Chinese Honey Trap Rumor Fuels Paranoia Among Hong Kong Exiles After Activist 'Disappears'

  • Fellow activists say Kenneth Wong's sudden disappearance from the scene is suspicious
  • Wong dismisses honey trap rumors as "ridiculous," says "disappointed" in activist community
  • Chinese espionage is the "top concern" for activists living in exile in the U.K.

Kenneth Wong was seemingly a happily married lawyer and an important Hong Kong pro-democracy advocate living in Britain—until he suddenly disappeared from the activist scene.

Ostensibly, Wong had run away with his Chinese mistress and started a new life somewhere in the U.K. But people close to him feared something darker. They saw the hand of the Chinese Communist Party reaching into spaces that Hong Kongers who fled the regime had hoped were safe.

Wong has long been a key figure in the pro-democracy movement in the U.K. Those who knew Wong well told Newsweek he was vital in bringing together different activist groups, using his political connections to advocate on their behalf, and helping to keep alive the flickering flame of the pro-democracy movement.

His abrupt disappearance raised concerns that such networks may have been compromised.

Wong himself says he simply feels his activist journey has come to a natural conclusion, and that he is stepping aside to make way for the thousands of new arrivals who cut their teeth on the tear gas-choked streets of Hong Kong in recent years.

"I didn't receive any threats, it's not due to any pressure from anyone, just a personal choice," he told Newsweek by phone. "I feel that now it's time for me to step back and do what I need to do; to devote myself to my career, to be with my family."

But rumors abound regardless. The paranoia among activists reflects the new reality for exiled Hong Kongers who live life looking over their shoulders, knowing they are targets of Beijing's aggressive pursuit of dissidents and unsure of who to trust.

Several prominent activists living in the U.K. have reported suspected surveillance and harassment they ascribe to Beijing. The U.K. government and security services, they believe, have been too slow to recognize the danger.

Fear and mistrust are permeating the Hong Kong diaspora.

Through the prism of Chinese espionage, personal dramas can appear as subterfuge. Over the past year, Wong began an extra-marital affair, separated from his wife, disappeared from the activist scene, and stopped meeting with associates.

Rumors thrive among activists that Wong has fallen victim to a Chinese honey trap—a traditional espionage technique in which a target is seduced by an agent, then blackmailed or turned to gain access to their information. The suggestion among some activists is that Wong's new partner is working on behalf of the Chinese government.

Wong described the theory as "ridiculous," and said he had not been avoiding any former associates. "I've always been available—my phone is always on and I think the only thing I've stopped using is Facebook because I decided not to update anything or not to share news due to some personal reasons," he said.

There are nuggets of evidence pointing to Chinese state infiltration in the U.K., though little concrete proof of mass espionage.

In May, the government announced plans to update the country's Official Secrets Act and make it fit-for-purpose in the cyber age, with a focus on battling both Russian and Chinese espionage. The move also proposed a Foreign Influence Registration Scheme.

The government is also trying to weed out individual agents. In February, The Telegraph reported that the British government had expelled three Chinese spies posing as journalists. The three were agents of China's Ministry of State Security, the unconfirmed report said.

Chinese officials and agents abroad have long tried to quell international criticism of the CCP. Beijing claims its National Security Law—which signaled the end of Hong Kong's limited political freedom—extends to foreign nations, and Hong Kong authorities have already issued arrest warrants for dissidents abroad.

Some 65,000 Hong Kongers have applied for refuge in the U.K. since January, fleeing the CCP crackdown on the semi-autonomous territory that long stood as a relatively democratic and liberal bastion against Beijing's authoritarianism.

The British government introduced the British National Overseas visa scheme in January. It allows Hong Kong residents who were British nationals—i.e. holders of British National Overseas passports—when the territory was handed from British to Chinese control in 1997 to apply for residency in the U.K.

Hong Kong protesters at University siege 2019
Anti-government protesters walk during clashes with police at Hong Kong Polytechnic University on November 18, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Laurel Chor/Getty Images

An effective fast-track to citizenship, the scheme was a lifeline for Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters.

But there have been reports that Chinese agents are trying to infiltrate the BNO scheme. The British Home Office was unable or unwilling to tell Newsweek the extent of such efforts earlier this year.

Simon Cheng is the founder of the Hongkongers in Britain group. He told Newsweek that the "top concern" within the community "is the surveillance by CCP agents in the U.K."

Hong Kongers are trying to protect themselves while also looking out for each other.

"I heard about it," Cheng told Newsweek of the concerns swirling around Wong's disappearance from the activist scene. "I understand there's a lot of rumors."

He continued: "I can't really get to the bottom of it...I think it's absolutely believable that Chinese agents would send women to lure key activists. I think they would do it, but it's just really hard to verify."

Cheng was formerly a trade and investment officer at the British Consulate-General in Hong Kong before being detained by Chinese authorities in 2019. Cheng says he was tortured by Chinese agents, who tried to force him to admit to being a British spy involved in instigating the most recent round of Hong Kong protests.

The agents, Cheng recounted, forced him into recorded false confessions saying he had solicited prostitutes.

After his release, Cheng fled to London where he was granted asylum in 2020. But his problems did not end with his escape from Chinese territory. "I've been followed," Cheng said, recounting suspected surveillance even while in the U.K. "I have been targeted by the pro-CCP state media...They try to isolate us, our thoughts, our influence and efforts."

"We believe that still there are lots of informants, or agents, or even police officers in the U.K., to do what they think are proper investigations for political crime cases," Cheng added, referring to cases that could be prosecuted under the National Security Law.

Simon Cheng at Hong Kong protests London
Simon Cheng, the founder of Hongkongers in Britain, attends an event organised by Justitia Hong Kong to mourn the loss of Hong Kong's political freedoms, in Leicester Square, London on December 12, 2020. JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

The pervasive menace has permeated all aspects of life within the Hong Kong community. Even the support networks set up to help new arrivals are suspect, dominated as they are by established Chinese community groups in the U.K., some of which have links to the CCP.

Tayab Ali, a London-based solicitor advocate who has given legal advice to Hong Kong activists, told Newsweek he has little doubt Beijing would look to exploit the BNO scheme.

"I think it's highly likely that the Chinese government—maybe along with other authoritarian governments—would exploit whatever mechanisms to infiltrate activist groups in the U.K.," he said.

"Members of the British government that have personal financial interests in China could muddy the waters about ensuring that our national security is secure in terms of Chinese influence here."

Chinese firms have spent more than $69 billion in the past ten years investing in British businesses and infrastructure. Beijing carries significant clout in the U.K., and according to some reports is trying to leverage this for closer ties with British politicians.

Newsweek asked the Chinese embassy in London for comment on concerns over CCP espionage but did not receive a response.

Hong Kong activists must continue their fight with great caution, even thousands of miles from mainland China and the former battleground of Hong Kong.

Jabez Lam—a well-known activist who runs a Chinese community center in east London—said even he struggles to gain the trust of those living in exile. "Hong Kongers arriving are very wary about sharing their information, sharing their identity," he told Newsweek.

"I'm quite vocal and quite high profile. People know that my center has a history of supporting Chinese people fleeing persecution.

"Most of the people that I've encountered—hundreds of Hong Kongers—I would say that 80 percent of them still haven't given me their full name. I have to earn their trust, people are putting themselves at risk by giving their information to me."

Lam said he reached out to Wong in July after hearing the honey trap rumors.

"By that time there were whispers about whether he had been honey-trapped, about whether the movement was compromised...I just wanted to chat with him and see whether I could suss it out."

The two had a brief conversation, during which Lam said Wong "sounded reluctant to meet."

"It could be anything," Lam said. "It's not unusual, if someone has an affair, that people are reluctant to meet old friends—to avoid embarrassment."

Wong rejected Lam's recollection of events. "I don't really know him well," he said. "He called me out of the blue and he asked me some very strange questions.

"I think it was during the lockdown, or just immediately after the lockdown restrictions. So that's why I suggested a Zoom meeting instead...I didn't know why he wanted to have a personal meeting.

"I sent him my email, my contact details by text message. He never came back to me. So I think in this situation he is the strange one."

Wong declined to tell Newsweek where is now living, saying only that he is no longer in London.

He recently posted several new photos to Facebook after months of inactivity. The photos show Wong posing happily with his new family. One was of Wong in the northern city of Manchester outside the stadium of the Manchester United soccer club.

One person who has previously worked with Wong and has known him for several years, but did not wish to be named, told Newsweek they were surprised to see the activist drop off social media.

"I couldn't see him updating anything on Facebook. That's very unusual," they said

"I did circle around and ask people if they had any idea of where Kenneth had been...nobody has any clue.

"I don't think people really want to dig deep on where Kenneth has been because they just knew it could be dangerous if they wanted to go further."

Hong Kong man with BNO passport
In this photo taken in Hong Kong on June 3, 2020, Reese Tan, 25, poses with his British National (Overseas) passport in Hong Kong's Mongkok district. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

A journalist who did not wish to be named but has worked closely with Hong Kong activists told Newsweek they are unsettled. "Many of those activists in the U.K. are really concerned about this issue," he said.

"Some of them really believe that it is a honey trap, they have no doubt about it. Of course, some of them argue that it's a normal problem between the couple...But still, they are convinced that maybe they should keep their distance from Kenneth for a while, because it seems fishy.

"They all have a common agreement that the CCP is trying their very best to send spies into activist circles. So they can't really deny the possibility."

"One cannot exclude the possibility that he has been honey trapped," Lam said. "Using people's family lives as blackmail is not new for the Communist Party. This is something they have used at least from the 1960s."

In 2020, Axios uncovered a suspected Chinese honey trap operation spearheaded by Fang Fang—or Christine Fang—a woman who befriended up-and-coming local politicians in California and elsewhere who may go on to become nationally significant.

Axios reported that Fang engaged in sexual relationships with at least two midwestern mayors. One unnamed senior U.S. intelligence official told Axios: "There were some really, really sensitive people that were caught up" in the network.

"Honey traps are really common," Cheng told Newsweek. "This kind of thing would make me way more cautious if any woman approached me."

Wong could be a good target for CCP agents, having long served as a vital facilitator for the different groups of Hong Kong activists in the U.K.

He works for the Fragomen law firm—a U.S. corporation specializing in immigration cases, including for people leaving Hong Kong, which suffered a recent data breach—and is a volunteer Special Constable for London's Metropolitan Police.

The Metropolitan Police declined to confirm that Wong remains a serving Special Constable.

Others close to Wong speculated about his financial health, and said members of his family have served in positions within the Hong Kong Police Force and other government departments.

A source who did not wish to be named told Newsweek that Wong was a fulcrum in activist circles. "He was the central person here," they said, helping Hong Kongers with "information, political support and line ups with U.K. politicians."

Lam said: "If he is compromised, then it would pose a risk to the movement."

The rumor mill within the diaspora community is evidence of collective insecurity.

The Hong Kong diaspora makes the U.K. an even more important battleground for China, as it entrenches its superpower status and chips away at the liberal international order that so reviles its authoritarianism.

Some three million Hong Kongers—almost half of the territory's population—are eligible for BNO status. "It will affect the whole strategy of the CCP," Cheng said.

"People won't suddenly be disappeared in the U.K., but they [Chinese agents in the U.K.] will collect evidence. Who and where you meet, what you do, who attends anti-China protests.

"And then when you go to any China-friendly country, then you will be in trouble," he said, referring to possible extradition.

Many new arrivals will think of themselves as "small potatoes" when compared with established activists, Cheng said. But the ideological zeal and political sensitivity of the Chinese government means anyone could find themselves in the crosshairs. "Who knows, you could suddenly be on the front line like me," he said.

Wong told Newsweek he understood why there was concern about him.

"I appreciate that. But I think this is also the weakness of the Hong Kong community; people tend to spread rumors without thinking or without first confirming, or asking for clarification," Wong said.

"The only thing I can say is these people who made these suggestions or rumors on the internet should have come to me first. I'm a private citizen. I'm not even a leader or anything. I shouldn't be answering these questions.

"I'm really disappointed."

This article has been updated to clarify a comment from Simon Cheng.

Hong Kong protest in London in 2019
Protesters march to Downing Street during the Join Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong, and Democracy for Hong Kong demonstration on November 23, 2019 in London, U.K. John Keeble/Getty Images