UK Government Urged to Review Hong Kong Official Outpost in London

Seven parliamentarians and human rights groups called on a review of London Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office after an employee was accused of spying.
UK Government Urged to Review Hong Kong Official Outpost in London
A general view of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London on July 21, 2020. (Luke Dray/Getty Images)
Lily Zhou

The UK government has been called to consider closing a Hong Kong trade office in London over suspected “transnational repression.”

A group of cross-party parliamentarians and press groups urged the government to “review the status and privileges granted to the London Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office (HKETO) through amending the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office Act 1996.”

The call came after one of HKETO’s employees in London, along with two others, were charged last week under the UK’s new National Security Act, accused of spying for Hong Kong and entering a residential address by force.

The defendants have not yet entered pleas to the charges.

In a statement shared on X by Liberal Democrat frontbencher Alistair Carmichael, the MP and other signatories called on the government to consider shutting the office.

“The London HKETO was set up to further the economic and trade interests of Hong Kong. If employees of the HKETO were operating as accomplices of transnational repression, beyond their legitimate remit of economics and trade, the option of closing the London HKETO should be considered,” the statement reads.

“We condemn all forms of transnational repression and reaffirm our commitment to supporting Hongkongers in exercising their civic rights and freedoms.”

Other parliamentarians backing the call include crossbench peer Lord Alton of Liverpool, Labour MPs Siobhain McDonagh and Fabian Hamilton, Tory peers Baroness Meyer and Lord Shinkwin , and Green’s Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle.

Pro-democracy Hong Kong rights groups Hong Kong Democracy Council, Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong, and Hongkongers in Britain also signed the statement.

Hong Kong authorities has 14 overseas ETOs in Europe, Asia, North America, and Dubai, with different setups and privileges.

Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based human rights group, whose patrons include the UK’s last governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten of Barnes, have called on governments to review HKETOs in 2022, calling on host countries to “terminate HKETOs privileges and immunities where these exist, and cease from approving their new offices opening” in a report.

The report said while HKETOs had been “most successful” in promoting economic ties between Hong Kong and their host countries, the outposts had come “under the indirect control of Beijing” as Beijing tightened its grip on Hong Kong and the branches of its government.

It also said these offices can target different groups and promote Beijing’s agenda “a in subtler and softer ways” as they are under a different name than Chinese embassies.

Hong Kong Watch argued that if HKETOs continued their activities, they needed to “be clearly labelled as Beijing’s agencies and any cooperations with them recognised as de facto cooperation with Beijing.”

According to the report, the premises and archives of HKETO’s London branch enjoy the same inviolability as consular premises and archives, and its officers have immunity from suit and legal process (except civil proceedings).

In the United States, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, introduced a bill in February 2023, aimed at requiring the president to revoke the privileges, exemptions, and immunities to HKETOs in the United States if Hong Kong no longer enjoys a high degree of autonomy from the Chinese communist regime.

The fresh call on the UK government to review HKETO’s London office came days after Chung Biu Yuen, 63, an employee of the office, was charged with agreeing to “undertake information gathering, surveillance, and acts of deception that were likely to materially assist a foreign intelligence service,” namely Hong Kong, and forcing entry into a UK residential address on May 1, along with Matthew Trickett, 37, and Chi Leung Wai, 38.

The trio have been released on bail after appearing in court on May 13 and due to appear at the Old Bailey on Friday, but Mr. Trickett has been found dead on Sunday in a local park, with the police currently treating the death as “unexplained.”

After the individuals appeared in court, the Hong Kong government said it had asked the UK to ensure the matter is dealt with fairly, and that HKETO’s operations would not have been affected.

It also said the role of the office is to facilitate trade, investment, and cultural exchanges and promote Hong Kong’s economic interests.

The Chinese embassy accused the UK of fabricating charges against the Hong Kong government and providing asylum to “criminals,” referring to exiled pro-democracy Hong Kong activists wanted by the authorities.

On May 14, the Foreign Office summoned Chinese Ambassador Zheng Zeguang over a “pattern of behaviour directed by China against the UK,” including suspected spying activities, and cyberattacks.