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U.K. Summons Chinese Ambassador for Reprimand as Tensions Rise

The day after U.K. police charged three men with assisting Hong Kong’s intelligence service, China’s ambassador to Britain was summoned for an official reprimand by the British foreign ministry in the latest sign of growing tension between London and Beijing.

The British government said that it had called the ambassador, Zheng Zeguang, to its Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office after the three men appeared in court on Monday.

The Foreign Office said in a statement that it had been “unequivocal in setting out that the recent pattern of behavior directed by China against the U.K.” was not acceptable. It cited cyberattacks, alleged espionage and the issuing of bounties for information leading to the prosecution of dissidents who fled Hong Kong after its crackdown on the pro-democracy movement and resettled in Britain.

The three men who appeared at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Monday have been charged with gathering intelligence for Hong Kong, a former British colony which is a special administrative region of China, and of forcing entry into a U.K. residential address.

They were identified as Chi Leung (Peter) Wai, 38, of Staines-upon-Thames; Matthew Trickett, 37, of Maidenhead; and Chung Biu Yuen, 63, of Hackney, East London.

Mr. Yuen, a retired Hong Kong police officer, is the office manager for the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London, one of 14 Hong Kong government outposts outside China.

Mr. Wai is a border force officer based at Heathrow Airport and a volunteer police officer in the City of London, the capital’s financial district. He is also the founder of a London security firm, D5. Its website describes him as “having over 20 years’ experience in the British military, police and private security sector” and providing “exclusive and discreet services to his clients.”

Mr. Trickett, a British immigration enforcement officer and a former Royal Marine, is the director of a private security firm, MTR Consultancy.

The Hong Kong authorities confirmed that an employee of the trade office in London had been charged. In a statement on Monday, the government called on the United Kingdom to handle the case fairly and to “protect the legitimate rights and interests of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office’s Office Manager who was alleged to be involved.”

China’s Embassy said it “firmly rejects and strongly condemns the U.K.’s fabrication of the so-called case and its unwarranted accusation” against the Hong Kong government, and that it had “made serious representations to the U.K.”

It added: “For some time now, the U.K. has staged a series of accusations against China, including those on ‘China spies’ and cyberattacks. All those accusations are groundless and slanderous.”

At the meeting on Tuesday, the Chinese Embassy said its ambassador had told Foreign Office officials that Britain “must stop anti-China political maneuvering and not go further down the dangerous path of jeopardizing China-UK relations.”

Whether the charges against the three men are true or false, they have focused attention on broader concerns about the status of pro-democracy activists who sought refuge in Britain after Hong Kong authorities cracked down on popular, youth-led protests in 2019 and 2020.

In January 2021, Britain began allowing some Hong Kong residents to settle in the United Kingdom under a special visa program. More than 160,000 people, including high-profile activists and other citizens, took part, rebuilding their lives and the pro-democracy movement on British soil.

But many activists say that repression has followed them to the U.K., resulting in a series of clashes with pro-Beijing forces.

In November 2021, Hong Kong pro-democracy activists showed up at an antiracism event organized by pro-China groups in London’s Chinatown. They were attacked by thugs aligned with the event organizers, according to witnesses.

In October 2022, a rally outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester turned violent when a group of men dragged a protester through the consulate’s gates and beat him up.

Alicia Kearns, chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Britain’s Parliament, accused the then-consul general, Zheng Xiyuan, of participating in the scuffle. After the British government requested that consular officials waive their right to diplomatic immunity and allow detectives to question them, China removed Mr. Zheng and five other officials from the country.

Then in July 2023, Hong Kong announced bounties of $128,000 for information leading to the prosecution of eight dissidents who had fled, including several living in Britain. Hong Kong’s top leader, John Lee, said they would be “pursued for life.” Five more activists were added to the bounty list in December.

On Tuesday afternoon, one of those activists, Simon Cheng, attended a protest outside the trade office in central London’s leafy Bedford Square. Mr. Cheng, 33, the founder of a diaspora group Hongkongers in Britain, said he had regular contact with the police over safety fears after Hong Kong issued the bounty in December for information leading to his arrest.

“Many dignitaries in the U.K. still go into this building,” he said, gesturing to the Hong Kong trade office behind him, for business and trade opportunities. “We cannot tolerate this, this is literally an authoritarian regime, suppressing our people.”

Around three dozen pro-democracy protesters, many of them young people who fled Hong Kong after its draconian national security law was passed, had gathered for the demonstration. Some wore face masks to shield themselves from being easily identified over worries about being targeted by the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities, while others spoke freely and shared their full names.

Tony Chung, 23, a prominent pro-democracy protester who fled to Britain last year after being imprisoned in Hong Kong under the national security law, said that many Hong Kongers living in London felt they had to be vigilant about their public role.

“They’ve always been worried about these situations and thus have reduced participation in political matters related to Hong Kong-Chinese democracy, human rights and freedom,” he said. “But, my hope is that Hong Kongers living in the U.K. will understand political fears should especially be expressed, and must persuade the U.K. government to take action.”

Tensions between London and Beijing have risen in recent months as the British government has become increasingly vocal over allegations of Chinese espionage.

In March Britain accused China of cyberattacks that compromised the voting records of tens of millions of people, adding that the Chinese had attempted unsuccessfully to hack email accounts belonging to several members of Parliament. In April two men, one of whom worked as a researcher in Parliament, were charged with spying for China.

And earlier this month the British government said that the personal information of British army, navy and air force members has been hacked in a significant data breach. While it did not identify any source for the attack, several prominent British lawmakers blamed China.

Anne Keast-Butler, the director of Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, the intelligence agency known as GCHQ, said in a speech on Tuesday that China had built “an advanced set of cybercapabilities and is taking advantage of a growing commercial ecosystem of hacking outfits and data brokers at its disposal.”

China, she added in comments at a conference, “poses a genuine and increasing cyber risk to the U.K.”

Tiffany May contributed reporting.

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