Chinese state media has aired the purported confession of a Belizean businessman sentenced to 11 years in prison this month for allegedly conspiring with US citizens to fund protests in Hong Kong in 2019.

Henley Lee seen in a televised confession of crimes endangering national security. Photo: CCTV-13 screenshot.

Henley Lee Huxiang is the first individual to be prosecuted since China amended its criminal code in March to outlaw the provision of support for activities or entities overseas that would endanger national security.

Wednesday’s “confession” came on the eve of Hong Kong’s first National Security Education Day on Thursday. Beijing insists that the 2019 pro-democracy protests by hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers were incited overseas, a charge denied by those taking part.

The overseas TV channels of Chinese state media have been suspended in the UK and in Australia for airing possibly coerced confessions.

Lee, 66, was arrested in November 2019 for allegedly colluding with people in the United States to fuel protests in Hong Kong and to impose sanctions on the territory, a Communist Party newspaper reported at the time.

He was charged in April 2020 and sentenced to 11 years early this month, according to the Focus Report programme on state television CCTV-13 on Wednesday. Lee appeared in a detailed 13-minute segment that included his purported confessions on camera and comments from officers said to have investigated the case.

“Henley Lee is a typical ‘two-faced man’: he tried hard to appear to be a patriotic businessman when he approached government officials, but in private, he has no qualms about his anti-China attitude,” the report said.

In the video, Lee appeared in a grey T-shirt and a red vest marked with an abbreviated term for “national security custody” and was seen briefly in handcuffs.

Photo: CCTV-13 screenshot.

Lee gave financial support to Hong Kong activist Alex Chow so he could travel overseas to take part in training and a forum in Europe, the CCTV report alleged. His funding also enabled Nathan Law, Joshua Wong and Sunny Cheung to meet foreign politicians, it said.

Chow and Law both denied knowing Lee and said they had received no funds from him, according to statements they posted to Facebook. Chow said the forum was an event in the Czech Republic promoting democracy and travel fees were sponsored by its organisers.

Lee also allegedly gave funds to a man surnamed Yang, who was connected to politicians in an unnamed western country, according to the TV report. The money was intended to support the election campaigns of these “anti-China” lawmakers in 2018, it said.

Lee moved cash overseas with the help of 20 or 30 of his employees, who each carried no more than the US$5,000 allowed by law each time they left the country, according to his purported confession.

He was consulted by foreign politicians as they drafted legislation that would impose sanctions on China, the report said. He persuaded them not to place restrictions on bonded warehouses and dual-use items, and so the legislation ultimately included more severe measures.

“For a Chinese man to offer these suggestions, causing this western country to place more damaging measures to suppress us, this is behaviour typical of a Chinese traitor,” a police officer said in the report.

Henley Lee reportedly met with Hong Kong activist Alex Chow. Photo: CCTV-13 screenshot.

Safeguard Defenders, a human rights watchdog which monitors televised “confessions” on Chinese state media, said Lee’s case set a precedent in the reach of the country’s security laws beyond its national borders.

“This is a dangerous precedent that cannot be understated and reflects the brand new provisions in China’s Criminal Law, echoing the extraterritorial aspects of the Hong Kong National Security Law,” the group said in a statement.

Lee is the fifth person in recent months to appear on Focus Report and confess to national security crimes, according to the group. “Like Lee, the other four have all stood accused of crimes against national security, some also for ‘instigating’ protests in Hong Kong. The other four are all Taiwanese citizens.”

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.