Hong Kong trade official accused of spying for city’s government

3 men are charged including a manager at Hong Kong’s Economic and Trade Office in London.
By Jasmine Man for RFA Mandarin, Lee Heung Yeung, Edward Li and Alice Yam for RFA Cantonese
2024.05.14
Hong Kong trade official accused of spying for city’s government Defendant Chung Biu Yuen leaves Westminster Magistrates' Court after being charged with assisting Hong Kong's foreign intelligence service, in London, Britain, May 13, 2024.
Toby Melville/Reuters

Hong Kong's Chief Executive John Lee on Tuesday confirmed that one of three defendants charged with spying for his government in the United Kingdom holds a senior post at the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London, but defended the role of his city's global network of offices.

British police on Monday charged three people with spying for the Hong Kong government after a nationwide operation that saw 11 arrests using powers under new national security legislation.

Peter Wai, 38, Matthew Trickett, 37, and Chung Biu Yuen, 63, have been charged under the United Kingdom's National Security Act 2023 with "assisting a foreign intelligence service," and "foreign interference," London's Metropolitan Police said in a statement.

"The foreign intelligence service to which the above charges relate is that of Hong Kong," the statement said.

Lee said his government has demanded full disclosure from the British government.

"We have seriously demanded that the U.K. handle the matter fairly, and effectively protect the legitimate rights and interests of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office's office manager, who was alleged to be involved," Lee told reporters in Hong Kong. 

He was referring to the defendant named by the  police as Chung Biu Yuen, and listed on the Office's official website as Bill C.B. Yuen, office manager.

Lee appeared to deny that the city's economic and trade offices were engaged in espionage. He said they were tasked with developing trade, economic and cultural ties between Hong Kong and other countries, and called on governments around the world to “respect the rightful duty” of the offices.

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Defendant Chi Leung Wai, also known as Peter Wai, leaves Westminster Magistrates' Court after being charged with assisting Hong Kong's foreign intelligence service, in London, Britain, May 13, 2024. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Lee also confirmed that he appeared in a 2002 photo alongside Yuen as they graduated from a Graduate Certificate in Police Management at Australia's Charles Sturt University.

China said Monday it has made "serious representations" to the British government regarding the spying allegations, calling the case a "fabrication" and a form of "political manipulation."

"All those accusations are groundless and slanderous," the Chinese Embassy in London said in a statement on its official website, adding that the British authorities had "wantonly harassed, arrested and detained Chinese citizens in the U.K. under the pretext of judicial and national security."

"This constitutes a grave provocation against China," the statement said.

Latest in string of spy cases

The charges are the latest in a slew of China-related espionage cases across Europe in recent weeks, highlighting concerns over the extent to which agents of the Chinese state have penetrated the workings of democratic governments and activists in exile, and prompting angry protests from Beijing.

They also come after repeated reports from Hong Kongers in exile of violent attacks and surveillance on foreign soil by suspected Chinese agents, as well as bounties placed by Hong Kong national security police on the heads of several prominent activists in exile.

The three men, who appeared at Westminster Magistrates' Court on Monday, are accused of assisting a foreign intelligence service between December and May by "agreeing to undertake information gathering, surveillance and acts of deception" in Britain, according to the charges.

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Journalists wait outside Westminster Magistrates' Court on May 13, 2024, where three men appeared charged with spying for the Hong Kong government. (RFA)

The second charge alleges the three men conducted "foreign interference" by forcing entry into a residential address in Britain on May 1.

All three men appeared in court on Monday only to confirm their personal details, and entered no plea. They were all released on bail, and will appear in court again on May 24.

The indictment named U.K.-based former pro-democracy lawmaker Nathan Law, exiled activist Finn Lau and veteran labor unionist Christopher Mung, all of whom have bounties on their heads and warrants for their arrest issued by Hong Kong's national security police amid an ongoing crackdown on public dissent, as among the targets of the alleged activities.

Hong Kongers in the United Kingdom have also spoken in recent months about threats to their personal safety and acts of violence by Beijing supporters and officials.

11 arrested in sweep

British counter-terrorism police arrested 11 people in a nationwide sweep of suspects, but charged only three of them. The others were released by the end of last week, the Metropolitan Police statement said.

The force's counter-terrorism chief Cmdr. Dominic Murphy said the operation had been nationwide, and that investigations are ongoing.

"A number of arrests were made and searches carried out across England as part of this investigation," Murphy said. "The Counter Terrorism Policing network has been crucial to disrupting this activity."

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Espionage suspects named by German police as Thomas R, Ina F and Herwig F. (RFA)

Authorities in Germany last month arrested three Germans on suspicion of stealing military science and technology secrets for the Chinese government.

While the three were only identified as Thomas R., Ina F. and Herwig F., the trio were linked in media reports to an organization called the Smart City Association, whose chairman is listed on its website as Thomas Reichenbach.

According to Reichenbach's bio, he has a background in strategic management consultancy, and specializes in electric vehicle technology transfer between Germany and China.

Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post newspaper reported on May 9 that Reichenbach had also worked as a marketing manager at the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, starting in July 2022.

The Council confirmed to RFA Cantonese on May 10 that Reichenbach was a former employee, but said the investigation was into his "personal activities," and had nothing to do with the government.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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