Activists call for the shutdown of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office after three alleged spies were arrested in London

Protests outside London's HKETO. Screenshot from RFA Cantonese Channel on YouTube. Fair Use.

An employee from the London-based Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office (HKETO) has been accused by British police authority of engaging in the spying of overseas Hong Kong activists in the U.K. This has triggered a protest outside the HKETO office in London and a campaign urging Western democracies to shut down HKETOs in their countries. 

Three suspects, Chi-Leung Wai, Matthew Trickett, and Chung-Biu Yuen, were arrested last week on May 13. They were accused of assisting Hong Kong’s intelligence services and foreign interference, in violation of the UK’s National Security Act 2023. Both stood in court on May 13 and were now on bail pending for trial. 

Yuen, a former Hong Kong police officer, is the office manager of the HKETO in London. Later, it was revealed that Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee and Yuen were both 2002 graduates of the Australian School of Policing, although Lee denied having a personal relationship with Yuen:  

In response to the arrest, the Chinese Embassy in the UK issued a statement accusing the UK government of “malicious fabrication and unwarranted accusation” against the Hong Kong government, while John Lee echoed the Chinese statement and called the UK police's allegation “unwarranted” and “unacceptable.”

Yet, the prosecution document exposed messaging records on Yuen’s phone showing that Yuen had been assigning surveillance tasks to Wai since 2021.

Trickett's notes on his mobile phone also indicated that he was a main contributor to Yuen and Wai’s task orders, which involved the surveillance of trade unionist Christopher Siu Tat Mung and exiled pro-democracy activists Nathan Law and Finn Lau

According to the prosecution document, Trickett's mobile phone also contained several detailed surveillance reports, including Nathan Law’s observation.

Wai’s security company, D5 Security Consultancy Limited, also received GBP 95,500 (USD 121,346) from HKETO’s bank account between June 5, 2023, and January 31, 2024. The money was then channeled to numerous individuals and companies, including Trickett’s personal and company (MTR Consultancy Limited) accounts.  

Many on social media, like independent journalist Tom Mitchell, were appalled by their indiscreet operations:

Since all three activists under surveillance are wanted by Hong Kong’s national security police with a HKD 1 million (approximately USD 128,000) bounty on their heads, and the city’s Chief Executive had stated that the wanted individuals “will be pursued for life,” stressing that “we want them to know that we will not sit and do nothing,” the prosecutor alleged that the trio were acting on behalf of the Hong Kong authorities. 

In reacting to Hong Kong’s extraterritorial operation in the UK, Hong Kong activists staged a protest outside HKETO in London and rebranded the office as “Hong Kong Espionage & Tracking Office”:

Exiled Hong Kong political cartoonist Ah To echoed the activists and mocked the shift of HKETO's trade promotion function: 

Some activists also called for Western democracies to shut down HKETO in their countries. Hong Kong human rights activist Samuel Bickett is one of the most vocal voices:

In the US, a bill known as the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office Certification Act, which requires the President to remove the extension of certain privileges, exemptions and immunities to HKETO, was introduced to Congress in February 2023 and passed in the House's Foreign Affairs Committee in December 2023.  If the law is passed in Congress, all three HKETO offices in the US will have to terminate its operation. 

The current HKETO-related spy case in the UK is likely to fuel the passage of the HKETO Certification Act in the US and the review of HKETO status in other countries. The China Commission of the US Congress wrote on X, formerly Twitter:

Concerns over China’s transnational repression of activists and dissents have been growing. For example, Australian-based political cartoonist Badiucao has been constantly harassed and threatened by Chinese authorities since 2009. Reportedly, Beijing had attempted but failed to cancel the artist's shows in Rome and Poland. Recently, Teacher Li, a most popular social media outlet for breaking news in mainland China, also revealed how Chinese authorities attempted to silence him by threatening his family back home. 

Amnesty International's latest report also highlighted the fact that when Chinese and Hong Kong students act for human rights overseas, they become targets of surveillance and threats, and their families based in China also face harassment and intimidation:

Most of the reported transnational repression incidents have been conducted by mainland Chinese agencies, targeting Uighurs, Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners, as well as Hong Kong and mainland Chinese political dissidents. The most known case was the deportation of about 100 Uighurs from Thailand to China in 2015 despite strong opposition from international society.

The current HKETO-related operation is the first time a Hong Kong authority has been involved and exposed.

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