By Sebastian Skov Andersen
It started over a beer and a chat. Less than a year later, Danish youth politicians Thomas Rohden and Anders Storgaard were threatened with potential extradition to the world’s most powerful dictatorship.
They’re co-founders of the Danish China-Critical Society, an idea which came to them after a semi-drunken discussion about their “shared hatred for authoritarian regimes, and how much we both hated China and all the crap they do.” Early this month they were facing potential prosecution and extradition to Hong Kong for helping lawmaker and pro-democracy activist Ted Hui flee his home city.
But they’re not too worried about it, just a little irked that some better known politicians are raking in all the attention for a masterplan they devised. Above anything else, they were relieved they managed to keep everything on the down-low until Hui’s family had also made it out of Hong Kong.
“When I first reached out to Ted, it was with a pulse at about 30,000 kilometers per hour,” Storgaard told Hong Kong Free Press in a joint interview with Rohden. “I was nervous throughout the whole process — not so much over whether we’d get in trouble, but whether we could somehow land Ted in problems. That’s what scared me: messing something up that could land someone in prison.”
No one was sure quite what to think when Hui, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democratic lawmakers, surfaced in Denmark, where his official itinerary indicated a schedule packed with meetings with various environmental organisations. Under normal circumstances, this would not have made headlines the way it did — but these were not normal circumstances.
Hui is one of the democracy movement’s best known lawmakers, notorious for once unleashing a stink bomb in parliament to protest a bill, and was facing charges for his involvement in the mass demonstrations that engulfed the city in 2019. Once his family was out of harm’s way, Hui announced that he would stay in Europe and live in exile in the United Kingdom.
Together with members of parliament Uffe Elbæk of the Independent Greens and Katarina Ammitzbøll of The Conservative People’s Party, the two youth politicians had arranged a series of fake meetings and issued an invitation to Hui’s people in Hong Kong, to create the illusion that the lawmaker was visiting Denmark for purely political purposes. On paper, he was set to meet a bunch of environmental organisations, and at that point only a small handful of people knew it was a sham.
But for a long time, even those who helped arrange his grand escape could not be entirely sure he was even planning for it. Due to concerns that any communication with Hui would be intercepted by the authorities, neither party mentioned the idea until he touched down in Copenhagen, where the two youth politicians “jumped into his arms” and told him: “You’re free! Go talk about democracy.”
“We didn’t even really know that he wanted to flee — we were just counting on it,” said Storgaard, and planning accordingly. “And because we couldn’t coordinate, we worried that we may accidentally do something that could get him in trouble.”
When they finally met him, in a very empty airport due to the pandemic, the pressure immediately lifted from their shoulders. It was their first reunion since they made his acquaintance at an earlier conference in Copenhagen.
“We knew Ted from his [earlier] visit to Denmark, and we’d texted with him, but it’s not like we’re his best friends,” said Rohden. “But when you experience these things together, something happens inside of you. We had this immediate close connection with him because the situation was so insane.”
But the relief was temporary. Over the next two days, as Hui went on television to do interview after interview and attended one meeting after another with Danish officials, the focus was on not “saying one wrong word” that could trigger suspicion with Hong Kong authorities until his family could leave the city.
“How stressed would you be if you were constantly in the media, and one wrong step could mean that your family would be sent to prison? I would say [Hui] was pretty stressed,” said Storgaard, the man in charge of creating the fake schedule.
“Looking at pictures from those days, the bags under his eyes were so big,” added Rohden, who was responsible for arranging the actual meetings Hui would attend, with officials at the highest level.
“While we were having a meeting at a foreign policy committee, Ted was getting texts that his family was leaving the airport, and suddenly there were five journalists outside and we had to do a live-transmission from the parliament hall, and it was just bam-bam-bam-bam with no fucking breaks.”
Now, about a month and a half since Hui’s arrival, the government in Hong Kong has signalled it does not intend any repeat humiliation. Danish national daily Politiken revealed in early January that it was investigating the possibility of prosecuting any foreign politician involved in Hui’s exodus, with the goal of potentially issuing arrest warrants and extraditing them to the city.
An arrest warrant directed at a foreign politician would be the first time the national security law has been applied to a person outside China and Hong Kong.
“ I was like … ‘what?’ I had not in my wildest fantasies expected that, as a politician, such an announcement from a serious player like China,” Elbæk, the Independent Greens politicians who helped create the fake schedule, told HKFP. “And then, my first thoughts were that I had a hard time taking it seriously. I mean, this couldn’t be for real — right?”
In Hong Kong, Secretary for Security John Lee is the driving force behind the effort to pursue extradition. In a written statement to Politiken, he said that his department, together with the Department of Justice, was looking into the possibility of prosecuting the politicians under Hong Kong law.
“Wherever any person (including Danish politicians) are under suspicion of having committed a crime by organising, planning or helping with absconding, the police will actively investigate and pursue its legal obligations within the framework of existing legislation,” Lee wrote.
The European Union on Thursday passed a resolution to condemn China’s crackdowns against democracy and dissent in Hong Kong that included one paragraph in direct support of the two members of parliament.
“The European Parliament Is deeply disturbed by the reports that the Hong Kong authorities are considering prosecuting Danish lawmakers Uffe Elbæk and Katarina Ammitzbøll,” the statement reads.” [The EU] believes that the proposed charges against the Danish lawmakers are illegitimate and false, and expresses strong concern at the determination of the Chinese Communist Party to clamp down on Hong Kong voices of dissent across the democratic world through an extraterritorial application of the [national security law].”
Elbæk declared himself unfazed by the threats, which, if anything, only motivated him to continue fighting. While he has had his fair share of grievances with the Danish government, he felt confident extradition was not on the cards. “I really don’t think so.”
Elbæk’s role in the planning had been to reach out to environmental organisations to meet Hui, after authorities in Hong Kong issued a last-minute request for a more detailed schedule before they allowed him to leave the city while on bail. “When it was really getting out of hand, when we received that letter, Uffe really came through. He’s played a critical role, no doubt about that,” said Storgaard.
The Hong Kong government’s reported decision to issue an arrest order in the first place nevertheless came as a “surrealistic surprise to wake up to,” Elbæk said. And soon the consequences of such a move dawned on him. All his future travel must now be planned according to which countries have extradition agreements with Hong Kong and China, not to mention that he can never again travel to Hong Kong. This was a truly agonising loss to him, because he has visited the city many times and has many longstanding friendships there.
“Then it starts to get under your skin that, if this becomes reality, it has consequences,” he said. “This is an example of how a law in China is applied to people outside of China, and thereby potentially also an example of how China is trying to silence critics around the world.”
Despite their good intentions, activists still stuck in Hong Kong are feeling the fallout from Hui’s spectacular escape and the media attention it drew. Judges have cited Hui’s case as an argument against granting bail to activists and politicians.
“There are many who’ve asked me: Isn’t it a problem that he’s gotten out, because this shuts the gate for others?” said Storgaard. “I just have to say that this is unfortunately just a term when you help someone as high-profile as him. You can only trick the Chinese once with this trick. But every time they fill in one loophole, then you just have to find another.”
“If you, out of fear for the Chinese government, don’t offer resistance, then it’s too easy for them to win,” added Rohden. “So it’s not easy, and it’s not without careful consideration, but in the end it was the right thing to do.”
In Denmark, Elbæk has long been one of the most outspoken critics of the government’s dealings with China, which he sees as two-faced. On the one hand, their rhetoric is sharp and strongly-worded. On the other, it doesn’t seem to translate into political action, he said. That was the case this time around, too. When the government declined a meeting with Hui during his brief stay, likely in order to dodge an altercation with the Chinese government, Elbæk was distraught.
“It’s clear that there’s still a reluctance when it comes to China, and you get the sense that our economic interests are more important than human rights, and that critique is not one I’m letting go of,” he said.
“It means so, so much to the democracy movement in Hong Kong that their representative, Ted Hui, is taken seriously and meets with government representatives. You really shouldn’t underestimate the moral significance of a meeting like that,” he added. “So for that reason alone [Foreign Minister] Jeppe Kofod should have met with Ted Hui. Here, he had a chance to show that human rights are more important than economic interests.”
Kofod said in a statement: “We’re engaged in critical dialogue with the Chinese authorities about the very alarming situation in Hong Kong, just like we’re coordinating closely in the EU.” He took no further questions from the press.
Rohden has been a critic of the Chinese government — and the Danish government’s dealings with them — for a while now. But his awakening came in mid-2019 when, armed with Tibetan flags, to great dissatisfaction from local Chinese officials, he attended a demonstration against what’s popularly known as panda diplomacy. This is when the Chinese government sends pandas as a sign of good faith and good relations to friendly nations. It is also a means of building attractive trade relations, and a weapon to sanction governments by claiming the pandas back, often at a financial loss for target countries.
In Danish society, it is a running half-joke, half-serious accusation that the government would bend over backwards rather than return its two pandas to China.
“We’ll just have to wait and see if Thomas and I will be traded for two extra pandas,” joked Storgaard.
The attention paid to the two veteran politicians, who as members of parliament naturally have more news value than the two less established politicians, has been a matter of regret for Elbæk. “If anyone should be acknowledged for this, it’s those two young guys,” he said.
But there’s a grave irony to the situation since the Chinese government is more likely to go after “smaller fish” — like Rohden and Storgaard — instead of elected officials, which would create a scandal on a larger scale.
“You can draw a world map and say, ‘Okay, so I’m not going here and there’. But I also think that one problem is that they simply work with different mechanisms,” said Rohden, in reference to a Swedish-Chinese bookseller who was kidnapped in Thailand and later jailed in China.
“It’s hard for me to judge: where are we on that list? Are we worse, or not as bad, as a bookseller?”