulate employee held on China trip

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A protester waving a British flag during a demonstration at Hong Kong airport, on Aug 9, 2019. PHOTO: AP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Britain said it was "extremely concerned" by reports that a Hong Kong consulate worker was detained during a recent trip to mainland China, a case that threatens to add to strains between Beijing and London.

The statement came after news site HK01 reported that the British consular employee, Simon Cheng, 28, was reported missing after failing to return from an Aug 8 meeting in the adjacent city of Shenzhen.

The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office said it was providing the man's family with support and seeking further information from authorities in Hong Kong and Guangdong province.

"We are extremely concerned by reports that a member of our team has been detained returning to Hong Kong from Shenzhen," the office said.

The Hong Kong police didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing didn't respond to a faxed request for comment.

The report comes at a sensitive time for Britain and China, which has accused the British government of meddling in its former colony by defending the rights of demonstrators.

British 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.

Text messages published by HK01 suggest that Cheng and his Taiwanese girlfriend were concerned about his safety as he prepared to pass through immigration on his return home.

"Passing through. Pray for me," he told his girlfriend, identified only by her surname Lee.

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.

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 the procedure.

The move came amid a spat between Beijing and Ottawa over the arrest of a Chinese executive accused of sanctions violation in the US.

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, whose LinkedIn profile lists his job as a trade and investment officer with Scottish Development International.

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