A human rights lawyer mysteriously disappeared and a UK consulate worker was detained for 15 days as China cracks down on Hong Kong supporters

China policeGuang Niu/Getty Images

  • On Wednesday, China said it detained a worker at the UK's consulate in Hong Kong for 15 days for "violating public security laws."
  • Also on Wednesday, Chinese human rights lawyer, Chen Qiushi, went oddly quiet after his trip to Hong Kong to observe protests, which was cut short, according to the South China Morning Post.
  • The two events appear to be part of increased pressure by China on those seen to support the protesters.
  • Hong Kong's main airline, Cathay Pacific, has also faced scrutiny from Beijing, leading to the resignation of CEO Rupert Hogg and the departure of at least three pilots
  • The country has been carefully filtering news of the protests to its mainland audience. Official sources characterize the protesters as criminals and terrorists.
  • Experts say recent crackdowns are part of China's strategy to intimidate and spread disinformation in response to protests which show no sign of slowing. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As Hong Kong's protests continue into their 11th week, China has toughened its crackdown on those it deems supportive of the unrest.

What started in the semi-autonomous territory as a protest against a extradition bill has ballooned into a fight to uphold democracy in the city. 

China on Wednesday confirmed that it had detained a worker from the UK's consulate in Hong Kong for 15 days while he was on a trip to the mainland.

28-year-old Simon Cheng was detained on August 8 while he was in the mainland for a business trip, according to the BBC.

His girlfriend, Annie Li, said that he had been detained "without reason" and urged his release. 

According to Bloomberg, Cheng told his girlfriend through a series of text messages that he was concerned for his safety while passing through Shenzhen, a Chinese city near the border with Hong Kong. 

"Passing through. Pray for me," his messages said. 

Read more: Barging into your home, threatening your family, or making you disappear: Here's what China does to people who speak out against them

China's foreign ministry said on Wednesday that Cheng had been detained in Shenzhen for "violating public security laws" but did not go into detail. The UK previously said it was "extremely concerned" by Cheng's disappearance, and said it was providing Cheng's family with support. 

Cheng's family previously said in a statement that they were told on August 10 that he had been detained in China, but said that they could obtain any information on "why, where and for how long he was to be detained."

Hu Xijin, the editor of China's state-run Global Times news outlet, said on Twitter Thursday that Cheng was detained for "visiting a prostitute" and that his family was not contacted by police in order to "reduce damage to his reputation." The BBC said he was likely to be released within 48 hours. 

China has also cracked down on mainland visitors to Hong Kong who shared their experiences on social media - skirting China's strict censorship which has sought to control news about clashes in Hong Kong. 

Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Qiushi appeared to have mysteriously gone quiet after his trip to Hong Kong to observe protests was cut short, according to the South China Morning Post.

The 33-year-old had arrived in Hong Kong on Saturday and posted several photos and videos about his time in the city to Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, where he had over 770,000 followers. 

According to SCMP, Chen said he was forced to return to the mainland due to pressure from Chinese authorities and said he could be barred from practicing law because of his visit.

Read more: A protester takes us inside the demonstrations in Hong Kong

"I'm showing everyone my lawyer's license here. Why? Because it may not be mine any more after I return," he said in a social media post from the airport on Tuesday night, according to SCMP.

Xu was unable to be contacted on Wednesday, according to SCMP, and many of his Weibo posts from his time in Hong Kong have been deleted. Human rights groups and activists expressed concerns that Chen may have been targeted by Chinese officials upon his return to the mainland.

Chen later confirmed to SCMP on Wednesday night that he was "safe" and in China, though he did not expand upon what happened to him upon his return. 

"In my broadcast online, I only reported objectively what I saw and what I learned in the city," he told SCMP on Thursday. 

Experts say China's strategy is to intimidate and control information 

china surveillance cameraMonitor cameras work in front of the giant portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, September 28, 2009. REUTERS/Jason LeeJason Lee/Reuters

Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, said in a blog post that, while China has threatened to use military force to quell protests in Hong Kong, much of their current strategy involves intimidation and disinformation. 

The country has been carefully filtering news of the protests to its mainland audience, and has hardened its rhetoric in recent weeks, comparing Hong Kong protesters to "criminals" and "terrorists" in public statements. 

China has also intensified pressure on businesses and institutions, including Hong Kong's flagship carrier Cathay Pacific.

The airline has warned that its staff could be fired for taking part in protests, and at least three pilots have been fired or resigned in the weeks since protests started.

The airline's crew members also recently described to Reuters a climate of fear at the company as Chinese aviation officials checked staff members' phones for anti-China content.   

Last week, the airline's CEO Rupert Hogg suddenly quit amid Chinese scrutiny of Cathay employees taking part in anti-government protests. Chinese state TV first announced his resignation without specifying where it got the information from, leading to speculation that he was pressured by Beijing to step down. 

Hogg said in an email to staff on Friday seen by Reuters that it was a "grave and critical time" for the airline and that the brand was under "immense pressure," particularly in mainland China. 

Read more: China waiting out Hong Kong protests, but backlash may come

Cathay Pacific's new CEO, Augustus Tang, told staff in a memo seen by Reuters on Monday that the company had "zero tolerance for illegal activities."

He said Cathay Pacific was currently "one of the most watched companies in Hong Kong and indeed the world."

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