by Gin

English /// 中文
Translator: Gin
Photo credit: Perseus


I had the chance to interview Simon Cheng, the first Hong Kong national who was granted asylum in the UK, and a former worker of the UK’s Hong Kong consulate. Simon shared his experiences of exile life in London, his future plans, and what he has been through in seeking political asylum. The interview below was originally conducted in Mandarin on July 19th, 2020.

Gin:  How are you doing? How long have you been in the UK?

Simon Cheng:  I’m getting used to it. Last November, I flew on a nonstop flight from Taiwan to the UK. So far, I’ve stayed in London for seven months.

G:  Could you talk about why you applied for political asylum in the UK and what happened during the past year?

SC:  I didn’t plan to apply for political asylum at the beginning. I thought about that later.

Last August, when Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests heated up, I worked for the UK consulate as a trade and investment officer. I traveled constantly between Hong Kong and Shenzhen to visit the Greater Bay Area in China. On the day I got arrested, I was assigned to attend a business meeting in Shenzhen but…I got arrested and, later on, was detained for fifteen days.

Simon Cheng. Photo credit: MyDearCarrot/WikiCommons/CC

I was tortured, asked about whether I had any evidence of the UK’s involvement in the protest and whether I was part of the protest, etc. In the end, they decided not to consider me as a political crime offender. They sentenced me for soliciting prostitution.

I am not sure whether you’ve heard of this before. A Chinese jurist Xu Zhangrun, who is a professor of law at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He lived in Beijing but Szechuan police traveled through many provinces overnight to arrest him. The police accused him of seeking out prostitutes and then Tsinghua University fired Xu because of this accusation. He is the type of person who criticizes the Chinese government in public; I worked for the UK consulate in Hong Kong and I criticized the political system when it wasn’t democratic. Therefore, I guess we became the targets of the Chinese government. 

To find a shelter and stay away from trouble, I fled to Taiwan for three months after weeks of detention in mainland China. At that time, I negotiated with the UK government to find a solution for me to stay in London. The conversation didn’t go well, they suggested that I enter the UK in a relatively “normal” way—as a student and applying for a work visa afterward, etc. However, in this case, there would be no guarantee for my safety and it wouldn’t rehabilitate my name. And the UK government won’t be able to take the responsibility they should have. So, I did lots of research and went through all the possibilities with my girlfriend. That’s why I considered applying for political asylum as the best option.

Applying for political asylum needs to meet the requirements of the United Nations’ standards, through a rigorous process to prove whether I have been persecuted for political reasons. So, I submitted some evidence and documents as supporting information and hoped that the international conventions and laws would help me achieve justice. I submitted my asylum claim on November 27th  last year and the Home Office promised to reply to me within six months. On June 26th, 2020 (Just about six months later), I received their decision which granted me UK asylum. From now on, my life has been a little bit more settled.

G:  When do you start to become concerned with politics and have a sense of mission, in needing to stand up for Hong Kong?

SC:  Approximately in junior high school. The TV broadcaster that enlightened me was Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK). Because of its program, Chinese Lawyers Dancing in Fetters, I started to care about current affairs and reflect on the relations between Chinese human rights issues and Hong Kong’s freedom and democracy. Back then, young Hongkongers didn’t care about politics but I was quite precocious. At that time, I decided to study politics and international relations at university and eager to know more about world affairs.

At that time, Hong Kong citizens couldn’t participate in international political issues because we are not allowed to be diplomats in our juridical system. So, I was wondering what shall I do to better explore the destiny of my home. I noticed that the formula of “One Country, Two Systems” applied not only to Hong Kong but also to Taiwan.

From Beijing’s point of view. Hong Kong is in the middle of this situation. As a Hongkonger, we admire democracy in Taiwan, but we rely on China’s economics and political system heavily. Therefore, I thought Taiwan would be a good place for me to observe and study.

That year, the National College Entrance Examination was held on the same date as Taiwan’s university exam for overseas Chinese (What a coincidence!). So I chose to study in Taiwan. I felt it was important to have academic freedom while studying social science. In China, your dissertation might be forcibly changed, deleted, or restricted regarding sensitive topics. Therefore, I went to National Taiwan University (NTU) to study political science, with a specialization in international relations.

When I studied in Taiwan, I experienced the Sunflower Movement, which broke out near the student dorms of NTU. We barely slept at night during the movement because we were close to the Legislative Yuan (which protesters occupied in protest against a controversial trade deal with China). Anyway, I experienced the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, and later, the protests against the extradition bill in Hong Kong. Finally, I had a chance to work in Hong Kong—I was on a business trip in the UK then, so I flew back to Hong Kong to take part in the protests.

But, it happened as soon as I participated. I think that’s my destiny—ups and downs. My life journey has tossed and turned in different places. 

G:  You have lived in Taiwan, the UK, and went to China on a student exchange program for a while. Do you think Taiwan is a safe place to stay? Do you have any expectations for Taiwan?

SC:  I think Taiwan is relatively safe. Last August, after the incident, the first thing I did after returning to Hong Kong and reporting to the UK Consulate was to fly to Taiwan immediately.

Taiwan is a place I feel I belong to. NTU is an inclusive university, I miss it so much. Every time I pass through, I  have this feeling that this is where I belong. After graduation, all the alumni are allowed to sit in on classes or visit the library, but it’s different in London. For example, I studied for a Master’s in London, but after graduation, it’s like a business has ended. The university has lots of restrictions to block you out. However, alumni are always part of the NTU university network in Taiwan.

When I got off the plane in Taoyuan, I felt relief. Before then, it was very intense in Hong Kong, especially last year. People were unhappy, not only in their lives but also for work, and everyone was uneasy and worried. You might hear shouts or smell the tensions and smoke on the street. You can feel confrontation in daily life. As soon as I arrived in Taiwan, I felt the warmth, people walked in the city slowly and were relaxed, it was a feeling of calm.

Later, I decided to break the news in Taipei, and the media released my first announcement on the 20th of November. And then, I was tailed in Xinyi district in Taipei. I wondered whether that person had been sent by the Taiwanese government, with good intentions in mind, but I still took pictures of that man as evidence. That guy was insane, he changed his outfit many times in one day, I photographed it all.

I sent the photos to the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) and they forwarded the photos to the Criminal Investigation Bureau of Taiwan. They confirmed that this person is not authorized by them. So, if the guy isn’t from China, then he might be someone authorized by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) based in Taiwan. It is so shocking to me. Once your name is on the blacklist, you can’t imagine what might happen next.

Lam Wing-kee. Photo credit: OKStartNow/WikiCommons/CC

I met the Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee in Taiwan. After I came to London, I heard that his bookstore was splashed with red paint in Taipei, which made me feel that Taiwan might be “compromised” seriously. Or, the CCP has backing in Taiwan, so they felt unrestrained and dared to do everything. In my experience, I was tailed in the UK as well, I didn’t think they would dare to mess around like that. [1]

G:  A lot of people who care about Hong Kong want to support it like you.

However, there are many reasons for them to worry something might be lost or sacrificed. Earlier this year, you announced that you cut ties with your family in Hong Kong. Do you consider it as a sacrifice?

SC:  This sacrifice is avoidable for lots of people, but it’s inevitable to me. As things have evolved so far, there is nothing else I can do to change it.

When I studied in NTU, I still had hope. It was a relatively calm era for the cross-strait relation. At that time, Ma Ying-jeou was in power and everyone had a bit of longing for each other between China and Taiwan. In my first year in Taiwan, there were only exchange students from China who came to Taiwan for study without rights and obligations. We had good impressions of each other by then.

But two years after students from mainland China began to be able to enroll in Taiwanese universities, disputes began. For example, why don’t they have complementary healthcare insurance? Why is there a “three limits and six noes principle”? [2] Why can’t they get internships in Taiwan? Why are their rights and obligations different from overseas Chinese students and students from Hong Kong and Macau? I realized that more interaction also brought more conflicts. That’s something I felt surprised about.

When I went to Beijing University as an exchange student back then, I hadn’t thought thoroughly about China. I felt that China is quite good. However, when the Hu-Wen administration was succeeded by Xi Jinping, the CCP’s diplomacy became a more active and even aggressive foreign policy. It has since influenced a lot of young people in China. I thought as long as we interacted with Chinese young people more, when they grow up to become national leaders in China one day, they can at least be able to understand Taiwan, to have relatively open-minded and democratic thinking. But this isn’t happening. Just the opposite happened.

I was very cautious even when cross-strait relations were less intense. Because I knew, if I was fighting for democracy and freedom on the frontlines, I might sacrifice my future in Hong Kong. At that time, that was a barrier for a majority of Hong Kong students. Because if they said too much, they would not be able to apply for many jobs when they go back to Hong Kong.

The situation has evolved and become worse. It is not just about whether you choose not to work for Chinese companies, or whether you care about CCP’s business, the situation has escalated from person and person to country to country. No matter if it’s with regards to Australia, the UK, and the US or to businessmen, consortiums, or big companies, the CCP’s attitude is—“The Australian government is mean to us, I am going to block beef imports from you.” And for ordinary people like us, we are more worried about our lives, our jobs, and careers.

After the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement, the situation is worse than ever. Hong Kong people’s safety and freedom has deteriorated. It is not about the social group or organization you are part of; it is about which flag you are waving.

The “Chou Tzuyu incident” is an obvious example. [3] Chinese youngsters think that waving a “Republic of China” flag is supporting Taiwan’s independence.

But Taiwanese are actually having different thoughts and opinions on this flag. However, for Chinese youngsters their mindset is “as long as it is not a Chinese flag then it means Taiwanese independence”. All spaces for negotiation, communication, and discussion have disappeared.

When they decided to put me in detention, and later charged me for committing a crime, I felt there was no way back. When I was detained in China, I promised to them—“if I am out, I would stay out of politics and become anonymous,” that was the condition for my release. However, while I was released, I realized I had just become a “world-famous prostitution solicitor”.

I can’t go back. I have to fight with them until I die, that is the only way I can go on. So, when other people still have a choice and they hesitate, that is very normal.

Photo credit: Studio Incendo/Flickr/CC

The reason I am here in this situation doesn’t mean that I am brave. It just shows how desperate I am, so I have to keep moving until the end. I am glad that I have settled down a bit through seeking political asylum and having rehabilitated by the law. But I still want to let more people know the darkness of the judicial system in China.

Just like the TV program I watched on RTHK regarding how human rights lawyers were persecuted by Chinese secret police, I experienced it firsthand. I hope to share my story with others so they have a better understanding of this crisis as the CCP will continue to expand internationally in the future. That’s what I am working on at the moment. 

G:  All of these things seem to become worse since the security law passed. Before that, we lived in a climate of self-censorship, trying to prevent anything bad from happening, but now, the law has passed. Including secession, subversion, and collusion with external forces, these are all considered crimes.

What is more difficult in fighting for democracy now? What is your biggest concern after this law has passed?

SC:  People say, “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” I’d like to be more positive. The national security law is the death knell for One Country, Two Systems. It’s hard to say Two Systems still exists. Hong Kong still has governance in its economy and society, but what we have treasured most is gone.

We don’t expect that China will be democratized one day, of course, it would be a wonderful dream, but this would be a millstone on the Hong Kong people’s neck. We can’t enlighten or lecture 1.3 billion Chinese people if most of them believe a single-party state or one-party dictatorship is good. However, we hope the lifestyle of Hong Kong can be preserved. The law that China used to deal with Liu Xiaobo should never, ever be used on Hong Kong people. We hope the Beijing central government can keep its promise.

“One Country, Two Systems” is written in the United Nations Convention, supervised by the United Kingdom and international society. Through checks and balances, we hope to let the Chinese government know—if they’d like Hong Kong to keep producing golden eggs and accelerating the transformation of the Chinese economy—“Please restraint your desire to power, please interfere in Hong Kong affairs to a limited extent.

China’s national power and ambitions have increased, and it becomes more and more intolerant of surrounding countries. Hong Kong is just the first victim.

Besides, I’d like to mention—there are two kinds of intelligence agencies in China. One is CCP’s Domestic Security Bureau, which might change its name to the Political Security Bureau. They are the state security police of the Ministry of Public Security, who don’t have to wear uniforms nor display any badge on duty. It’s a secret police agency. They target people who are considered to violate social stability or undermine regime security in China. For example, people who leave messages online or share information in WeChat groups with hundreds of members; damaging the image of the party, state leader, or the political system. The other agency is the Ministry of State Security. They rarely show up in China because they target people who are spies or involved in foreign powers. That’s how the Chinese police work.

I was caught by the agent of DSB so-called Guobao. It means the Beijing government alleges me to be a Chinese who criticizes CCP’s one-party system and considers me to have endangered China’s national stability and political system. It happened in Hong Kong because they set up “The Committee for Safeguarding National Security of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”, an office that represents Beijing. They even have set up a secret police inside the Hong Kong police. It made me feel— there is no freedom at all.

Last year after I arrived in the UK, the China Global Television Network—China Central Television’s overseas channel, whose European branch is headquartered in London, broadcast the pre-recorded video of my forced confession on YouTube, in a video titled “Simon Cheng, Shame on You.”

I felt it to be ridiculous. How dare an influential broadcaster use a headline with such a subjective title, engage in a political “witch-hunt” against me, and violate my privacy? I couldn’t bear it, not to mention it happened on British soil.

So, I filed a complaint against CGTN with the TV-regulator of the United Kingdom, Ofcom. Now, the issue is under investigation. If Ofcom judges that the issue is in breach of their rules, CGTN’s broadcast license might be revoked and they wouldn’t be able to operate anymore. I am confident that Ofcom will make a correct judgment. 

To sum up, it’s not difficult to imagine how influential China’s propaganda overseas can be. Because of the Anti-ELAB movement, in Hong Kong, the world recognizes the CCP’s real intentions. So, we have a bit more time to handle and face the issue while CCP is not yet ready to expand their economic, cultural or military influence in the world.

To this extent, I always advocate Hong Kong people should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The reason is simple. Because we buy time for the world to exchange intel and to avoid a potentially small or large-scaled war from happening in the future.

Video released by CGTN

G:  In response to Beijing’s actions, the United Kingdom has altered its existing visa policies on British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders. For example, allowing BNOs to obtain visas and pursue a path to citizenship. Would you consider the UK as the Hong Kong people’s next shelter?

SC:  Yes, of course, the UK is the pioneer in dealing with the Hong Kong issue. For example, the UK is one of the few countries that allows people traveling from Hong Kong to be exempt from self-isolation.

Not a long time ago, I organized a platform called “Haven Assistance” with other Hong Kong people in exile, including Lam Wing-kee in Taiwan, Ray Wong, the first Hong Kong activist who granted asylum, who now lives in Germany, and Brian Leung Kai-ping, who lives in Seattle. Through this platform, we provide general information and consultation regarding the experience of fleeing to other countries for Hong Kong people who might need it.

Among these countries, the UK is a rather popular destination. Firstly, there are 3 million BNO status holders in Hong Kong. Theoretically, as long as they are not on China’s territory, they are British national citizens overseas. We think it a step forward for the UK government to extend the rights of BNO holders. They finally understood the reality of “One Country, Two Systems” and declared China in breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. It’s something we’ve waited for the UK government to realize for a long time.

Furthermore, we launched “Hongkongers in Britain” before the UK government announced the lifeboat scheme for BNOs. We know there will be many Hong Kong people coming to the UK, and we need a place to interact face to face, so we registered company information at the UK Companies House and started a fundraising campaign. We hope to have seed money in place shortly so that we would be able to have a place in the UK for members and Hongkongers to catch-up.

But to be honest, the asylum scheme in the UK is not so attractive compared to what other countries can offer, such as Canada. Firstly, Hong Kong communities are massive and developed. Secondly, they are likely to support the protests so they have enough money to help activists in need. Thirdly, the Canadian government encourages immigration, so if you apply for political asylum, they not only give you public funds but also the right to work. Therefore, a lot of Hong Kong people would choose either Canada or Taiwan as their next step. However, due to the lockdown, many Hong Kong people in exile stay in the UK temporarily to seek further opportunities for Canada or Taiwan.   

G:  Thank you very much for your thoughts and sharing. Would you say you are hoping to use the UK as a base to gather lots of Hong Kong people overseas?

SC:  Yes, indeed. I don’t know whether other Hong Kong people might think the same as me. But for me, I still want to go back to Hong Kong, which is my home. But I am a political asylee now. The condition for me to return to Hong Kong would be that Hong Kong’s political system has systematically changed. When I am back, I will bring freedom and democracy with me. I believe history is on our side, I will devote myself wholeheartedly to fight with the people who stay in Hong Kong, until the end. 

We are now working on a new method—an international campaign. We hope to show that the Hong Kong issue is not just about Hong Kong people and the Hong Kong government, or between Hong Kong and Beijing. The Hong Kong issue is related to all mankind. The security law asserts jurisdiction over people who are not residents of Hong Kong and have never even set foot there, affecting people’s behavior outside Hong Kong. We will keep fighting.

G:  The last question, I’d like to ask something relatively relaxing. Can you recommend any songs that are relevant to Hong Kong, your home, the Security Law, or the Anti-extradition law movement?

SC:  Aww, my playlist…it is not relaxing at all…because they are all sad songs. I would firstly recommend “Flower of Freedom—Never Forget June 4”. This is the song I kept singing when I was detained in a black room alone. I couldn’t communicate with anyone so I sang every day to stay sensible in prison.

The other song would be “Glory to Hong Kong” which is the new protest anthem for people in Hong Kong. The last one would be an authentic Cantonese song, “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies”—Taiwanese must be familiar with it. Highly recommended. Hongkongers will not acquiesce. Lots of songs are sarcastic about ourselves or about society, they have hurtful and bitter words. But even though reality breaks our hearts. we have no fear of riding out the storm. In Cantonese, we say “Ding Ngnang seng”, which is the fighting spirit of Hongkongers.

G:  Thank you very much for joining us today. I hope your new organization will run smoothly. 

SC:  I hope so too. We are still in the process of fundraising and figuring out the possibilities of raising seed money. No matter what, we will keep moving forward. Thank you.

[1] One month after the interview, The Times reported that Simon said Chinese agents are tailing him around London.

[2] “Three Restrictions, Six Nos” is a policy towards Chinese students in Taiwan. The “Three Restrictions” sets a quota so that only top tier students are allowed to study in limited subjects. Moreover, the total number of mainland Chinese students in Taiwan are limited. The “Six Nos” means there are no extra points on applications, that Chinese students are not eligible for scholarships. nor can they work off-campus and after graduation, that their admission should not affect current school enrollment, and that  Chinese students cannot take license exams or apply for governmental positions in Taiwan.

[3] For more on the Chou Tzu-yu incident, see here.

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