NOEL KING, HOST:
A citizen of Hong Kong who used to work for the British consulate there is making some very serious accusations against Chinese authorities. He says Chinese secret police accused him of being a spy for the U.K. and that they tortured him earlier this year. Simon Cheng told the BBC he was detained, blindfolded and beaten after he joined protests in Hong Kong. The British government says it is outraged by this, and it has summoned China's ambassador to the U.K. to answer questions about what went on. NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt is on the line. Hey, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.
KING: This gentleman, Simon Cheng, was detained earlier this year. Can you give us some background on his case?
LANGFITT: Yeah. He was returning from a business trip to the mainland. He was detained by Chinese police at a rail station in Hong Kong and then taken back to mainland China. Now, initially he was accused of soliciting prostitution. He disappeared into China's detention system, eventually was released.
Now, as you're mentioning, he's coming forward for the first time, talking to the BBC, also writing extensively on Facebook saying Chinese secret police tortured him. They tried to get him to implicate the U.K. in helping to incite violent protests, he says. And, of course, this is a Chinese Communist Party narrative, that in fact shadowy foreign forces have been driving the protests, really not about democracy, but trying to weaken China.
KING: Mr. Cheng has been very specific and detailed in his accusations of what he said was done to him. Can you just build out on this a little bit more?
LANGFITT: Yeah. He was talking to the BBC's John Sudworth. And he said he was shackled, forced to squat and stand for hours without any sleep and that if he stopped, he'd either be beaten with batons or punished or forced to sing the Chinese national anthem. Now, they said they - he said that they wanted him to confess to trying to incite the protest. He also says he believes that other people who had attended Hong Kong protests were also held with him.
KING: Now, as part of Simon Cheng's role at the British consulate - and this is very important - I understand that he was collecting information on the protests. What was he doing, and do the Chinese authorities have a right to be suspicious?
LANGFITT: Well, he admits that he supported and attended the democracy protests, and he was paid overtime by the consulate to collect info about the status of the protests. He also says that he did sign up for social media groups where protesters were coordinating their actions. But he insists he was merely observing, which is something that diplomats do around the world.
However, this could provide the Chinese government some evidence that, at a minimum, his role was blurred. And it also helps them perhaps make the case and provide an example of foreign influence. Now, it's worth pointing out that, by almost all accounts, the protests are organic, and they come out of genuine fears about eroding freedoms by the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong.
KING: OK. And if Mr. Cheng's account of what happened to him is in fact true, what should we take away from that?
LANGFITT: Well, I think what's interesting is this sort of treatment is what kind of triggered the Hong Kong protests in the first case, the fear that the mainland system, which is an authoritarian legal system where it's a 99% conviction rate, would in fact be used in Hong Kong against people who are doing things that are legal in Hong Kong, if in fact Mr. Cheng was just really observing these sorts of things. And also, it's important remember the arrest was made in Hong Kong. And this is something that Hongkongers really fear, this sort of creeping influence of a very, very different system, and the Communist - the fear that the Communist Party's going to use that system to punish Hongkongers and continue to erode their rights and freedoms.
KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt. Frank, thanks so much.
LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.