Hong Kong goes after its exiles
Hong Kong’s police have recently issued international arrest warrants against eight exiled activists and placed bounties on their heads, backed with intimidation of their families at home. It’s the latest example of how the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities are internationalising repression, along with the use of secret police stations and violence against pro-democracy protests. The draconian National Security Law, passed three years ago, is enabling the crackdown, and while the authorities suffer occasional legal defeats, they’re working to stifle lawyers too. To keep the flame of freedom alive, it’s vital that Hong Kong’s exiles are protected and supported.
No activist finds the decision to go into exile easy, and life in exile can be full of difficulties. When people who want to make their societies better, uphold civic freedoms and defend democracy flee, it’s because the pressure on them is immense. It’s because they face harassment, intimidation, threats, violence and the prospect of jail – and because they fear for their lives.
Exile should mean safety, but it often doesn’t. Many of Hong Kong’s democracy activists fled to escape certain imprisonment. But the long arm of Chinese authoritarianism is still trying to get them.
In July, Hong Kong police issued arrest warrants for eight exiled activists. It also placed a bounty of HK$1 million (approx. US$127,700) on each of their heads. Chillingly, Hong Kong’s leader, John Lee, has said the eight will be pursued for life. It’s the kind of treatment normally reserved for murderers or organised crime kingpins.
They’re accused of colluding with foreign governments, including by calling for sanctions, and other charges under Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law, passed a little over three years ago in response to widespread democracy protests. The law has an extraterritorial reach: it doesn’t only apply to actions in Hong Kong. In March, a Hong Kong student was arrested over social media posts she’d made while in Japan.
The eight are all high-profile figures. They’re based in Australia, the UK and the USA, all countries that suspended their extradition agreements with Hong Kong in the wake of the National Security Law, meaning that China can’t use channels it traditionally abuses, such as Interpol’s red notice system. Perhaps the best-known of them is Nathan Law, a former student leader active in the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests who founded a pro-democracy party and in 2016 became the country’s youngest-ever legislator. In 2021, he was granted political asylum in the UK.
Congratulations @tedhuichifung on becoming a Barrister and Solicitor of South Australia. #HongKong might consider him a criminal, but Australia sees him as fit and proper to practise law!— Kevin Yam 任建峰 (@kevinkfyam) August 21, 2023
“The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief cornerstone”
— Psalm 118:22 pic.twitter.com/kGM1EYPWh9
In going after such high-profile figures, the Hong Kong authorities have shown they don’t care about international outrage. Indeed, they’re courting publicity, which may be the point: even if the eight escape capture and continue speaking out, it can only give other exiles pause for thought and further subdue the prospects of people in Hong Kong doing so.
The authorities have already shown they mean business. The police followed up by raiding the family homes of at least four of the eight activists. Family members of several were brought in for police questioning. It’s the oldest tactic in the book: if you can no longer harass and intimidate exiles, target their families. This can further isolate exiles, who often cut off contact with their families to try to protect them. The mainland Chinese government has been doing this for years, and the Hong Kong authorities are showing how they’re becoming increasingly indistinguishable from their puppet master by using the same tactics.
This is only one of the ways the National Security Law is enabling the repression of dissent, just as civil society warned it would. The police have reported that in three years 260 people have been arrested under the Law, of whom 79 have been convicted. Recently 10 people were arrested under the Law on charges of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and incitement to riot. They were connected with a former fund that enabled people around the world to donate to help democracy protesters who’d been arrested. Others have been arrested for providing support to exiled activists.
And the latest move against exiles isn’t the only way Hong Kong and its Chinese bosses are internationalising their repression. Last year it was revealed that China maintained a network of over 100 secret ‘police stations’ in 53 countries – including the countries where the eight activists now live – that are used to intimidate exiles and in some cases capture and return them to China. In April, US authorities charged over 40 Chinese operatives with ‘transnational repression’ against US-based Chinese nationals, including for operating a secret police station in New York.
There needs to be more assurance and action to reiterate that Beijing and Hong Kong do not have jurisdiction abroad and there will be serious consequences to their threats.
Pro-government Chinese citizens, including international students, are often mobilised in demonstrations in support of the regime. They’re also using violence. The UK, where historical links have attracted many Hong Kong exiles, has seen at least two such incidents. In the city of Southampton this June, Hong Kong democracy protesters were reportedly attacked by a pro-China group. Last year Chinese consulate staff in Manchester violently attacked people protesting about Hong Kong outside the building, dragging a man into the consulate grounds, where he was beaten and left needing hospital treatment. Other exiles have also been subjected to physical violence.
Voices from the frontline
Anouk Wear is research and policy adviser at Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based civil society organisation (CSO) based in the UK that produces research and monitors threats to Hong Kong’s autonomy, basic freedoms and the rule of law.
Hong Kong activists in exile face the challenge of continuing our activism without being in the place where we want and need to be to make a direct impact. We put continuous effort into community-building, preserving our culture and staying relevant to the people and situation in Hong Kong today.
When we do this, we face threats from the Chinese government that have drastically escalated since the National Security Law (NSL) was imposed in 2020.
In practical terms, any activism the Hong Kong government dislikes, including meeting a foreign politician, organising an event and publishing an article, can be deemed a violation of the NSL, according to the government’s interpretation. This means we don’t know what is legal and what is not, and many people end up self-censoring to protect themselves.
Since the imposition of the NSL, over 60 CSOs, including political parties, trade unions and media groups, have disbanded. Many have relocated abroad, including over 50 CSOs that signed a joint statement urging government action following the Hong Kong National Security arrest warrants and bounties.
There is a strong network of Hong Kong activists in exile, and activists in exile are still able to do their work. However, we have great difficulty collaborating with activists still in Hong Kong because of the risks they face. For example, recently five people in Hong Kong were arrested for alleged links to activists in exile who are on the wanted list. Collaborations must now be even more careful and discreet than they already were.
In November 2022, Hong Kong journalists who relocated to the UK collaborated with the National Union of Journalists of the UK and Ireland to launch the Association of Overseas Hong Kong Media Professionals. They pledged to focus on freedom of the press in Hong Kong and provide mutual assistance for professionals who have relocated overseas.
There is also extensive support among Hong Kong activists and CSOs in exile, from civil society of host countries and from the international community, as can be seen in the joint response to the arrest warrants and bounties issued on 3 July.
However, more coordinated action is needed to respond to Beijing’s threats, particularly from the governments of host countries. There needs to be more assurance and action to reiterate that Beijing and Hong Kong do not have jurisdiction abroad and there will be serious consequences to their threats.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Anouk. Read the full interview here.
For Hong-Kong political activists, journalists, and artists, #Taiwan remains the last free Chinese-speaking society where they can operate. Global Voices interviewed Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong who moved to Taiwan in 2021. @nasredinhojahttps://t.co/JqYIRQzJvG— Global Voices (@globalvoices) August 20, 2023
Difficult days ahead
The authorities don’t yet get everything their own way. Unlike on the mainland, Hong Kong’s courts still retain a degree of independence. Recently an appeals court overturned part of the convictions of seven democracy activists for organising an unauthorised assembly. Another conviction, of journalist Choy Yuk-ling, was overturned in June. Last month a court rejected a government application to ban the protest song Glory to Hong Kong.
One way the authorities are trying to make these legal defeats rarer is by making it harder to hire foreign lawyers, who may feel less subject to state pressure: in May, John Lee was given the power to veto the involvement of foreign lawyers in national security cases. Lawyers are also fleeing Hong Kong as a result of growing intimidation.
The situation can only worsen. The Chinese state will likely further intensify repression, on the mainland and in Hong Kong, including to keep a lid on dissent generated by economic slowdown. In Hong Kong, people have been warned that what’s called ‘soft resistance’ – which appears to be expressing any kind of opinion the state disagrees with – will be stamped out. Those in the firing line include media, education bodies and artists and cultural institutions. This even extends to people complaining about poor quality housing. Further security laws are in the pipeline.
Amid domestic repression, activists in exile will keep trying to sustain the call for freedom in Hong Kong. Their task just became much harder. They need to be protected, defended and supported.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Governments of countries where exiled Hong Kong activists are based should put in place measures to ensure their safety.
Civil society in countries with exiled Hong Kong activists should provide support to help sustain international networks of activists.
The Hong Kong authorities should immediately withdraw the arrest warrants and bounties placed on the eight exiled activists.
Cover photo by Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images