Days after he learned he was wanted by police on suspicion of violating the national security law, exiled pro-independence activist Wayne Chan told HKFP that he chose to leave Hong Kong so that he could continue to say things that are banned.

Chan – now in the UK – fled Hong Kong in early June after Beijing’s rubber-stamp congress announced plans to introduce legislation to criminalise subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers. The wide-reaching new law was formulated behind closed doors and promulgated without local scrutiny.

Wayne Chan. Photo: Wayne Chan.

State-run CCTV reported on Friday that Chan was wanted by the Hong Kong police, alongside five other overseas pro-democracy figures. He has kept a low-profile since fleeing and says it is unclear to him why he was being sought. But he told HKFP that it may be because he shared a picture of a Hong Kong independence flag on Facebook on July 1.

“I had the idea of leaving around two to three days after the national security legislation was announced,” Chan said. “It was, by then, a clear message that the Chinese Communist Party would not preserve any values of Hong Kong and was about to oppress Hongkongers in the most severe manner.”

He cited human rights abuses at concentration camps in Xinjiang, China – which Beijing insists are Uighur “vocational” centres – adding that he thought such things could happen in Hong Kong too.

“As Western democratic powers were alarmed by the [security law] and offered asylum for Hongkongers, I realised that Beijing would tighten freedom of speech and advocating Hong Kong independence would be impossible,” he said. “That’s when I decided to leave.”

“The six of us being wanted is an unusual political move, especially with Samuel Chu and Ray Wong who have foreign citizenship. That is bound to spark more controversies and a backlash from the international community.”

Independence activist Wayne Chan Ka-kui (right). Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Article 38 of the national security law asserts that Beijing has extraterritorial jurisdiction over foreign residents for acts committed overseas. Samuel Chu – who runs the Hong Kong Democracy Council in Washington – is a US citizen, whilst – in 2019 – Ray Wong was granted asylum in Germany as the very first political refugee from Hong Kong.

Under surveillance

Hours after last Friday’s state media report, Germany announced it was halting its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, citing an encroachment upon Hong Kong citizens rights in view of its decision to delay elections citing Covid-19.

Chan said he was not particularly surprised or terrified by being a “wanted man,” as he had long accepted that he was on Beijing’s watch list and thus was always cautious about his surroundings: “I know I am under surveillance by some agents… I noticed I’m being followed,” he said, though he maintained that his safety was guaranteed in the UK as it was a democratic and civilised country.

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“There is a lot of precedent of national security agents enforcing the law overseas. They wouldn’t mind doing it again.” He cited the disappearance of Swedish national and dissident bookseller Gui Minhai, who vanished from Thailand only to reappear in the mainland where he was jailed for 10 years under China’s security law.

“China has a resourceful information network backed by students. With the use of [social media and messaging app] WeChat, they can quickly locate fresh Hongkongers’ faces… There may be more despicable moves coming.”

Deepening crackdown

Throughout the interview, Chan repeatedly said that he was more concerned about local politicians who were still in Hong Kong, adding that the timing of the report on the arrests order was “too much of an coincidence.” The news came hours after Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the postponement of the legislative elections for a year. And just a day before electoral officers banned 12 pro-democracy politicians from entering the race.

“Those who are overseas will not be intimidated by the order to comply with Beijing’s requests, nor are they subject to their control,” he said. “[Beijing] knows clearly that they would not be able to arrest and extradite the six of us who are overseas, it seems like there is a political calculation behind this move.”

Alvin Cheng, Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok, Tat Cheng, Kwok Ka-Ki, Joshua Wong, Kenneth Leung, Ventus Lau, Gwyneth Ho, Tiffany Yuen, Lester Shum, and Fergus Leung.

He speculated that the arrests order was a manipulative gesture aimed more at politicians who were still in Hong Kong: “The move is drastic and it is a gamble for Beijing.” He warned of a tougher, large-scale crackdown on local pro-democracy politicians as China fast-tracked its encroachments as part of a deliberate, political “accelerationism.”

“I hope they will consider leaving,” he said, out of concern they would be arrested. “Democrats who stood in legislative primaries are all competent politicians. If our camp loses these brilliant minds, it may take much longer to liberate Hong Kong.”

New cold war?

Citing Beijing’s strained relations with western democracies, Chan said that Hong Kong was “the new Berlin” on the brink of a new cold war. The security law, election delay, the axing of extradition treaties, the US ending Hong Kong’s special trade status and imposing sanctions on Chinese officials all happened within two months.

“The new cold war could last for five to ten years,” Chan said, as he predicted more economic sanctions, containment measures against China, a potential “hot” war, the dissolution of the Chinese Communist Party, and eventually the liberation of Hong Kong: “The ideals of self-determination in the past may materialise in the contemporary moment… A self-determination referendum may happen at some point, but it’s unclear when and where.”

Demonstrators leave some memo stickers on an installation in Yuen Long’s Yoho Mall on July 21, 2020. The stickers read “Hong Kong independence.” Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Though Hong Kong and China have long-insisted that the idea is a “red line” that must not be crossed, some foreign politicians have voiced support for Hong Kong independence, including US congressperson Scott Perry who sponsored a bill to authorise the US to recognise the city as a separate country.

As a former British colony, Chan said he believed Hongkongers had a legal basis for launching a referendum to determine their own political future. However, during the decolonisation movements that began in 1960s, Hong Kong and Macau were removed from the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories in 1972 and hence lost their right to self-determination.

Chan founded the Hong Kong Independence Union in 2018, inspired by ex-localist leader Edward Leung. He told HKFP at the time that he was motivated by a wave of student suicides, and wanted to offer an outlet amid the despair and during a low-point in the democracy movement.

2018 interview with HKFP.

“I would not change my political view after leaving, especially when those in Hong Kong can no longer speak out as they wish.”

Following the political turmoil of the past year, Chan said that another wave of migration would represent crucial timing for his advocacy work, as independence will grow into an idea that overseas Hongkongers may eventually explore: “As someone who is in exile, I have strong faith about returning to Hong Kong. The diaspora community will eventually generate representatives and continue with international lobbying.”

“When those who should leave have left, they will imagine Hong Kong as a sovereign state – without reservation,” he said, adding that he believed Hong Kong would not become a merely conceptual “nation without state.”

Police fire tear gas to disperse protesters in Yuen Long on July 27, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Having witnessed the protests and unrest over the ill-fated extradition bill last year, Chan said he had confidence in what Hongkongers can achieve. Nevertheless, he admitted that many moderate protesters in the movement only supported the five core protest demands. “We need a road map to independence… It is, in fact, difficult to gain public support when one cannot vie for independence in Hong Kong… That’s why it’s important for those who are overseas to disseminate the idea.”

Asked when he thought it may be safe to return to Hong Kong, he said: “Within 10 years, I believe I will return to Hong Kong.”

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.