Night had fallen as Simon Cheng Man-kit, a UK consulate employee, rushed to catch a train home to Hong Kong. He had spent the day on a business trip in southern China and was looking forward to a night off.
But he was nervous about the trip back. For weeks, border officials had stepped up checks, questioning people travelling to and from Hong Kong, where anti-government protests were roiling the city.
So he stayed in constant contact with friends and family, letting them know he was safe, even messaging his girlfriend from the station: “Passing through. Pray for me.”
That was the last anyone would hear from Cheng, 29, a trade and investment officer, as he disappeared into the Chinese state for more than two weeks.
He was subjected to physical torture, psychological intimidation, political indoctrination and repeated interrogations by state security agents, sometimes by teams of 15 men.
Authorities called him an enemy of the state for working for the UK Government, threatened to charge him with subversion and espionage and demanded he admit the British Government was masterminding the protests in Hong Kong.
Demonstrations have stretched into a sixth month and are becoming increasingly chaotic as protesters clash with police in efforts to urge the government to make political and governance changes in the biggest challenge ever faced by Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party.
Cheng was caught in the crossfire as the Chinese state tried to stand up its claims of foreign interference.
On the evening of August 8, Cheng at first thought the gate had malfunctioned when it failed to open after he swiped his identification card to exit the mainland side of the West Kowloon rail station.
Panic set in when a phalanx of officers approached him, taking his phone, bag and glasses, which left him with blurred vision.
They had received orders from “up top” to detain him, he was told. He was escorted to a police station as it neared midnight.
There, they locked him in a “tiger chair”, a metal torture contraption that prohibits movement, and began the first of many interrogations.
Men in uniform and plain-clothes officers questioned him repeatedly; the longest round lasted 48 hours. “We suspect you are a British spy… we aren’t arresting you, we’ve captured you,” he was told by nameless men, one of whom said he would never be released, Cheng recalled.
Another threatened to throw him in China’s “re-education” camp system, where the UN estimates more than a million people are being held against their will and subjected to torture and political indoctrination.
The police demanded to know the role he, as a UK consulate employee, played in supporting the protests, and pushed him to confess that the British Government was instigating the unrest. Cheng said he had attended peaceful, legal rallies as a private citizen, and had been assigned at work to monitor demonstrations as part of wider consulate efforts to determine if British nationals were impacted, and to inform decisions and announcements, such as travel advisories.
But when he denied any British government involvement in the protests, the men flew into a rage and accused him of lying, he said. They claimed informants had told them the UK was funding the protesters.
Cheng’s friends, some of whom were mainland Chinese people joining the demonstrations, were evidence that he – and the UK – were supporting the overall unrest.
It was clear the interrogations were meant to “fulfil and prove their pre-written play” – essentially to confirm what they already believed – said Cheng, who was denied access to a lawyer and contact with his family.
While guards spoon-fed him – he was always handcuffed and shackled – he was forced to listen to lectures about why China as a country was “not suitable” for democracy.
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