Finn Lau’s meeting with a Westminster researcher who was later arrested on suspicion of spying for China lasted just 20 minutes. Nearly a year later he is mulling the potential consequences.
Lau, an exiled Hong Kong pro-democracy activist with a £100,000 bounty on his head, has a lingering suspicion that some of his ideas for putting more pressure on China appear not to have made it beyond their meeting.
Exiled Chinese dissidents such as Lau, as well as Hong Kong activists and others including advocates of Tibetan independence and China’s Uyghur minority ethnic group, have raised concerns after news of the researcher’s arrest in March emerged at the weekend. The man, who has not been named by police, has since said he is “completely innocent” and rejected what he said was “extravagant news reporting”.
These communities have long complained of being the target of surveillance by Chinese authorities, at demonstrations or online. Claims that China operates overseas “police stations” in Britain have also been a long-term concern.
“We are no strangers to being spied on but this week has caused people to sit up and take notice. This is a story that has gone viral among the Chinese community here,” said Lau, who continues to take security countermeasures every time he steps out in London. He said he was most recently the target of an attempt to interview him by someone posing as a reporter from a reputable Chinese radio news station.
The researcher who was arrested, who had a parliamentary pass and contact with ministers, is not thought to have family ties to China. Lau said: “It has not changed my behaviour. But I think people will also now be even more careful about who they engage with, no matter what the colour of their skin. You might say that there is even a benefit to that, if it punctures the stereotypes of what an alleged Chinese spy should be.”
Lau called for an audit of vetting measures in parliament – a system that he and Hong Kong activists argue sometimes makes it more difficult for them to engage with the democratic process in the UK.
The Conservative MP Tim Loughton spoke this week of how he had tried to hire as an intern someone who had come to the UK from Hong Kong but parliamentary security rejected them because they had not been in the UK for three years and had come from China.
In a call echoed by Amnesty International, Chung Ching Kwong, a Hong-Kong born democracy activist now living in the UK, called for reassurances to be given to those who gave information to parliamentarians and who now fear they may be at risk.
“Rather than MPs, it is the Uyghurs, Tibetans, Taiwanese, Chinese dissidents and Hongkongers that are and will be the ones to suffer,” she said. “Has anyone briefed the activists and dissidents that may have been affected due to potential security failure? At least flag to people what kind of trouble they are now being put into.”
She added: “A lot of Chinese dissident activists do sensitive work in this field and I do think that people should be worried, not necessarily in the sense that they may have to change their address immediately, but people should definitely be doing an audit of what kind of information they may have shared.”
Amnesty said: “We have long called on the UK government to protect these communities from the long arm of Chinese state oppression and to defend their rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression and prevent any effort to intimidate and silence them.
“The government must take urgent, concrete steps to investigate this case and demonstrate to those standing up for the rights of their families and friends in China that parliament is the protected space it claims to be.”