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.
Hundreds of protesters have left the under-siege Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, most handing themselves in to police but some through daring escapes.
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.
Beijing has continually accused the UK and other Western governments of instigating the violence to undermine China, without providing evidence. Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, again condemned Britain on Monday for publicly supporting “extreme violent offenders”, saying “external forces” were to blame for the situation.
It’s a line that plays well with domestic audiences and stokes nationalism, said Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group.
“Let’s be clear – what’s happening in Hong Kong is almost exclusively the result of people having spent 22 years asking peacefully, and through established legal channels, for their rights to be respected, and having those views not just ignored, but also having their rights systematically eroded,” she said.
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.
He was also asked repeatedly to provide information, such as the layout of the consulate building, where classified information was stored, what staff passes looked like, and the names of people secretly working as MI5 and MI6 agents.
At one point, the men grabbed his head in order to unlock his work phone with biometric identification, to gather further information about the UK Government. Aside from physical torture, Cheng was also subjected to psychological intimidation.
While being escorted from one secret location to another, police played a song in the car by a Hong Kong band whose lyrics describe a person separated from their family indefinitely. Another time, a man dressed as an inmate approached him, asking how to obtain a US passport in order to join the fight against China. “I suspected he may be undercover, so I didn’t say anything,” he said.
Neither China’s foreign ministry nor the Chinese embassy in London responded to requests for comment.
Cheng’s account, however, is similar to what former detainees, including political dissidents, have recounted to the Telegraph in previous interviews. “The abuse described by Cheng is the norm of Chinese police behaviour,” said Peter Humphrey, 63, a Briton who vanished inside China in 2013 for nearly two years and was forced to confess to crimes he denies.
“While in detention, the authorities do everything to crush the human spirit in order to extort a confession,” he said. “They do not rely on any forensic or real police investigative skills.”
Extracting confessions are a way to “create the illusion of legitimacy, especially to counter international criticism of human rights abuses,” said Frances Eve, deputy research director at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a network of advocacy groups.
Human rights experts also said Cheng’s harrowing ordeal exemplifies China’s opaque legal and judicial systems. “Chinese law is whatever the authorities say it is, whenever they say it, even though on paper people have the right to freedom of expression, the right not to be tortured,” said Richardson.
“In practice, people are routinely ill-treated in detention, denied access to a lawyer, to the evidence against them, and the right to a fair trial remains elusive, despite Xi Jinping’s claims to the contrary.”
It is unclear why Cheng triggered the interest of Chinese authorities.
He was “probably singled out because of his employment at the British consulate”, said Humphrey, who now campaigns for human rights. “This was classic diplomatic hostage-taking aimed at punishing Hong Kong’s former colonial ruler.”
The Chinese government has before arbitrarily detained its people to silence critics. Foreigners have also been imprisoned in cases experts consider as retaliation against governments that have upset Beijing.
Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor remain under detention after disappearing last December, shortly after Ottawa helped the US arrest a Chinese tech executive transiting in the Vancouver airport.
Cheng was finally released on August 24, after the police forced him to plead guilty for soliciting prostitution – punishable by 15 days’ detention – filming a “confession”, and making him sign a statement.
Chinese authorities commonly use false prostitution charges “to defame and humiliate the character of the person to try and shut down international or domestic support”, said Eve. Officers even tried to recruit Cheng as a spy, saying he “should work for my motherland”, and threatened to kidnap him back to China if he ever talked about his treatment under detention.
Despite the risks, Cheng wants his ordeal to be known publicly, especially as what underpins the ongoing protests in Hong Kong is a longstanding fear that mainland Chinese authorities are eroding the rights of Hong Kong people, something he says his experience proves.
While the bruises he sustained from the torture have since healed, he is still finding ways to cope emotionally, with some support from the UK consulate.
But settling back has been hard. He has spotted men following him around. Fearing for his safety, he has been reluctant to live at home, where he suspects it would be easy for Chinese agents to catch him.
Instead, he moves locations frequently, staying indoors as much as possible with the curtains drawn.
Still, the soft-spoken Cheng is doing his best to get his life back on track, spending time with friends and family.
He has resigned from his post after serving for two years, agreeing with the UK consulate that it would be difficult for him to continue in his role, which requires travel to mainland China. There is also a lingering concern that he would remain a security risk, especially as Chinese authorities had already tried once to turn him, he said.
Cheng worries whether future employers will find him an attractive candidate, as there is no real legal recourse to clear his name.
“I don’t know if I can find a job anymore,” he said. “I feel like I’m just a pawn.”