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Hong Kong calls for respect of its overseas-based trade offices after UK charged its London staffer

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HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong’s leader on Tuesday urged foreign governments to respect its overseas-based trade offices after a staff member in its London branch was charged in Britain for allegedly working for the Chinese city’s intelligence service.

Chief Executive John Lee said his administration had demanded the British government provide an explanation about the prosecution of Bill Yuen, the office manager of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London. Lee said any attempt to make unwarranted allegations against the city’s government is unacceptable.

British police allege that Yuen, along with Chi Leung (Peter) Wai and Matthew Trickett, agreed to engage in information gathering, surveillance and acts of deception that were likely to materially assist the Hong Kong intelligence service. The trio was charged under a new national security act that gave British police additional powers to tackle foreign espionage.

In his weekly news briefing, Lee said the duties of the trade office in London are to foster ties with various sectors in Britain and promote Hong Kong.

“Any attempt to interfere with the work of the ETO offices in different places will be against free trade and free economy and will harm the economy of the countries that try to do bad things to the operation of the ETO offices,” he said.

Monday’s prosecution is likely to sour relations between Britain and China. Chinese authorities in both the U.K. and Hong Kong have criticized the charges, saying they were the latest in a series of “groundless and slanderous” accusations that the British government has leveled against China.

Britain summoned China’s ambassador to the Foreign Office on Tuesday in a sign of strong diplomatic displeasure.

The Foreign Office said in a statement that Ambassador Zheng Zeguang had been called to a meeting to be told that “the recent pattern of behavior directed by China against the U.K. including cyberattacks, reports of espionage links and the issuing of bounties is not acceptable.”

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that China is gravely concerned about the prosecution of the Chinese national and called on Britain to safeguard the legitimate rights of Chinese in the U.K.

“For some time, the British side has been hyping up the so-called Chinese spying and Chinese cyberattacks,” he said. “China firmly opposes such despicable acts of political manipulation in the name of justice and national security.”

In April, British prosecutors charged two men, including a former researcher working in the U.K. Parliament, with spying for China. The Chinese Embassy called the allegations fabricated.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak warned the U.K. was facing an increasingly dangerous future due to threats from an “axis of authoritarian states,” including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

The head of GCHQ, Britain’s electronic intelligence agency, said in a speech on Tuesday that “China poses a genuine and increasing cyber risk to the U.K.” Anne Keast-Butler said Beijing’s “coercive and destabilizing actions … pose a significant risk to international norms and values” and weaken the security of the internet.

Hong Kong has always been a specific source of tensions between Britain and Beijing. The former British colony returned to China in 1997 under an agreement that included promises by Beijing to keep for 50 years a degree of self-government and freedoms of assembly, speech and press that are not allowed on the Communist-ruled Chinese mainland. Critics say those freedoms have all but disappeared.

The three men were granted bail in a London court on Monday and their next court appearance is scheduled for May 24.

Hong Kong media reported that Yuen is a former police officer in Hong Kong. The Associated Press found Yuen’s name printed in local police publicity materials online.

In the news conference on Tuesday, Lee also responded to reports of a photo he had taken with Yuen for a news article years ago.

“This photo appears to be a graduation group photo,” he said. “My impression of this person is solely based on this photo.”

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Associated Press writer Jill Lawless in London contributed to this story.

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Find more AP coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/europe

By KANIS LEUNG
Associated Press

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