Pro-democracy cartoonist Ah To has announced his departure from Hong Kong, saying he would face “great mental stress” if he were to continue producing political cartoons in the city.

The comic artist, who has drawn satirical cartoons about local politics for 11 years, made the announcement on social media on Tuesday. He shared a drawing of one of his iconic characters standing in front of what appeared to be the London cityscape and said he left because he “wanted to continue creating for Hong Kong.”

Ah To said he had considered giving up on political cartoons in 2017 when Hong Kong’s social movement was “at low tide.” He also thought about changing the theme of his work last year. But he deemed that Hong Kong “needed political cartoons,” and said he wanted to “persist” by remotely creating cartoons for his home city.

“I was worried that my future work would not be down to earth… but staying in Hong Kong to produce political cartoon [causes] great mental stress. [I] have no alternative but to leave,” he wrote on Facebook, without stating his destination.

The artist has more than 142,000 followers on Facebook and 123,000 followers on Instagram. He is known for being critical of Beijing and the Hong Kong government and has produced work on various controversial issues, including the national security law, the electoral overhaul and the 2019 unrest.

In an article published by Beijing-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao in July last year, Ah To was criticised as sharing cartoons that “vilified the SAR government” and “inciting hatred against the police.”

A cartoon by Ah To dated June 17, 2021 which implies that the national security law amounted to “rule by law” instead of “rule of law.”

His work was previously published in Ming Pao Weekly and Yahoo News, but both columns were scrapped in July 2020, shortly after the Beijing-imposed security law came into force on June 30 that year. Ming Pao Weekly’s website showed that there were “zero articles” under Ah To’s byline.

Days after the security law was enacted, the artist shared a cartoon mocking the Office for Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong in Yahoo News column. The drawing attracted strong criticism, with some people alleging that his work was in breach of the sweeping security legislation.

In Tuesday’s post, Ah To said he had made the decision to leave Hong Kong in a hurry and would not have time to bid farewell to his friends. He said he felt “guilty” about his departure, adding he would “speak up for the voiceless” and hoped Hong Kong’s history would not be left with “silence” in the future.

National security law
Photo: GovHK.

“Thinking about my family members in Hong Kong who I may not see again, my comrades who are in jail or pending trial, the readers who have been supporting me and my wife who was forced to flee with me… I feel very guilty,” Ah To said.

“May good-natured people take care and preserve kindness in different ways,” he added.

Ah To joins other Hong Kong artists who left the city under pressure from the authorities. Manga artist Tony Lu and performance artist Kacey Wong both relocated to Taiwan last year citing anxiety felt by the city’s creative industry sector under the national security law.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.