After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, dissidents in mainland China used to escape to Hong Kong in boats. Many of them would finally reach safe havens in overseas countries. In those days, Hong Kong, still under British rule, was a refuge for democracy- and freed0m-loving people trying to escape the oppressive rule of the Communist Party of China.
The story has moved ahead. After the withdrawal of the British from Hong Kong in 1997 the island territory has turned into a colony of China. Beijing has since clamped the draconian National Security Law in Hong Kong to throttle democracy and stamp out dissidence. Faced with persecution and prison terms, dissidents, members of the opposition and people fighting for their democratic rights are now escaping in boats to Taiwan in search for a safe haven.
In a remarkable piece of investigative reporting, CNN in 2021 explored the story of this journey of pro-democracy people from Hong Kong to Taiwan. It is another matter that Beijing is now planning to bring Taiwan under its control, sending military aircraft and naval ships to the island territory to browbeat Taipei. World opinion has now galvanized in support of Taiwan, with the U. S. posing a formidable challenge to the Chinese military.
CNN interviewed Ha Sze-yuen, a resident of Hong Kong, in 2021. In 1975, Ha crossed the Shenzhen Bay in a homemade, inflatable rubber dinghy boat with a friend, slipping past Chinese border guards, to reach Hong Kong from the Guangdong province of mainland China. He and his mother had faced persecution during the Cultural Revolution, a period of political chaos and violence unleashed by Mao Zedong, as his father had been a Kuomintang military officer who fled from the Communist rule after the defeat of the Republicans. Thousands had fled mainland China in the days of the Cultural Revolution to Hong Kong, still under British rule, in search of a safe sanctuary.
In 2021, however, Hong Kong was no longer a safe sanctuary. People of Hong Kong were losing their freedom gradually following the promulgation of the National Security Law. They would rather prefer to escape from Hong Kong. This was revealed rather dramatically through an announcement in September 2020 of the coast guard of China in coastal Guangdong of the seizure of a speedboat suspected of illegally crossing the border. The boat was intercepted by coast guard vessels about 50 kms off the eastern coast of Hong Kong. Twelve people were arrested for attempts to cross the border illegally.
The CNN report quoted a source familiar with the failed attempt to escape from Hong Kong; saying that the goal of the fugitives was to reach the self-governing island of Taiwan, more than 700 kms away. The attempt was by no means easy, negotiating the swell of an open sea for more than 14 hours at high speed. According to court documents, most of the 12 arrested men were facing charges in Hong Kong like arson, possession of firearms and rioting. One member of the group had been arrested under the national security law imposed in Hong Kong on June 30, 2020.
While one of the boats was intercepted, the source told CNN that two other boats carrying fugitives from Hong Kong had successfully crossed the sea to reach Taiwan. The government of Taiwan neither confirmed nor denied the reports of boats carrying escapees from Hong Kong reaching Taiwan; but told the CNN that while Taiwan supported democracy and freedom in Hong Kong, based on considerations of safety Taipei did not encourage arrivals in Taiwan using illegal means. Authorities in Hong Kong urged Taiwan to return the fugitives.
CNN interviewed Lam Wing-kee, a bookstore owner in Hong Kong who used to sell writings critical of the Chinese leadership. In 2019, he left Hong Kong for good and launched a book shop in Taipei. He thought Taiwan was much safer than Hong Kong. According to the Taiwan government, the number of residents in Hong Kong settling in Taiwan had more than doubled in 2020, the year the National Security Law was promulgated. Now a movement was gaining ground in Taipei supporting the protest movements in Hong Kong.
CNN has also documented the experience of former student activist of Hong Kong Lin Fei-fan who had once taken to the streets to demand democracy and freedom. He, too, fled to Taiwan the year Beijing imposed the National Security Law in Hong Kong. Realizing the importance of defending the independent existence of Taiwan, he had since joined the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan. Had he been in Hong Kong, he would probably have been in prison now.
Lately, the Chinese police have even started threatening organizations overseas with prison sentences under the National Security Law for protesting against violation of human rights in Hong Kong. On March 14, 2022, the foreign secretary of Britain accused the Chinese authorities of trying to silence free speech after the London – based human rights group Hong Kong Watch said it had received a formal warning from Hong Kong police that the group could face a fine and its chief executive Benedict Rogers could face three years in prison.
This was the first instance that a foreigner living abroad had been targeted under the National Security Law of China. Foreign Secretary of Britain Liz Truss said in a statement it was “clearly an attempt to silence those who stand up for human rights in Hong Kong. Attempting to silence voices globally that speak up for freedom and democracy is unacceptable and will never succeed.” Benedict Rogers said his group would not be silenced by the warning and would continue to speak for the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong.
There have been several incidents of crackdown on the independent media and arrest of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong in recent months. On December 29, 2021, Cantopop star and prominent pro-democracy activist of Hong Kong Denise Ho was arrested by the national security police along with six other people, all linked to Stand News, an online media organization. They were accused of “conspiracy to publish seditious material.” The same day Stand News halted operations. Condemning the arrests and the closure of the website, U. S. Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken said in a Press statement on the same day: “Journalism is not sedition. We call on the PRC and Hong Kong authorities to cease targeting Hong Kong’s free and independent media and to immediately release journalists and media executives unjustly detained and charged. Freedom of expression and access to information provided by an independent media are critical to prosperous and secure societies. These freedoms enabled Hong Kong to flourish as a global centre for finance, trade, education and culture. By silencing independent media, PRC and local authorities undermine Hong Kong’s credibility and viability.”
Sometime earlier, Apple Daily, an independent newspaper was forced to suspend operations and its senior editorial staff were arrested.
On November 12, 2021, Hong Kong activist Ma Chun-man was sentenced to six years in prison under National Security Law for promoting the independence of Hong Kong from China. “I do not feel any regret,” Ma had written in a letter to the judge during the trial. “On my road to freedom and democracy, I can’t afford to be a coward.” Ma’s conviction was the second under the National Security Law of Hong Kong that is a tool to victimize political opponents and curb the freedoms of an individual.
The first was that of Tong Ying-kit, a waiter by profession, who had ridden a motorcycle, carrying pro-democracy slogans. He was jailed for nine years. In a marked departure from the previous practice of trial by jury in the legal system of Hong Kong, influenced heavily by British Common Law, Tong’s trial was held without a jury. Though, it was clearly stated in the agreement on Hong Kong between the U. K. and China that till 2047 the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will have independent judicial powers and the laws in force in 1984 in Hong Kong would remain basically unchanged.
The National Security Law of Hong Kong gives the police sweeping powers to crack down on opponents of the government and grants, for the first time, security agencies from mainland China the power to operate in Hong Kong. From a vibrant democracy with a freewheeling Press and a rich culture of protests, at one stroke the National Security Law has transformed Hong Kong into a police state.