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China reportedly seeking floor plans for diplomatic properties in Hong Kong

British Consulate General in Hong Kong. (MaDonna HM/Wikimedia Commons)
June 04, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Reports that China is trying to obtain floor plans for all properties used by foreign missions in Hong Kong have sparked security concerns, amid an ongoing crackdown under a draconian national security law imposed on the city by Beijing.

The Financial Times reported recently that China has demanded the floor plans of all properties rented by foreign missions in Hong Kong.

“The order has brought the city in line with how China treats embassies and consulates on the mainland and sparked fears in the diplomatic community that Beijing could use the information to plant listening devices, according to three people familiar with the matter,” the paper said in an Oct. 3 report on its website.

Simon Cheng, a former employee of the British Consulate General in Hong Kong, said Chinese state security police were insistent that he draw a floor plan of the consulate for them during his interrogations during a 15-day detention in August 2019.

Cheng said he wasn’t at all surprised by the FT report, suggesting the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will continue to tighten control on what it views as potentially hostile “foreign forces” that it blames for inciting the 2019 protest movement in Hong Kong.

“I think the freedom of movement of diplomats in Hong Kong will gradually be restricted, which will eventually worsen the relationships between China and foreign countries,” Cheng told RFA.

China confirmed on Aug. 21, 2019 that it was holding Cheng, then investment director for the Scottish International Development Agency under the aegis of the British Consulate General in Hong Kong, 11 days after his family reported him missing.

Cheng was reported missing after he failed to turn up to work since Aug. 9 following a trip across the border to the neighboring city of Shenzhen, in mainland China.

His detention came after weeks of tension between the U.K. and China, with Beijing repeatedly warning London not to “interfere” in its internal affairs by commenting on long-running pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Torture-induced confession

Cheng has since detailed his torture at the hands of Chinese state security police in Shenzhen, confirming speculation that he had been detained while in the controversial dual checkpoint area of the West Kowloon high-speed rail terminus, which was designated part of the People’s Republic of China in a controversial move amid fears of cross-border arrests and detentions within Hong Kong’s borders.

Cheng described interrogation sessions during which he was restrained in a “tiger chair” and asked to detail the role of the U.K. in the Hong Kong protests.

Told that he could be jailed for decades for subversion or rioting, Cheng was forced to confess to charge of “soliciting prostitutes.” He said papers relating to his detention had the date fields left blank, so he never knew if or when he would be released.

Benson Wong, former assistant politics professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said there has been a marked a shift in China’s attitude to foreign diplomats in the wake of the 2019 protest movement.

He said the request for floor plans as reported in the FT also included properties used to house diplomats and consular staff.

“[This would mean] that the places where foreign diplomats and even staff live are no longer safe,” he said.

“Embassy personnel could easily be targeted by the so-called national security law,” Wong said of a law that has criminalized public criticism of the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities anywhere in the world, regardless of nationality.

Wong said the new approach would be counterproductive, as Hong Kong tries to reestablish itself as a financial hub and attract more foreign investment.

Ever-widening crackdown

The imposition of the national security law from July 1, 2020 launched an ever-widening crackdown on public dissent and political opposition that has seen dozens of former opposition lawmakers and democracy activists detained for “subversion” for taking part in a democratic primary in 2020.

The mass public protests — which Beijing claims were incited by hostile foreign powers fomenting a “color revolution” in Hong Kong — and the increasingly violent responses by protesters to widespread and excessive police violence, were cited as the main reason for the new regime.

Beijing agreed under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration to allow Hong Kong to maintain its traditional freedoms for 50 years, and to move towards fully democratic elections. But a National People’s Congress (NPC) standing committee ruling in 2014 said a one person, one vote system could only happen if all candidates had been pre-approved by Beijing.

The Chinese government has repeatedly dismissed any criticism of its crackdown in the city as “interference” in its internal affairs.

The U.K. government has said its six-monthly reports and other statements on Hong Kong are part of its “normal diplomatic activities.”

“The U.K.’s response to the situation in Hong Kong is consistent with normal diplomatic practice,” it said in its December 2021 report.

“We stand by the measures we introduced in response to the National Security Law, including suspending our extradition treaty and extending the arms embargo on China to Hong Kong,” the report said.

When U.S. Consul General Michael Hanscom Smith left office in July 2022, pro-CCP media said his departure was “good riddance to a failed diplomat,” citing U.S. consular staff meetings with local protest leaders and pro-democracy politicians as evidence that he was “interfering” in Hong Kong’s affairs.

“The U.S.-backed plan to harm China by sacrificing Hong Kong had been foiled, and his political masters in Washington, D.C., were not best pleased, perhaps even blaming him for not having tried harder,” the China Daily said in an editorial when Hanscom Smith left his post.