The hunt for Hong Kong’s heroes

As the repercussions of China’s National Security Law are being felt across national borders, Mark L. Clifford reports on the threat facing Hong Kong’s dissidents in exile

In July, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee issued an arrest warrant and offered a bounty for any information that could lead to the capture of eight exiled Hong Kong pro-democracy activists. Lee said he would go to ‘the ends of the earth’ to catch these people, whoM he described as ‘street rats’.

I know these eight and I regard them as heroes.

They have all left the city and now live in the US, UK and Australia. It is shocking to me that Anna Kwok, Dennis Kwok, Elmer Yuen, Nathan Law, Finn Lau, Christopher Mung, Kevin Yam and Ted Hui are being chased by enforcers, each with a bounty of HK$1m on their heads – US$1 million in total.  

They are engaged in law, politics, and social change. Several are former elected officials in Hong Kong, and they are among the most prominent voices speaking out about the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong. Each has bravely challenged the perception that it’s business as usual in post-Covid Hong Kong.

street rat
Hong Kong’s dissidents are dehumanized by the state

Yet China discredits them as criminals and the size of the bounties suggest that their so-called crimes are regarded as more serious than deeds conducted by many genuine miscreants in Hong Kong.

Since China imposed the National Security Law (NSL) on the city in June 2020, there has been an unprecedented assault on freedom. The legislation has allowed Beijing’s puppet government in Hong Kong to criminalise any behaviour it regards as being within the categories of ‘secession, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign forces’.

China has made no secret of its desire to export its coercive system abroad

This has enabled law enforcement agencies to round up many brave individuals who are defending freedom of speech and other basic human rights.

Jimmy Lai, a British citizen and owner of the renowned media outlet Apple Daily, has been behind bars for almost 1,000 days for daring to publish the truth. More than 1,400 political prisoners remain in jail for dubious reasons. Businesses face more risk than ever in what used to be a vibrant global financial hub. And this is just in Hong Kong.

The national security law also gives the Hong Kong authorities scope to go after individuals abroad. In late 2022, Japan-based photographer, Michiko Kiseki, was barred from entering Hong Kong due to her coverage of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests in 2019. And just two months ago, Japanese journalist Yoshiaki Ogawa was denied entry into Hong Kong without explanation. Ogawa said, ‘[This incident] has truly made me feel how Hong Kong has changed… this would have been unthinkable before.’

China has made no secret of its desire to export its coercive system abroad and maintains that activists who live in free societies cannot claim immunity. No matter where they are in the world, the eight people on China’s ‘wanted list’ must continue to look over their shoulders while walking down the street. Some live in fear of travelling or attacks on their families and/or physical and verbal assault from pro-Beijing individuals. Already, following the announcement of the bounty, Nathan Law’s parents and eldest brother, who all live in Hong Kong, have been questioned by authorities. Dennis Kwok’s parents and brothers have also been interrogated by police.

China’s promises to Hong Kong’s people have been shamefully broken

Law and Kwok were former members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. They and their families are being persecuted simply because they are pro-democracy opposition figures who have continued to advocate even after leaving Hong Kong. There is no evidence that they have done anything other than speak openly and be involved in political activism. In fact, China promised these fundamental freedoms to the Hong Kong people after it took back the colony from Britain in 1997.

The British and American governments have issued statements denouncing the arrest warrants and bounties. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has branded them unacceptable, adding ‘We will continue to cooperate with China where we can, but we will disagree where we must. And we do disagree over human rights issues.’ However, I do not believe that words are enough. Hong Kong’s leaders should also face severe diplomatic consequences.

China’s tentacles of repression are being felt beyond Hong Kong’s shores

The US government should refuse to invite Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee to the US-hosted Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in San Francisco this November. Although Hong Kong isn’t a country, it is an APEC member because of the ‘high degree of autonomy’ that China promised the territory after 1997. If Lee goes to APEC, he would be expected to appear in a photo with Joe Biden. As a US citizen myself, I would be appalled if Lee – who has been sanctioned by our government for human rights violations – receives such a privilege.

China’s promises to Hong Kong’s people have been shamefully broken. The thuggish behaviour of the Hong Kong authorities must not be allowed to further intimidate those who have chosen to live freely within a democratic country.

Mark L. Clifford is president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation and author of Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World: What China’s Crackdown Reveals About Its Plans to End Freedom Everywhere

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