Discover more from Asia Sentinel
Hong Kong Seeks Arrest of Activists Abroad
Latest episode a reminder of ongoing trial of ‘Hong Kong 47’
The Hong Kong authorities’ announcement earlier this week of arrest warrants and HK$1 million bounties for the apprehension of eight exiled democracy activists and former legislators who fled overseas is a stark symbol of the numbing political atmosphere that has clouded what until quite recently was one of Asia’s freest and most democratic cities.
The attempt to go after activists abroad is a disturbing example of how Beijing's so-called “Fox Hunt” campaign to seek the arrest and return of both high-ranking officials and petty civil servants for corruption from overseas is permeating officials locally. In a particularly jarring case, 12 protesters who were caught in August 2020 by the People's Liberation Army Coast Guard seeking to escape by boat for refuge in Taiwan, were detained in the mainland for months without charges, then tried out of public view and sentenced to months in prison.
The eight who are at least temporarily out of the reach of the Chinese authorities are also a reminder that 47 of their colleagues – lawmakers and activists – remain enmeshed in a tedious courtroom process which is all but certain to result in their guilt. In fact, 31 of them have already pleaded guilty including academic Benny Tai, one of the leaders of protest against Beijing’s refusal to adhere to the Basic Law agreed between China and Great Britain prior to the 1997 handover of the one-time colony.
Most, if not all, of the 47 are expected to be sentenced from less than three years to life in prison. Those who have pleaded guilty are hoping for reduced sentences, which is customary under Hong Kong law.
In accordance with UK law, the remnants of which remain in Hong Kong, neither the defendants or their lawyers – some of whom have been arrested – nor the press are allowed to comment on the case.
Only 13 of the 47 have been allowed bail despite their guilty pleas. All must remain incarcerated until sentencing of all of them, which may be accomplished by August. Observers in the courtroom describe an atmosphere of boredom tinged with fatalism about the outcome. The trial, which began on February 6, was expected to last at least 90 working days. It has now been underway for five months despite the certainty of a Chinese-style verdict of guilty.
Both those in the courtroom and those on the run overseas owe their predicament to the National Security Law imposed on the city by Beijing on June 30, 2020, and which established secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign organizations, open speech, verbal promotion or intention of Hong Kong's secession from China as a crime.
The eight on the run are former lawmakers Ted Hui, Dennis Kwok, and Nathan Law; activists Anna Kwok, Elmer Yuen, and Finn Lau; Christopher Mung, a labor unionist; and Kevin Yam, a barrister. All have been charged with “colluding with foreign forces,” except for Mung, who faces one charge of “inciting secession.”
Following the imposition of the National Security Law, the story began in earnest on January 6, 2021, when National Security Police descended on 72 sites across the territory to arrest 54 activists, former legislators and social workers, as well as raiding the offices of Apple Daily, Stand News and InMediaHK and the polling institute Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute.
Their alleged crime, such as it was, was to attempt to organize a primary election to contest for seats in the Legislative Council whose governing remit had been enshrined in the city’s Basic Law
On February 28, the 47 among those arrested in January were officially charged with conspiracy to commit subversion under the National Security Law. They ended up spending months in jail without being allowed bail while court proceedings dragged on at a pace slow enough to impel defense lawyers to object, noting the contrast with how quickly charges had been pressed. The defendants were subjected at times to solitary confinement.
“In the past three years, Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have erased Hong Kong’s vibrant liberties and freedoms. They have arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted the city’s pro-democracy leaders. Hong Kong officials have dismantled its civil society organizations and independent labor unions, shut down its most popular pro-democracy newspaper, throttled the free press, censored films, and imposed “patriotic education,” said Human Rights Watch in a statement over the announcement of the wanted list.
Books have been removed from libraries and schools, a national security hotline has been established to encourage surveillance of potential activists and the pro-democracy Citizens’ Radio station has announced its closure after 18 years of operation. Any sign of media protest disappeared with the closure of Apple Daily and the arrest of many members of its staff including Jimmy Lai, the publisher and democracy advocate, who many expect to spend the rest of his life in prison. The online publication Stand News has also been closed and other publications have been intimidated into silence.
To considerable ridicule, the government has sought a court order to prohibit people from singing, broadcasting or distributing the protest song “Glory to Hong Kong,” driving the head of Amnesty International’s China team, Sarah Brooks, to complain that banning the song “would be in clear contradiction of international human rights law and standards, despite the government falsely claiming that such a move would be consistent with the Hong Kong Bill of Rights and international human rights treaties binding on Hong Kong.”
Public assemblies have been banned since 2020 on dates that are key to Hong Kong’s democracy movement, including July 1, which marks the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China.
Since the Chinese government imposed the National Security Law, according to Human Rights Watch, 260 people between ages 15 and 90 have been arrested for national security offenses. Dozens, HRW said, have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted of “sedition” for posting peaceful comments on social media or publishing books critical of the government.
Since Beijing’s crackdown, more than 100,000 Hong Kong people have relocated abroad, many to the UK, Human Rights Watch’s Wang said. “Around the world, the Hong Kong diaspora has organized civic groups, activist movements, and numerous protests. They have increasingly put pressure on foreign governments to hold top Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for violating human rights in Hong Kong.”
The New York-based NGO called for foreign governments to “speak out against the Chinese government’s global intimidation campaign against Hong Kong people at home and abroad. They should impose targeted sanctions on government officials implicated in serious abuses, including these eight cases. They should also put in place effective measures to protect these and other people against Beijing’s long arm of repression.”
On July 3, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Secretary James Cleverly said, “We will not tolerate any attempts by China to intimidate and silence individuals in the UK and overseas… We strongly object to the National Security Law that China imposed on Hong Kong, including its extraterritorial reach, in breach of the legally binding Sino-British Joint Declaration.”
On July 4, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said anyone peacefully expressing their views in Australia "will be supported" and warned Hong Kong authorities and anyone taking up the bounty offer about Australia's "strong" foreign interference laws.