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By Jessie Pang and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Relatives and supporters of 12 Hongkongers, detained in China after trying to flee the city by speedboat, protested on Saturday on an island near the Chinese prison where they have been held virtually incommunicado for nearly three months.

The 11 men and one woman were captured by the Chinese coastguard on Aug.

23 aboard a speedboat believed to be bound for Taiwan.

All had faced charges linked to the protest movement embroiling Hong Kong, including rioting and violation of the a national security law China imposed in June.

Family members and supporters of some of the 12 hiked to the peak of Kat O island in Hong Kong's remote northeastern reaches, looking onto China's high-tech boomtown of Shenzhen, and the Yantian district where the dozen are being held.

Some peered through binoculars at a hill where the detention centre is located. Several told Reuters they want the Chinese authorities to deal with the cases in a just, fair and transparent manner.

The group inflated blue and white balloons and wrote the names of the detainees on them, before releasing them into a leaden sky. They chanted for their "immediate safe return" while holding white banners reading "SAVE 12" and "Return Home".

"I hope he can see the balloons and know we didn’t give up yet," said the 28-year-old wife of detainee Wong Wai-yin.

A Hong Kong marine police vessel later docked on the island, with police questioning and taking down the details of several reporters present.

Authorities have denied family and lawyers access to the 12, insisting they be represented by officially appointed lawyers. Last week seven detainees wrote handwritten letters to their family, but the group said in a statement that "they seem to have been compiled under duress".

Eddie Chu, a former lawmaker who recently quit his post in protest against political suppression by authorities under the national security law, said it was important to keep fighting.

"We are so close to them, just a few kilometres in reality, but in fact it's like ... something unreachable. So we need to have the balloons to do this for us.”

(Reporting by Jessie Pang and James Pomfret; Editing by William Mallard)

Copyright 2020 Thomson Reuters.

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Europe to stay tough on Huawei, despite Trump loss and China pressure

Huawei’s cutting-edge 5G wireless technology will continue to face skepticism in Europe following President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, despite Beijing’s desire for Western policies to soften following President Trump’s departure.

“We didn't just do this at [the] European level because of the U.S.,” a European Union official said during a discussion of Huawei’s stated hope that the pressure would ease. “Certainly, we will be continuing with the process we've started at the EU-level.”

Huawei has endured a series of market setbacks in Europe following a sustained diplomatic campaign by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other U.S. officials and lawmakers who regard the company as an asset of China’s intelligence services. Chinese officials have denounced the U.S. accusations as merely a political cudgel wielded by the Trump administration, but even arch China hawks express confidence that the aversion to Huawei and similar companies will endure under Biden.

“This has already gone past United States,” said retired Air Force Gen. Rob Spalding, a Hudson Institute fellow who helped craft Trump’s national security strategy during a 2017 stint at the White House. “Even if the United States wanted to reverse [course], I think Europe has already flipped.”

More than 50 nations have joined an “alliance of democracies” constructed to maintain secure telecommunications networks, to the delight of State Department officials.

“It was an old play that many of us had run before in the private sector, and it was forming a network of partners based on trust and rooted in internationally accepted standards,” State Department Under Secretary Keith Krach said last week. “It was designed to be a bipartisan, enduring strategy in the epic battle of freedom versus authoritarianism.”

Krach, fresh off a trip to South America that saw Brazil join the “Clean Network,” crowed that Huawei’s foreign business has cratered over the last year. “Huawei’s vaunted 90 deals have dwindled to just 12 outside of China,” he said. “It has proven China, Inc. is beatable and, in the process, exposed its biggest weakness, and that’s trust.”

The EU bloc, while stopping short of an outright ban, urged national governments to avoid partnering with telecommunications companies that lack the protection of "democratic checks and balances” — an implicit reference to Huawei and other vendors, in light of the U.S. emphasis on a Chinese law requiring companies to cooperate with Chinese intelligence services.

“I know that for some, it will be easier to comply than for others,” European Internal Markets Commissioner Thierry Breton said when the security “toolbox” was unveiled in January.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reached for the full ban, after an initial refusal to align with the U.S., at the height of the pandemic. And that policy is likely to continue as the accumulating weight of U.S. sanctions on the Chinese tech giants threatens to squash future deals.

"The U.K. position is unlikely to change,” former U.K. National Cyber Security Centre chief Ciaran Martin said last week. "The sanctions could be reinstated. And what's the point of chopping and changing all the time now that we know that Huawei's involvement can be crippled by U.S. sanctions."

Still, European officials feel the need to address the “market failure” that allowed Chinese companies to seize the pole position in the race for 5G.

“We need to get back to investing ourselves in these key technologies, and that's another area, which I think is ripe for cooperation,” the EU official said.

That effort is key to the protection of Western networks, according to Martin, who doubts the efficacy of the “Clean Network” initiative.

"You can't just declare into existence in market economies alternatives to the likes of Huawei,” the former British official said. "We're talking about competing with a state-controlled economy of 1.5 billion people with a 25-year strategy. So you are talking about a fairly unprecedented alignment of like-minded countries ... cooperating in ways that they haven't ever done. It's a big, big task.”

The appetite for that task shows the extent to which attitudes regarding the Chinese tech giants have changed over the last year. “So, it’s no longer about the United States alone anymore,” Spalding said. “They’ve already made their mind up that Huawei is a problem.”

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