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Hong Kong and Taiwan are two regions of China that have governed like business centers and democracies. But China has been working to bring both closer to the communist fold and squash pro-democracy movements. The world is focused on the tense situation in Taiwan, where many are seeking independence. That’s where activist Simon Cheng factors in. Some say his harrowing story in Hong Kong portends Taiwan’s fate. I spoke with Cheng in Great Britain where he’s been granted asylum.

Simon Cheng’s ordeal began in August 2019 at a rail station in central Hong Kong. Chinese officers unexpectedly arrested him upon his return from a trip to mainland China.

Simon Cheng: I am the first victim for this kind of human rights abuse.

Sharyl: Did you know they were Chinese officers?

Cheng: I knew that because they were in uniform. But they gave me no reason why I've been stopped there.

At the time, Cheng was a diplomat in Hong Kong employed by the British to deal with trade and investment. He became a target of the Chinese after he reported to Great Britain on pro-democracy protests. China accused the UK of “meddling” in its affairs, and Chen was treated like a spy. He describes a lengthy ordeal in which he was accused of soliciting prostitution and tortured.

Cheng: And I put into the cell. And ask me to sit on the tiger chair, which is a chair like this, but I've been buckled up. I cannot move. And it seems like I have been a really serious criminal. And outside of the cell, they try to interrogate me and ask me a bunch of really weird question. And they said, "What do you think about Hong Kong?" And I think "Oh, it's gonna be really politics. That they will say, "Why would you join the protest? And who you know that also around you as protesters? And what's your work? What's your employment? You work for the UK government. What's their plot? What's their conspiracy behind the protest?”

Chen ultimately confessed to soliciting prostitution and was ordered detained for 15 days.

Cheng: And said, "Well, we heard that you solicited prostitutes. You went into the massage parlor." I said, "Yeah, indeed, I did massage, but I did nothing wrong." During the detention, every day almost, I have been asked out for interrogation. And almost, especially the first week, I have been shackled, I have been handcuffed, I have been blindfold, and even hooded. And what I have been treated, for example, I've been asked to stand still for countless hours, and I cannot even move. And if I move, I have been slam, they slam my face. I would be beaten. And they deprive my sleep as well. So this kind of torture have been continue. And that time, I don't know my destiny. I could be in prison for decades. I don't know. That is the fear. And afterwards, I have been put into the personal cell in solitary confinement.

To family and friends, Cheng was simply missing and his disappearance made international news. After 15 days, the Chinese released him. Still fearing for his safety, he sought and was granted asylum in the United Kingdom.

Sharyl: What do you think is very important for an American audience to know?

Cheng: Well I would say, yeah, indeed, maybe, I know that lots of U.S. audiences and citizens, they would take democracy for granted because you're born and raised in democracy. And I feel, you know, that we do need to cherish it because lots of people, they are not lucky enough that they could be born in democracy. And actually, we're on the way to fight for it. But also, what we are fighting for is a basic human right. We are human being. But it is actually a basic simple question. What do you think that the human being should be treated? I do believe that we have freedom to be critical, and we wouldn't be in prison just because what we have said.

Sharyl: Are you worried about Taiwan?

Cheng: I worry about Taiwan, indeed, and very much. Because I feel what happens in Hong Kong, and even, I would say, the fall of the freedom of Hong Kong, is not one-off. It's not just a matter of Hong Kong. It's a chain effect. It's domino effect to foresee what's the future, what's development of the Chinese regime. So one by one, bit by bit, it would be a world affair and a world issue. So that's why we need to care about Hong Kong because every time this kind of the human rights abuse, we should stand together. We need to rebuild checks and balance. We not let the dictatorship to go beyond the border any more.

Sharyl (on-camera) Cheng says he’s been forced to cut all ties with his family and friends in Hong Kong, fearing for their safety. Chinese officials have said that Cheng was detained under the Security Administration Punishment law, and that his arrest was China’s “internal affair.”

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