Veteran Hong Kong democrats found guilty in landmark unlawful assembly case

By Jessie Pang and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A Hong Kong court found seven prominent democrats guilty of unauthorized assembly charges, including 82-year-old barrister Martin Lee and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, 72, the latest blow to the city’s beleaguered democracy movement.

Lee, who helped launch the city’s largest opposition Democratic Party in the 1990’s and is often called the former British colony’s “father of democracy,” was accused of taking part in an unauthorized assembly on Aug. 18, 2019.

The silver-haired Lee and the others, all in their 60’s or older, sat impassively as district court judge Amanda Woodcock handed down her decision.

“I have found after trial the prosecution able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that all of the defendants together organized what amounted to an unauthorized assembly,” the district court judge said in the full written judgement.

They were also found guilty of knowingly participating in an unauthorized assembly.

Although Hong Kong’s mini-constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, Woodcock added, “restrictions are imposed, including those for preserving public safety and public order, and protecting the rights of others.”

Sentencing will come on April 16, with some legal experts expecting jail terms of 12 to 18 months. The maximum possible sentence is five years.

The other defendants included prominent barrister Margaret Ng, 73; and veteran democrats Lee Cheuk-yan, 64; Albert Ho, 69; Leung Kwok-hung, 65; and Cyd Ho, 66. Two others, Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung, 67, had earlier pleaded guilty.

A small group of supporters displayed banners outside the West Kowloon court building, including one that read “Oppose Political Persecution”.

“If we are sentenced to jail in the future for this case … it’s our badge of honor to be jailed for walking with the people of Hong Kong,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a former lawmaker who has been a pro-democracy activist since the late 1970’s.

The judge rejected a request by the prosecution to keep the nine in custody, and granted them bail pending sentencing.

During the trial, defense lawyers argued that freedom of assembly is a constitutional right in Hong Kong, and noted that police had approved the peaceful demonstration in the city’s downtown Victoria Park, which grew into an unauthorized march as numbers swelled into the hundreds of thousands.

The prosecution argued that the freedom of assembly isn’t absolute in Hong Kong.

Critics, including Western governments, have condemned the arrests of Lee and other democrats amid the ongoing crackdown. Forty-seven other high-profile democratic campaigners are facing subversion charges under the national security law, and have mostly been denied bail and are being held in detention.

The European Union office in Hong Kong said the ongoing prosecutions of democrats are of “great concern” and it would continue to monitor developments.

The United States said on Wednesday that Hong Kong does not warrant preferential treatment under the Hong Kong Policy Act, a law that had allowed Washington to maintain a special relationship with the city.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a news release that China had “severely undermined the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong,” through arbitrary arrests and politically motivated prosecutions as well as “pressure on judicial independence and academic and press freedoms.”

The 2019 pro-democracy protests were spurred by Beijing’s tightening squeeze on wide-ranging freedoms promised to Hong Kong upon its return to Chinese rule in 1997, and plunged the semi-autonomous city into its biggest crisis since the handover.

Beijing has since imposed a sweeping national security law, punishing anything it deems as secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.

Since the law’s promulgation, the government has sought to crush the opposition movement, barred protests and curbed political expression, and overhauled the city’s electoral system to ensure only pro-China “patriots” govern Hong Kong.

Hong Kong and Chinese authorities, however, say the security law and electoral reforms are needed to restore stability and to resolve “deep-seated” problems, and that human rights will be safeguarded.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang and James Pomfret; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Jonathan Oatis)

China formalizes sweeping electoral shake-up for Hong Kong, demands loyalty

By Yew Lun Tian and Clare Jim

BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) – China finalized a sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system on Tuesday, drastically curbing democratic representation in the city as authorities seek to ensure “patriots” rule the global financial hub.

The measures are part of Beijing’s efforts to consolidate its increasingly authoritarian grip over its freest city following the imposition of a national security law in June, which critics see as a tool to crush dissent.

The changes would see the number of directly elected representatives fall and the number of Beijing-approved officials rise in an expanded legislature, Xinhua news agency reported.

As part of the shake-up, a powerful new vetting committee will monitor candidates for public office and work with national security authorities to ensure they are loyal to Beijing.

Maria Tam, a senior Hong Kong politician who works with China’s parliament on matters relating to Hong Kong’s mini-constitution told Reuters the Committee for Safeguarding National Security would help the new vetting committee to “understand the background of all of the candidates, specifically whether they had complied with the national security law.”

Beijing imposed the contentious security legislation on Hong Kong in June, punishing what it broadly defines as subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism with up to life in jail.

Chinese authorities have said the electoral shake-up is aimed at getting rid of “loopholes and deficiencies” that threatened national security during anti-government unrest in 2019 and to ensure only “patriots” run the city.

The measures are the most significant overhaul of Hong Kong’s political structure since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and alter the size and composition of the legislature and electoral committee in favor of pro-Beijing figures.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and several city officials, including the Secretary for Justice, all issued separate statements praising China’s move.

“I firmly believe that by improving the electoral system and implementing ‘patriots administering Hong Kong’, the excessive politicization in society and the internal rift that has torn Hong Kong apart can be effectively mitigated,” Lam said.

Speaking at a press conference later, Lam said the changes would be submitted to the Legislative Council by mid-April and expected to see them passed by the end of May.

Legislative Council elections, which were postponed in September with the government citing coronavirus, would be held in December, she added, while the city’s leadership election would be held in March, as planned.

UNOPPOSED

The number of directly elected representatives will drop to 20 from 35 and the size of the legislature increase to 90 seats from 70 currently, Xinhua said, while an election committee responsible for selecting the chief executive will increase from 1,200 members to 1,500.

The representation of 117 community-level district councilors in the election committee would be scrapped and the six district council seats in the Legislative Council will also go, according to Xinhua.

District councils are the city’s only fully democratic institution, and almost 90% of the 452 district seats are controlled by the democratic camp after a 2019 vote. They mostly deal with grassroots issues such as public transport links and garbage collection.

The electoral restructuring was endorsed unopposed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, at the apex of China’s legislature, Xinhua reported.

Beijing had promised universal suffrage as an ultimate goal for Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which also guarantees the city wide-ranging autonomy not seen in mainland China, including freedom of speech.

Critics say the changes move Hong Kong in the opposite direction, leaving the democratic opposition with the most limited space it has ever had since the handover, if any at all.

Since the security law was imposed, most pro-democracy activists and politicians have found themselves ensnared by it, or arrested for other reasons.

Some elected legislators have been disqualified, with authorities calling their oaths insincere, while scores of democracy activists have been driven into exile.

All legislature candidates, including direct elected seats, will also need nominations from each of the five subsectors in the election committee, according to Xinhua, making it more difficult for pro-democracy candidates to take part in the election.

“They want to increase the safety factor so that in the future, the democrats will not only get very limited seats, if they are not liked by Beijing, they won’t even be able to run in the election,” said Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer at Chinese University of Hong Kong’s department of government and public administration.

He expects the democratic candidates to get at most one-sixth, or around 16 seats, in LegCo after the reforms.

(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing and Clare Jim in Hong Kong; Writing by Se Young Lee, Anne Marie Roantree and Farah Master; Editing by Lincoln Feast & Shri Navaratnam)

Analysis: End of the road for Hong Kong’s democratic dream as China ‘improves’ its voting system

By James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Ever since Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, opposition activists have tried to bring full democracy to the city, believing that China would live up to its promise to one day allow universal suffrage to elect the city’s leader.

On Friday, that campaign was dealt its biggest blow. Chinese parliamentarians in Beijing unveiled details of a plan to revamp the political structure of China’s freest city that critics say has all but killed off the pledge of one person, one vote.

China’s move comes months after a sweeping national security law was imposed on the Asian financial hub, cracking down on dissent, and more than a year after months of sometimes violent anti-China, pro-democracy protests which swept the city.

“There is not much we can do to effectively change what they’re deciding,” the head of the Democratic Party, Lo Kin-hei, told Reuters.

The structural changes will include increasing the city’s legislative seats from 70 to 90, with some of these to now be decided by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists. Seats likely to be controlled by the democrats will either be scrapped or reduced.

A 1,200-person committee that picks Hong Kong’s leader will be expanded – further “improving” a system controlled by Chinese “patriots,” according to Wang Chen, a vice chairman of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress.

Wang told reporters the moves, that would involve re-drafting parts of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, would consolidate China’s “overall jurisdiction” over the city and fix “deep-seated problems” once and for all.

It was in the Basic Law that Beijing promised universal suffrage as an ultimate goal for Hong Kong.

But Friday’s moves now stand to nip in the bud the risk of any resurgence of the democracy movement, founded after Beijing’s violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989.

With many leading democrats now jailed or forced into exile, including Lo’s predecessor, Wu Chi-wai, who was denied bail this week along with dozens of others for an alleged conspiracy to “overthrow” the government, the democrats will try to utilize their grassroots networks to keep their ideals alive.

“The trust towards the system is fading … and it’s not a good sign if we want a more peaceful society to not allow different voices to be in harmony,” Lo told Reuters.

‘MOVING BACKWARDS’

Another veteran democracy campaigner said Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who became head of the Communist Party in 2012, had changed the trajectory of Hong Kong’s moves towards full democracy, going against the oft-cited promise of China’s late leader, Deng Xiaoping, to let Hong Kong people “rule” Hong Kong.

“It’s a great tragedy,” said the source, who declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the political atmosphere. “They are moving backwards, not forwards, and taking us back in time to a dark, dark place.”

With the opposition now likely to become a permanent minority in a re-modelled legislature, the shift towards China’s one-party model will create openings for new patriotic factions, critics and some pro-Beijing politicians say.

China, given its rise into a global superpower, now has the power and resources to extend its autocratic governance despite criticism and sanctions from the West.

Some see Hong Kong’s British Common Law legal system as the last bastion against China’s tightening authoritarian grip.

More than 50 democratic advocates crammed into a court in the city this week, some of whom face potential life imprisonment on a subversion charge under the national security law promulgated directly by China’s parliament last June.

Two democrats, veteran activist Leung Kwok-hung and former law professor Benny Tai, had to shuttle between two court rooms for concurrent hearings, while others were taken to hospital after falling ill during marathon sessions.

Under the security law, the onus rests on defendants to argue a case for bail – which critics say overturns the common law tradition.

Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula, which guaranteed its way of life, freedoms and independent legal system.

Barrister Martin Lee, 82, dubbed the city’s father of democracy, wrote in a 2014 editorial in the New York Times that universal suffrage was the only way to honor Deng’s “one country, two systems” formula and to “keep his blueprint from becoming a litany of broken promises”.

The current moves could be a final departure from that.

“This is now an over-correction,” a senior Western diplomat told Reuters.

“In trying to wrest control back, there is a danger that they will overdo it and kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

(Additional reporting by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Hong Kong to teach children as young as six about subversion, foreign interference

By Pak Yiu and Sarah Wu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong has unveiled controversial guidelines for schools in the Chinese-ruled city that include teaching students as young as six about colluding with foreign forces and subversion as part of a new national security curriculum.

Beijing imposed a security law on Hong Kong in June 2020 in response to months of often violent anti-government and anti-China protests in 2019 that put the global financial hub more firmly on an authoritarian path.

The Education Bureau’s guidelines, released late on Thursday, show that Beijing’s plans for the semi-autonomous Hong Kong go beyond quashing dissent, and aim for a societal overhaul to bring its most restive city more in line with the Communist Party-ruled mainland.

“National security is of great importance. Teachers should not treat it as if it is a controversial issue for discussion as usual,” the guidelines said.

Teachers should “clearly point out that safeguarding national security is the responsibility of all nationals and that as far as national security is concerned, there is no room for debate or compromise”.

After the 2019 protests in which many of the demonstrators were teenagers, Chinese leaders turned to re-education in a bid to tame the city’s youth and make them loyal citizens.

Head of the Professional Teachers’ Union, Ip Kin-yuen, said the guidelines would cause “uncertainty, ambiguity and anxiety” for teachers and enforce a “restrictive and suppressive” education style that does not foster student development and independent thinking.

Raymond Yeung, a former teacher partially blinded by a projectile during 2019 protests, described the guidelines as “one dimensional, if not brainwashing”.

Wong, mother of primary school children, said the law was “clamping down on people’s individual thoughts” and adding national security to the curricula created a climate of fear.

“I am angry. They shouldn’t be bringing this into classrooms,” said Wong, who declined to give her first name due to the sensitivity of the issue.

However, not all parents were opposed to the changes.

“It’s a good start, no matter who you are and where are you from, you have to love your country,” said Feng, mother of a six-year-old.

‘WISE OWL’

Children in primary schools will learn how to sing and respect China’s national anthem, and gain an understanding of the four main offences in the new security law, including terrorism and secessionism.

In secondary schools, pupils will learn what constitutes such offences, which can carry sentences of up to life in prison.

Some legal scholars have said the law’s language is broad and vague, and the range of activities authorities might see as potential threats to national security was unclear and fluid.

An educational cartoon video released by the government shows an owl wearing glasses and a graduation hat explaining Hong Kong’s institutional architecture, its duties to the central government in Beijing and the national security law.

At one point the video says “national security affairs are of utmost importance to the whole country,” while showing smiling faces of a student, a chef and an engineer.

Schools are encouraged to “organize various game activities, such as puppet theatre, board games … to establish a good atmosphere and improve students’ understanding of national security”, according to the guidelines.

The guidelines said kindergartens can help students learn about traditional festivals, music and arts and develop fondness for Chinese customs to “lay the foundation for national security education.” Kindergarten children were not expected to learn about national security crimes.

The Education Bureau said it accepted international and private schools had different curricula, but said they had a “responsibility to help their students (regardless of their ethnicity and nationality) acquire a correct and objective understanding … of national security”.

Schools should also stop students and teachers from participating in activities deemed as political, such as singing certain songs, wearing various items, forming human chains or shouting slogans.

Teachers and principals are required to inspect notice-boards, remove books that endanger national security from libraries and call police if they suspected any breaches.

The bureau said national security education will become part of subjects such as geography and biology to enhance students’ sense of national identity.

(Reporting by Hong Kong newsroom and Sarah Wu in Toronto; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Richard Pullin, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Michael Perry)

UK offers Hong Kong residents route to citizenship, angering China

By Yew Lun Tian and William James

BEIJING/LONDON (Reuters) – Hong Kong residents can apply from Sunday for a new visa giving them the chance to become British citizens following China’s crackdown in the former colony, but Beijing said it will no longer recognize the special British passport already in use.

UK government forecasts say the new visa could attract more than 300,000 people and their dependents to Britain. Beijing said it would make them second-class citizens.

Britain and China have been arguing for months about what London and Washington say is an attempt to silence dissent in Hong Kong after huge pro-democracy protests in 2019 and 2020.

Britain says it is fulfilling a historic and moral commitment to the people of Hong Kong after Beijing imposed a new security law on the semi-autonomous city that Britain says breaches the terms of agreements under which the colony was handed back to China in 1997.

“I am immensely proud that we have brought in this new route for Hong Kong BN(O)s to live, work and make their home in our country,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, referring to a special British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders.

But China and the Hong Kong government hit back by saying they would no longer recognize the BNO passport as a valid travel document from Sunday, Jan. 31.

“Britain is trying to turn large numbers of Hong Kong people into second-class British citizens. This has completely changed the original nature of BNO,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a briefing.

Beijing’s imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong in June last year prompted Britain to offer refuge to almost 3 million Hong Kong residents eligible for the BNO passport from Jan. 31.

The scheme, first announced last year, opens on Sunday and allows those with British National (Overseas) status to live, study and work in Britain for five years and eventually apply for citizenship.

BN(O) is a special status created under British law in 1987 that specifically relates to Hong Kong.

Britain’s foreign ministry said it was disappointed but not surprised by Beijing’s decision not to recognize the BNO passport. China’s move is largely symbolic as Hong Kong residents would not normally use their BNO passports to travel to the mainland. A BNO passport holder in Hong Kong could still use their Hong Kong passport or identity card.

The 250 pound ($340) visa could attract more than 300,000 people and their dependents to Britain and generate up to 2.9 billion pounds of net benefit to the British economy over the next five years, according to government forecasts.

It is still highly uncertain how many people will actually take up the offer.

China says the West’s views on its actions over Hong Kong are clouded by misinformation and an imperial hangover.

(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian and William James; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. announces new sanctions on six linked to Hong Kong mass arrests

By Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States announced sanctions on Friday against six Hong Kong or Chinese officials it blamed for implementing a new security law in Hong Kong, following the mass arrests of pro-democracy activists this month.

Hong Kong police arrested 53 people on Jan. 5 in dawn raids on democracy activists in the biggest crackdown since China last year imposed a security law which opponents say is aimed at quashing dissent in the former British colony.

The six people targeted for new sanctions include Frederic Choi, director of the national security division of the Hong Kong police, and Sun Qingye, a deputy to Zheng Yanxiong, who was appointed in July to head a new national security office in Hong Kong. Also named were pro-Beijing legislator Tam Yiu-chung and You Quan of China’s United Front Work Department.

U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo warned last week of fresh sanctions in response to the arrests of pro-democracy activists. That warning came a day after supporters of President Donald Trump stormed Congress in a bid to overturn his November election defeat, prompting China’s state media to accuse U.S. politicians of “double standards.”

It was the latest in a series of last minute steps taken by Pompeo on foreign policy, several targeting China in what analysts see as a bid driven by Pompeo to lock in a tough approach to Beijing.

Trump has pursued hardline policies toward China on issues ranging from trade to espionage and the coronavirus.

His administration has already imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for their actions involving the pro-democracy movement and other alleged rights abuses, and last July declared an end to the territory’s privileged economic status under U.S. law.

The Trump administration took another swipe at China and its biggest companies on Thursday, imposing sanctions on officials and companies for alleged misdeeds in the South China Sea and imposing an investment ban on nine more firms.

Last Saturday, Pompeo said he was lifting restrictions on contacts between U.S. officials and counterparts in Taiwan, a move that greatly angered Beijing, which considers the island a renegade province.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Daphne Psaledakis and David Brunnstrom; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Hong Kong bank account freezes rekindle asset safety fears

By Sumeet Chatterjee and Clare Jim

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police moves to freeze the accounts of several people linked to pro-democracy protests is prompting some residents to shift part of their savings overseas, bankers and lawyers said.

Banks were asked by police to freeze the accounts of veteran activist Ted Hui and his family last week, and on Monday a local church’s account was blocked, all on suspicion of money laundering.

The cases involved bank accounts held at HSBC, among others. Asked about the church’s account, HSBC said on Tuesday it did not comment on specific accounts. While limited, the police moves have triggered concerns that asset freezing could be used against Beijing opponents in Hong Kong to crack down on dissent, said the bankers and lawyers, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Jimmy Chung, who works in retail planning, opened a bank account in Switzerland in June, around the time the government passed a national security in response to last year’s violent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

The 40-year-old, who has no ties to political activists in Hong Kong, said he transferred thousands of dollars of his savings by July and is now considering moving more offshore.

“I never thought things would be evolving this fast, so I have to make more contingency plans,” said Chung, referring to the recent bank account freezes.

Chung’s reaction mirrors that of others worried by events in the financial hub, which attracts significant investment.

Two senior bankers said some of their clients, who opened offshore accounts last year, have started moving funds.

“The people who were sitting on the fence are starting to take action now,” one of them said. “They are worried that this (account freezing) could become more widespread and they have a lot to lose if all their savings are in Hong Kong.”

Another banker with a European wealth manager said some clients, who had no involvement in the protests, were converting assets denominated in local currency into U.S. dollars as they prepared to move them offshore.

‘RETALIATION’

Hong Kong has not seen large capital outflows despite the protests, instead benefiting from inflows tied to a large number of public offering of shares.

Responding to criticism that freezing the account of ex-lawmaker Hui, who fled to Britain after criminal charges related to the protests, would hurt Hong Kong’s image, its leader Carrie Lam said the financial and monetary systems remained robust.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority said that the freezing of funds or property related to criminal investigations was by law enforcement agencies and banks were expected to cooperate.

“The main concern here is if this (power) is being used more loosely,” a lawyer who advises wealthy individuals said.

“People are now asking what would be the best alternative for them to safely park their assets.”

The Good Neighbor North District Church, whose volunteers gave “humanitarian aid” to protesters, said on Facebook that its HSBC account was frozen as an “act of political retaliation”.

The Hong Kong police said they asked a bank on Monday to freeze five accounts, involving a total of $3.2 million, related to suspicion of fraud and money laundering.

The police did not name the bank involved.

($1 = 7.7508 Hong Kong dollars)

(Reporting by Sumeet Chatterjee and Clare Jim; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Alexander Smith)

‘Something close’ to genocide in China’s Xinjiang, says U.S. security adviser

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. national security adviser said on Friday that China was perpetrating “something close to” a genocide with its treatment of Muslims in its Xinjiang region.

“If not a genocide, something close to it going on in Xinjiang,” Robert O’Brien told an online event hosted by the Aspen Institute, while highlighting other Chinese crackdowns including one on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

The United States has denounced China’s treatment of Uighur and other minority Muslims in Xinjiang and imposed sanctions on officials it blames for abuses. It has not, though, so far termed Beijing’s actions genocide, a designation that would have significant legal implications and require stronger action against China.

The United Nations estimates that more than a million Muslims have been detained in Xinjiang and activists say crimes against humanity and genocide are taking place there. China has denied any abuses and says its camps in the region provide vocational training and help fight extremism.

O’Brien referred to seizures by U.S. customs of “massive numbers” of hair products made with human hair from Xinjiang.

“The Chinese are literally shaving the heads of Uighur women and making hair products and sending them to the United States,” he said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in June it had detained a shipment originating in Xinjiang of hair products and accessories suspected of being forced-labor products made with human hair.

In June, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo labeled as “shocking” and “disturbing” reports that China was using forced sterilization, forced abortion and coercive family planning against Muslims in Xinjiang.

He said last month Washington was considering the language it would use to describe what is happening in the region but added: “When the United States speaks about crimes against humanity or genocide … we’ve got to be very careful and very precise because it carries an enormous weight.”

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Jonathan Landay; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

U.S. charges seven in wide-ranging Chinese hacking effort

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department said on Wednesday it has charged five Chinese residents and two Malaysian businessmen in a wide-ranging hacking effort that encompassed targets from video games to pro-democracy activists.

Federal prosecutors said the Chinese nationals had been charged with hacking more than 100 companies in the United States and abroad, including software development companies, computer manufacturers, telecommunications providers, social media companies, gaming firms, nonprofits, universities, think-tanks as well as foreign governments and politicians and civil society figures in Hong Kong.

U.S. officials stopped short of alleging the hackers were working on behalf of Beijing, but in a statement Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen expressed exasperation with Chinese authorities, saying they were – at the very least – turning a blind eye to cyber-espionage.

“We know the Chinese authorities to be at least as able as the law enforcement authorities here and in like minded states to enforce laws against computer intrusions,” Rosen said. “But they choose not to.”

He further alleged that one of the Chinese defendants had boasted to a colleague that he was “very close” to China’s Ministry of State Security and would be protected “unless something very big happens.”

“No responsible government knowingly shelters cyber criminals that target victims worldwide in acts of rank theft,” Rosen said.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately return an email seeking comment. Beijing has repeatedly denied responsibility for hacking in the face of a mounting pile of indictments from U.S. authorities.

Along with the alleged hackers, U.S. prosecutors also indicted two Malaysian businessmen, Wong Ong Hua, 46, and Ling Yang Ching, 32, who were charged with conspiring with two of the digital spies to profit from computer intrusions targeting video game companies in the United States, France, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

The Justice Department said the pair operated through a Malaysian firm called SEA Gamer Mall. Messages left with the company were not immediately returned. Messages sent to email addresses allegedly maintained by the hackers also received no immediate response.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said on Wednesday that the Malaysian defendants were in custody but were likely to fight extradition.

The Justice Department said it has obtained search warrants this month resulting in the seizure of hundreds of accounts, servers, domain names and “dead drop” Web pages used by the alleged hackers to help siphon data from their victims.

The Department said Microsoft Corp. had developed measures to block the hackers and that the company’s actions “were a significant part” of the overall U.S. effort to neutralize them. Microsoft did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

(Reporting by David Shepardson, Susan Heavey, Raphael Satter and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Matthew Lewis)

China imposes curbs on U.S. diplomats in response to U.S. move

BEIJING (Reuters) – China on Friday said it had imposed restrictions on staff at the U.S. Embassy and its consulates in mainland China and Hong Kong, responding to U.S. measures announced early this month.

China’s Foreign Ministry did not specify the measures, which it described as reciprocal.

Last week, Washington said it would require senior Chinese diplomats to get State Department approval before visiting university campuses or holding cultural events with more than 50 people outside mission grounds, which it had said were a response to China’s restrictions on American diplomats.

(Reporting by Lusha Zhang and Tony Munroe; Editing by Kevin Liffey)