An activist holds an illustration of Simon Cheng during a gathering outside the British Consulate-General building in Hong Kong on August 21, 2019, following reports that the Hong Kong consulate employee had been detained by mainland Chinese authorities on his way back to the city. - An employee of Britain's consulate in Hong Kong who went missing earlier this month is being held in China, Beijing confirmed on August 21. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP)ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images
An activist outside the British consulate in Hong Kong after reports that Cheng Man Kit had been detained by Chinese authorities © Anthony Wallace/AFP

A local employee of the British consulate in Hong Kong has been detained in mainland China for breaking a public security-related law, Beijing said on Wednesday, confirming the man’s arrest nearly two weeks after he first disappeared.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said police in the southern city of Shenzhen were holding Cheng Man Kit, a Hong Kong Chinese citizen, for violating “public security administration punishment” law, state media reported.

The detention of Mr Cheng, which was first reported by the British Embassy in Beijing on Tuesday, threatens to trigger a diplomatic rift between the UK and China.

While Beijing provided no more specific reason for the arrest, it comes amid protests that have plunged Hong Kong into its worst political crisis in decades, prompting international calls for China to exercise restraint, including from the UK. On Wednesday evening, fresh clashes between demonstrators and police took place a suburban railway station where protesters were attacked by a mob linked to triad gangs. More demonstrations are planned for the weekend.

Under Chinese law, police are allowed to hold individuals without trial under administrative detention for up to 15 days for minor offences, although this can be extended if in the process the person is accused of more serious crimes.

Simon Cheng, a staff member of Britain’s consulate in Hong Kong, who was reported missing by local media after visiting the neighbouring mainland city of Shenzhen, is seen in an unknown location in this undated photo obtained from the Facebook page
Cheng Man Kit, a Hong Kong Chinese citizen, is accused by Beijing of violating 'public security administration punishment' law © Facebook/Reuters

A Hong Kong resident who worked as a trade and investment officer at the British Consulate-General in the city and who is also known by his English name Simon, Mr Cheng was detained on August 8. This would make him eligible for release as early as Friday.

Mr Cheng’s detention is believed to be related to his presence at the protests, according to people familiar with the matter, although his girlfriend, who has identified herself only as Ms Li, has denied that he has taken part in demonstrations.

Mr Geng said Beijing had already made “stern” representations to the UK multiple times over the protests in Hong Kong and had asked London to stop making “irresponsible statements”.

Beijing rebuked UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab this month for suggesting in a phone call to Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam on August 9 that she should launch an independent investigation into recent events in the city.

Max Chung, the organiser of a petition to “save Simon” delivered to the British consulate in Hong Kong on Wednesday evening, said all Hong Kongers were worried about Mr Cheng’s safety. He said the case demonstrated the lack of rule of law in mainland China.

Mr Chung said he feared Mr Cheng was being used as “ransom” in a manner similar to two Canadians who were detained in Beijing shortly after the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive of Huawei, the Chinese telecoms group, while on transit in Canada. The US is seeking the extradition of Ms Meng over alleged Huawei business dealings with Iran.

Mr Cheng’s family said in a statement early on Wednesday they had not received official notice from Chinese authorities confirming his detention. 

Mr Cheng’s girlfriend Ms Li said on Wednesday the family’s lawyer visited the Luohu detention centre in Shenzhen, where a security guard confirmed his client was being held but he was refused access.

Ms Li has said there was “no reason” for her boyfriend’s detention.

Eleven weeks of mass demonstrations in the Asian financial hub have evolved from calls to withdraw an extradition bill that would allow some crimes to be tried in China, to demands for a probe into police violence and more democratic representation.

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