Beijing’s imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong four months ago has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the city – and also over its worldwide diaspora.
Its sweeping provisions mean anyone anywhere in the world is at risk of committing four vaguely-defined crimes, punishable by up to life imprisonment, and the possibility of facing a trial in China’s opaque courts which have a conviction rate of over 99 per cent.
Members of the Hong Kong diaspora are struggling with the new reality in their home city – especially activists who have voiced support for the pro-democracy movement and held rallies abroad.
HKFP spoke with over 20 activists in eight different cities outside the region and every one expressed a degree of trepidation at returning to Hong Kong. Many fear they will not be able to come home in the foreseeable future.
Jacky Tang (a pseudonym) has been in London since early September. The civil engineer in his mid-20s left Hong Kong after the passing of the security law, to start afresh in a foreign city under Britain’s expanded visa scheme for British National (Overseas) passport-holders which is set to begin in January.
Tang’s decision was driven by desperation. “Our freedoms have been taken away by the government. I felt like there’s no more future in Hong Kong.” He has four friends among the some 10,000 people arrested during the months of pro-democracy protests.
He knew that if he were to return home in future, there was no guarantee he would be allowed to leave again. “They may lock down Hong Kong to stop everyone from getting out. If there is still the Communist Party, I may not go back.”
The same sense of desperation has driven others to make dramatic decisions. Another young activist who arrived in London in September is applying to join the French Foreign Legion.
“I don’t have a BNO passport, I was born after 1997. If I join the French Army, I can get French citizenship. This is the only way I can think of since I don’t have money, I don’t have any special skills, this is the only way I can think of [to] get a foreign passport,” he told HKFP.
Like Tang, the aspiring soldier – who asked that he not be identified – found himself estranged from the city of his birth. “Hong Kong is unstable, both in political and economic aspects, I don’t see a future in Hong Kong.”
The 22-year-old described himself as “heavily involved” in last year’s protests. Many of the friends he left behind are in jail.
‘I don’t dare’
Fear of repercussions under the security law are not only pushing protesters to flee the city, but also acting as a powerful deterrent against returning. Even those activists who have only staged protests overseas spoke of the pain of not being able to see friends and family in the foreseeable future.
In early October, Glacier Kwong, a Hong Kong activist in Germany, posted screenshots of threatening messages she received from an unidentified person after petitioning the German government to impose sanctions on Hong Kong for curtailing human rights under the security law. The messages warned her to stop her activism if she wanted to return to Hong Kong.
In the same month, reports emerged of Canada, Germany and the US granting asylum to activists from Hong Kong. Under international law, asylum is granted on the grounds of “well-founded fear” of persecution from state authorities.
Lucy Wong is the secretary of Victoria Hongkongers, a registered charity which organises demonstrations in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. It has been lobbying the Australian government to place Magnitsky-style sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials involved in implementing the security law. Since March, it has been providing support for protesters from Hong Kong who are seeking asylum in Melbourne.
Like the Hong Kong asylum-seekers in Australia which her organisation helps, Wong also faces the possibility of never being able to return home. “98 per cent I won’t go back to Hong Kong now, especially after the national security law… it can be really dangerous to go back.”
This means she is separated from her immediate family, something she finds deeply upsetting. Fear of repercussions under the security law has even affected her sleep.
“It’s so sad, because I really miss my friends and family there. It’s helpless, because sometimes I dream I’m back in Hong Kong and in the dream, I also worry I would endanger my friends if they have connections with me,” she told HKFP in tears.
The pain of separation was echoed by fellow activists in Australia. “In the foreseeable future, I don’t think I’ll be coming back… We’re not really sure about the boundaries of the law and what we’re doing here seems to be violating the law,” said Denis Tsui, a 20-year-old student now based in Sydney and a co-organiser of NewSouthWales Hongkongers.
“I miss my family, I miss my home, I miss my friends.”
The effects of the security law are also being felt by members of the wider Hong Kong community who have lived abroad for decades. Many of them feel they have suddenly become exiles.
“I don’t dare,” said Jack Yan when asked whether he would return to Hong Kong under the national security law. The 48 year-old Wellington-based lawyer frequently talks about Hong Kong issues to New Zealand media.
“Article 38 targets people like me –I’m outside the region, I’m not a permanent resident,” he said..
Yan had originally planned to pass through the city during a trip in April which was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. Now he doesn’t know if he will ever set foot in the city of his birth again. “To know that… I will not be able to show my partner where I’m from is really heartbreaking,” he said.
“I can’t visit my aunt’s grave. I didn’t get to say goodbye to her.”
Others are reconciled to the possibility they will never return. “I’m prepared not to go back to Hong Kong. The national security law is somehow applicable to everyone, whatever nationality you are,” Terry Leung, an activist who relocated to London 20 years ago, told HKFP.
More immediate fears
Activists have also encountered threats closer to their adopted homes. Those in Canada, Australia and New Zealand told HKFP they have encountered ongoing harassment from pro-Beijing forces within their communities.
“The worry that a lot of us have, is what we are subjected to here in New Zealand,” Bevan Chuang, an administrator for the Facebook page “New Zealand Hong Konger,” told HKFP. “It’s not whether it’s safe for us to go back to Hong Kong, but whether it’s safe for us here in New Zealand.”
“If we go around [and advocate for Hong Kong], will we get dobbed into the [Chinese] Consulate? That’s probably more an immediate fear,” she added.
When the anti-extradition law protests broke out in Hong Kong in summer 2019, the group organised rallies in Auckland during which they were taunted and harassed by supporters of the Chinese Communist Party, Chuang told HKFP.
In July last year, scuffles broke out on the campus of the University of Queensland (UQ) between mainland Chinese students and backers of the Hong Kong protests.
The incident also led to threats harder to shake off than mere blows. A committee member of the Hong Kong International Alliance (HKIA) based in Brisbane and involved in the university rally said foreign-based family members of dissidents in Hong Kong had been targeted by Beijing supporters.
He asked to remain anonymous after his personal details were leaked online and he was named by the Chinese state-sponsored Global Times. “My name has been in the Global Times because of the July 24 UQ clash,” he said adding that photos of him had been posted online.
“So we’re afraid for our safety here in Australia, too,” he said.
The strategy of instilling fear through doxxing is employed by state-sponsored Chinese media to intimidate and silence critical voices across the world.
Wong, from Victoria Hongkongers, also spoke of intimidation by pro-Beijing groups during their rallies. “One of our core members, another mainland Chinese boy, was harassed quite seriously,” she said, adding that his details were leaked online.
The shadow of the security law, coupled with the threats closer to home, has led the organisation to consider whether it should continue as an official charity or shift to more “low-profile” operations.
In late October Australia’s spy chief reported higher levels of foreign agents working against Australian interests within the country than during the Cold War, most of whom answered to Beijing.
Overseas support for Hong Kong can have more insidious consequences on activists’ daily lives.
Max, a student activist from Winnipeg in Canada, told HKFP that his decision to wear a mask even at overseas demonstrations stemmed from fears his studies might be compromised.
“I actually recognised one of the counter-protesters as a teaching assistant for my course. Some of them are my classmates,” Max said.
A “fast-growing” community of mainland Chinese immigrants in his community “would definitely take action if they found out the so-called ‘anti-CCP’ [Chinese Communist Party} people are among their students.”
The international frontline
Despite the risks, every activist who spoke with HKFP said he or she would keep fighting for a free and democratic Hong Kong. Many saw themselves on the “international frontlines.”
The Brisbane-based HKIA member said he would continue despite threats to his personal safety. “I’m quite scared and am feeling threatened, but we’ll keep on doing the work here… it’s like the final battle for us,” he said.
“We are losing all our freedoms and democracy already in Hong Kong. The international battlefield…is the last chance, really, the final means we could fight for ourselves and Hong Kong, our home town.”
Tsui, the student in Sydney, also vowed to carry on despite being estranged from his family and support systems in Hong Kong.
“There’s a lot to do,” he said. “We have to tell the world what’s really happening in our city. We have to take care of those who are leaving Hong Kong. We have to do what people in Hong Kong currently can’t do.”
Others expressed the same sense of responsibility: “I think all the Hong Kong people here feel they have a duty to stand up to support the people who still remain in Hong Kong,” said Jane, a former Next Media employee who moved to Melbourne in 2017. She was involved in the lobbying campaign in Canberra which led to an extension of immigration rights for Hongkongers.
“We are fighting for our identity as Hongkongers. And we want to see, one day, there is genuine democracy in Hong Kong, not just some kind of democracy with Chinese characteristics,” said Paul, a social worker and activist from Winnipeg.
Beyond raising awareness of Beijing’s shadow over Hong Kong, many also spoke with urgency of the need to defend democratic values and freedoms within their adopted communities.
“This is not just a Hong Kong problem, but a human rights suppression against everyone on the planet,” the committee member for Hong Kong International Alliance said, referring to the security law.
“Australians have the freedom to speak out, to vote, they have a democratic process which allows them to select their own government. We think Australians should really value [these] very fragile values that could be subjected to infiltration by the Chinese Community Party.”
The same call for vigilance was echoed by those in Canada: “It was after the threat of losing [our freedoms],… that we finally realised how precious and important it is to us,” said Max, the student from Winnipeg.
For a 36-year-old engineer now based in Auckland who spoke with HKFP on the condition of anonymity, it’s a matter of responsibility. “I was given the opportunity by my parents to live in a democratic society and the Hong Kong people are fighting for their democracy,” he said. “If we don’t take advantage of the democracy that we’ve been given, then it’s a wasted opportunity.”
He said Hong Kong is a pressing reminder of why democracy must be guarded at all costs. “Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, basic human rights are very fragile and can be taken away… That’s why people in foreign countries should get involved… democracy is fragile.”