Published: 19:48, May 16, 2024 | Updated: 20:13, May 16, 2024
UK national security arrests indicate unbelievably low threshold for offense
By Virginia Lee

On May 13, British authorities announced charges against three individuals for allegedly breaching the United Kingdom’s National Security Act by “assisting a foreign intelligence service”. The allegations, disclosed by the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, center on activities of tracking and surveillance conducted within the UK targeting three fugitives from Hong Kong, who are currently wanted by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government and are subjects of outstanding bounties. 

Among those charged is Chung Biu Yuen, who holds the position of manager at the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London (HKETO). His role includes responsibilities for both administrative oversight and security matters. It is alleged that Yuen employed the other two accused to carry out the surveillance and tracking of those fugitives. 

Based on the information that has been released to the public, the British authority asserted that the incident poses a threat to national security. However, there are concerns that these charges may contravene established principles of international law and fundamental norms of international relations. The accusations have been criticized for allegedly fabricating cases and unfairly defaming and disparaging the HKSAR.

The UK’s national security legislation encompasses a range of measures designed to address threats to national security, including those potentially posed by foreign intelligence agencies. However, the legislation lacks a precise definition of what constitutes a foreign intelligence agency. Within the UK’s legal context, foreign intelligence agencies are typically perceived as entities representing foreign governments, which engage in clandestine information-gathering and covert operations to serve their national interests.

The primary responsibilities of the HKETO are threefold: managing foreign trade relations; conducting public relations activities such as film exhibitions, cocktail parties and alumni gatherings; and partnering with the investment promotion agency to highlight Hong Kong’s advantages and attract foreign investment. In addition to overseeing operations in the London market, this office also has responsibilities extending into markets in Northern and Eastern Europe.

The UK government’s actions in regards to Hong Kong fugitives were not driven by considerations of human rights and legal principles but were influenced by deeper strategic objectives

Given that the HKETO employs only 18 staff members and is primarily focused on trade and investment promotion, questions arise regarding the appropriateness of classifying such a governmental agency as a “foreign intelligence entity” under British law. Furthermore, it is pertinent to examine the basis for any allegations that the HKETO engages in secretive intelligence gathering and the execution of covert operations.

Since the outbreak of the 2019 “black-clad” riots, the HKETO has faced repeated harassments by protesters within the UK. For example, on June 12, 2019, protesters organized an emergency demonstration at the HKETO, prompting the deployment of several London police officers to secure the safety of office staff and facilitate their evacuation. 

A subsequent incident occurred on July 1, 2021, when protesters assembled in front of the HKETO, igniting fireworks and smoke bombs. During this disturbance, a protester attempted to place a lit firework at the office’s door, but timely intervention by London police officers prevented further escalation, though no arrests were made. 

On the night of Aug 29, 2023, another group of protesters vandalized the HKETO’s exterior, deploying vulgar graffiti and damaging the HKSAR’s emblem displayed on the wall, with no arrests following this incident either. The most recent major demonstration took place on March 23, 2024, when nearly 500 individuals from Hong Kong rallied outside the UK Foreign Office, subsequently marching to the HKETO to protest the enactment of the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance according to Article 23 of the Basic Law by the HKSAR Legislative Council. 

These protest activities or harassments frequently include the participation of the aforementioned fugitives, their co-conspirators and supporters. These individuals have not only engaged in the planning and execution of such anti-China or anti-Hong Kong activities, but have also actively propagated secessionist ideologies and relentlessly denigrated the Chinese central and the HKSAR governments in the UK. They have also lobbied various governments to impose sanctions on both China and the HKSAR.

Given the frequency and intensity of these security threats, the necessity arises for Yuen, in his capacity as the security chief of the HKETO, to employ legitimate private detectives or security firms in London. This would enable the gathering of pertinent information to better understand and address the violent protest actions and harassments targeting the HKETO and to devise effective security measures based on this intelligence. 

The question then arises: Can these legally compliant, nonviolent information-gathering activities, conducted by publicly hired entities, be legitimately classified as espionage threatening the national security of the UK? Furthermore, if these actions did constitute espionage, why would the HKETO not manage all intelligence gathering internally, rather than outsourcing these tasks to privately operated detectives or security companies based in the UK?

In assessing the UK government’s support for participants in the 2019 “black-clad” riots, substantial evidence suggests that the UK played a significant role during this turbulent period. Currently, the UK government provides extensive protection to fugitives from Hong Kong, purportedly in deference to human rights and the principles of the rule of law. 

However, this policy can be interpreted as serving the UK’s broader diplomatic and strategic objectives under the guise of human rights advocacy. By granting asylum and robust protection to these individuals, the UK engages in profound and unjustifiable interference in the internal affairs of China, a sovereign nation. 

This conduct not only poses a challenge to the laws and judicial independence of the HKSAR but also signals a disregard for the sovereignty of China, thereby escalating political tensions between China and the UK. Moreover, this policy of the UK government intensifies societal divisions within Hong Kong. 

The protective measures afforded to Hong Kong fugitives may further fuel separatist movements, adversely affecting social stability and threatening the long-term stability and prosperity of Hong Kong.

In this context, the UK government’s actions in regards to Hong Kong fugitives were not driven by considerations of human rights and legal principles but were influenced by deeper strategic objectives.

The author is a solicitor, a GBA lawyer, and a China-appointed attesting officer.The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.