Updated at 6:08 p.m. Aug. 21.
China confirmed on Wednesday that a local employee at Britain's Hong Kong consulate has been held under a 15-day administrative detention because of allegations of violating local laws.
The 28-year-old staffer, Simon Cheng, was allegedly arrested by Shenzhen police on the night of August 8 while traveling back from a business trip to the neighboring city, his family said in a Facebook post, hours before China’s official confirmation.
His girlfriend, surnamed Lee, told Hong Kong media earlier that the last text message she received from Cheng is that, after getting off the high-speed rail, he was “going through the customs at the West Kowloon terminus” – a checkpoint where Chinese security enforcement is allowed.
But Lee declined to talk further, citing safety reasons.
It is, nevertheless, believed that Cheng was taken away by Chinese police from the West Kowloon station and his whereabouts remain unknown.
His family didn't receive any notice of Cheng’s administration detention, which by Chinese law is supposed to be sent out within 24 hours, according to the family’s written statement.
“We feel very helpless, and are worried sick about Simon. We hope that Simon can return to Hong Kong as soon as possible,” the family’s statement read.
Not a Diplomatic Dispute?
While confirming Cheng’s detention, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a media briefing on Wednesday afternoon that Cheng is a Hong Kong citizen and his arrest was a domestic matter, not a diplomatic dispute.
But the government official wasted no time pointing fingers at the British government.
“The British side has recently made a series of erroneous statements on the Hong Kong issue. The Chinese side has openly made its stance clear and lodged representations to the British side,” Geng said.
“Again, we’d like to urge the British side not to meddle and fan the flames on the Hong Kong problem,” he added.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Wednesday that the U.S. would "watch the situation very carefully" but refer to the British government for further comments.
Hong Kong has been gripped by nearly two months of heated and often violent anti-government protests.
In a column published Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said "the Hong Kong crisis is something the world has seen time and again: authoritarian rulers seeking to repress the innate human desire for freedom, self-expression and self-government."
"The protesters want their liberties preserved, the territory's autonomy respected, and justice for those the security services have detained, brutalized or murdered. Contrary to Communist propaganda, this citizens' uprising is no foreign conspiracy," McConnell added.
Geng’s remarks came before protesters rallied for Cheng’s release outside the city’s British consulate.
“The U.K government, they didn’t do anything to save Simon. So, that’s why we’re here today to urge [the British] government to save Simon now,” Max Chung, one of the rally’s organizers, told VOA.
Chung said that he has been a friend of Cheng for years and, to the best of his knowledge, Cheng hasn’t taken part in any recent anti-government protests or said anything critical of Beijing.
A small group of supporters turned up at the rally to demand the British government intervene.
Among them, a teacher named Kelvin Chun told the Guardian newspaper that “this has happened amid such a sensitive time,” referring to the fact Cheng’s detention comes amid the protests in Hong Kong, sparked by a bill – now withdrawn – that would have allowed extradition to mainland China.
“China is taking measures to control and monitor Hong Kong people,” he added. “This is white terror.”
The organizers, greeted by consulate officials, presented their petition to the deputy head, who promised to do her best to obtain information and find out where Cheng is being detained, according to Chung.
Another sit-in rally was reportedly held on Wednesday night at the Yuen Long metro station, where an indiscriminate violent attack on commuters took place a month ago.
Although Cheng may not be entitled to diplomatic immunity, analysts say that his arrest on the Hong Kong soil, which is considered diplomatically inappropriate or aggressive, will surely test relations between Britain and China.
“There are a number of moving issues in the U.K.-China relationship that could also be a factor in why this gentleman (Cheng) was detained,” said Ross Feingold, a Taipei-based political risk analyst.
Feingold said that China is angry with not only the British government’s recent comments on the city’s pro-democracy protests, but also Britain's participation of the freedom of navigation operations in the disputed area of the South China Sea.
Britain's plan to have a greater presence in what the Trump administration described as the Indo-Pacific region has also on China’s nerve. Not to mention China’s Huawei is still holding its breath if a parliamentary committee will roll out a ban on its equipment sales in the U.K., he added.
Although circumstances involving Cheng’s arrest remain unclear, Feingold said that it won’t come as a surprise if his arrest is tied to the recent social unrest as Chinese police have been stopping people at the border in search of materials related to the recent anti-government protests.