3 men charged in the UK with assisting the Hong Kong intelligence service

LONDON (AP) — The office manager of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London and two other men appeared in court Monday on charges that they helped Hong Kong's intelligence service gather information in Britain, amid growing concern hostile states are trying to interfere with democracy and economic activity in the U.K.

Chi Leung (Peter) Wai, 38, Matthew Trickett, 37, and Chung Biu Yuen, 63, were granted bail during a brief hearing at Westminster Magistrates' Court. The men, who sat side-by-side in the glass-fronted dock, spoke only to confirm their identities. The Hong Kong government said one of the suspects was the office manager of the trade office, but he wasn't identified by name.

Police allege that between Dec. 20 and May 2, Yuen, Wai and Trickett agreed to engage in information gathering, surveillance and acts of deception that were likely to materially assist the Hong Kong intelligence service. The charges include allegations that the men broke into a residence on May 1.

The three men were among 11 people arrested earlier this month in London and Yorkshire in northern England by counterterrorism police, using provisions of a new law that allows suspects in national security and espionage cases to be detained without warrant. The eight other suspects were released without charge.

The hearing came as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivered a speech in which he said Britain was facing an increasingly dangerous future due to threats from an “axis of authoritarian states,” including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. Tensions with China flared last year after a parliamentary researcher was arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing, charges that Chinese officials called a “malicious smear.”

The British government last year passed a new national security act that gave police additional powers to tackle foreign espionage. The legislation was needed to combat the “ever-evolving” threat of foreign interference and in “response to the threat of hostile activity from states targeting the U.K.’s democracy, economy, and values,” the government said.

“Our commitment to defending the rights and freedoms we hold dear is absolute,” Security Minister Tom Tugendhat said on X, formerly known as Twitter. “We will do whatever it takes to protect our national security.”

The arrests were made on May 1 and 2, and the investigation is continuing, the Metropolitan Police Service said. The next court appearance for the three suspects is scheduled for May 24 at the Central London Criminal Court.

Chinese authorities in both the U.K. and Hong Kong decried the charges, saying they were just the latest in a series of “groundless and slanderous” accusations that the British government has leveled against China.

“The Chinese side firmly rejects and strongly condemns the U.K.’s fabrication of the so-called case and its unwarranted accusation against the (Hong Kong) government, and has made serious representations to the U.K. side on the matter," the Chinese Embassy in London said in a statement.

The government of Hong Kong demanded that the U.K. “provide full details″ on the allegations and protect the rights of the office manager of the trade office.

The Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London represents the interests of the semi-autonomous Chinese city in Britain, Russia, Scandinavia and the Baltic states.

Hong Kong has been a specific source of tensions between the U.K. and China due to its unique history as a former British colony that was returned to Chinese control on July 1, 1997.

After the Hong Kong government in 2020 passed a sweeping national security law restricting democratic rights previously guaranteed to the territory’s residents, Britain relaxed immigration rules for Hongkongers born before the handover.

As many as 5.4 million residents of Hong Kong are now eligible for a visa that allows them to live and work in the U.K. and become citizens after five years of residence. More than 191,000 people have already received the visas, and the government estimates that some 322,000 will ultimately be granted.

Hongkongers who have moved to Britain continue to face “transnational repression” by supporters of the Chinese government, according to Hong Kong Watch, a group focused on human rights in the territory.

This includes photographing activists in the U.K. and inciting violence against pro-democracy demonstrators, Hong Kong Watch said in evidence submitted to Parliament earlier this year. The group also raised concerns about the safety of personal data collected by the U.K. government, which could be used to harass migrants and their family members in Hong Kong if it were acquired by Chinese authorities.

“The police harassment of family members back home makes many Hong Kongers in the U.K. anxious about participating in public life,” the group said. “Many remain anxious about being photographed or filmed, as they fear repercussions against family members should they be identified.”