The latter scenario might not sound nightmarish, but democracy activist Chu, 43, knows what it symbolizes: his dread of being separated from his daughter if he eventually goes to jail. The first embodies his other major fear: being exiled from Hong Kong.
As a global pandemic brought life in many cities to a halt this year, the ground beneath Hong Kong shifted at an astonishing speed, courtesy of sweeping legislation imposed by Beijing in June that outlawed opposing China in any form, on any platform, anywhere in the world.
Overnight, the previously unthinkable became reality: traditionally peaceful rallies were banned, some Facebook posts were criminalized, uttering certain phrases became illegal, the legislature lost almost all its democratic figures, and dramatic scenes unfolded of Hong Kongers trying to flee by boat and seeking asylum.
The stakes in agitating for democracy exploded. Activists have been dealt a brutal hand: stay in Hong Kong to risk being jailed alongside icons Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Jimmy Lai, as well as hundreds of others lacking name recognition, or flee to a democratic safe haven to exist in self-imposed exile far from the people and places that have been the physical and spiritual touchstones of their lives.
Chu faces 11 charges for various bursts of democracy activism over the past 13 months, and believes he’s looking at two to three years in jail. Chu says he will stay to serve any sentence he is handed: “You can’t play the first half of the match and not stay for the second.”
But others are choosing to flee — and Chu supports them, too. The fight for Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms is so hamstrung at home, he says, that most activists agree it must also happen from abroad. Local media estimates that more than 350 Hong Kong democracy activists have claimed asylum globally since 2018, while others have fled to safe havens such as Taiwan, which doesn’t have an asylum law but can offer shelter.
A two-pronged movement is now in full swing. Within the exiled group there are myriad beliefs, strategies and even opposing personalities. And while they have avoided jail, interviews with seven exiles for this piece show their lives are not simple: even abroad, they watch over their shoulders, communicate on secure apps, and fear the slightest contact with people in Hong Kong could endanger those they left behind.
The contours of escape
After Baggio Leung was released from a month-long stint in a Hong Kong jail in September, during which he says he was mostly held in isolation, he believes someone began following him. “Usually, this is a bad sign. It means you are in the sights of the regime again,” says Leung, 34, the former leader of Youngspiration, a political party that called for Hong Kong independence — the idea that most riles Beijing, and one that is now illegal under the new security law.
For days on end in the weeks after, he says he avoided going to his apartment, sleeping elsewhere to try to throw them off his tail. But that wasn’t the only curious hallmark of surveillance on his radar. Leung says his personal cell phone’s 6 gigabyte data allowance suddenly drained in one day. “That’s usually a bad sign, too,” he says, explaining it can be a telltale of a tapped device.
A generation of young Hong Kongers were swept into politics by the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which saw young democracy activists occupy parts of central Hong Kong for months, and propelled student leaders such as Joshua Wong and Nathan Law to international fame.
Leung became a lawmaker on the back of that movement, but was disqualified from the city’s legislature in 2016 for improper oath taking — he wore a flag saying “Hong Kong is not China” while being sworn in, and inserted curse words into the official text. He was jailed for storming a meeting to try to retake the oath.
In late November this year, Leung decided to flee. He bought three plane tickets and headed to Hong Kong airport. “If it is last minute, usually it’s more secure,” he says. Leung is now in Washington D.C., where he intends to lobby US politicians to take action on Hong Kong, and to seek asylum. He claims to have severed all ties with his family and political groups at home, as do most self-exiled Hong Kongers.
Leung is not the only high-profile democracy activist who feels his past actions have irredeemably put him in the crosshairs of Beijing — Nathan Law, once Hong Kong’s youngest legislator, fled to London in July. “We need people who can communicate with international media, politicians, and can deliver Hong Kong people’s voice accurately and profoundly,” Law says.
Former British consulate worker Simon Cheng, 30, was a nobody on the democracy circuit until he hit headlines for his 15-day detention in mainland China in 2019, during the height of the often-violent anti-government protests, which were a catalyst for this year’s national security law. Cheng says he was tortured in detention and interrogated about his frontline activism that summer. At the time, China’s Foreign Minister spokesman, Geng Shuang, said the Chinese public security department “guaranteed all of his rights and interests according to law.”
After deeming Hong Kong unsafe upon his release, Cheng laid low in Taiwan before seeking asylum in the UK.
Another former legislator, Ted Hui, 38, slipped out of Hong Kong last month while on bail, on the pretense of attending a climate change conference in Denmark. Instead he went into exile in Europe to dodge charges of perverting the course of justice, access to a computer with dishonest intent, and vandalism — charges he says are politically motivated.
The age of some of the exiles is stunning. Independence activist Honcques Laus was just 18 when he claimed asylum at London’s Heathrow Airport in June, anticipating being jailed under the then-impending national security law.
Others do not even see themselves as political.
Pastor Roy Chan, whose church mediated between police and protesters last year, woke up one cold London morning, during a working holiday in the English capital, to a frantic phone call, informing him that his bank accounts had been frozen by HSBC and colleagues arrested over alleged money laundering. He denies any wrongdoing.
Chan says his church helps anyone in need, be it a protestor, policeman or the homeless. Now, believing he will be arrested on his return to Hong Kong, he says he is effectively exiled in the United Kingdom with his wife and three children, scrambling to find a way to feed them.
“I hope God forgives Carrie Lam,” he says of the city’s leader, a committed Catholic.
Twice a week, for the past year, Chu has made the grim journey to one of three jails dotted around the city. He waits for nearly 2 hours for a 30-minute meeting with whichever young Hong Konger he visits that day; he says he has dropped in on more than 100 people locked up over last year’s unrest, diligently delivering letters from their families and supporters — they have no access to email or mobile phones, and are kept apart from other activists. Chu wants them to know they aren’t forgotten.
His visits are also slightly self-serving: he seeks reassurance from those who exist in small cells without air conditioning, family or the internet that it is bearable.
The hardest parts of these visits, he says, are when news lands that high-profile figures, those who rallied or inspired the now-jailed to protest, have fled, and that others are preparing to emigrate to the UK under a new scheme that offers British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders residency and a route to citizenship.
About 3 million Hong Kongers were eligible to apply for a BNO passport when the UK handed the city back to China. However, the documents only entitle holders to visa-free access to the UK for six months. Earlier this year, however, the British government said the new security law imposed by Beijing had violated Hong Kongers’ freedoms, and offered them to apply for an extendable 12-month stay.
“Some of them are pretty demoralized seeing people immigrating,” says Chu, who became an activist after working as a freelance journalist in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in his twenties. But he says the jailed activists don’t regret their actions: “We are not going to get anywhere if we follow the moderate way.”
While being exiled might seem the easy option compared to jail, the reality is not so straightforward.
Many of the recently exiled are just bedding in to their new lives, often residing in spartan temporary accommodation provided by their host government, a charity, or the generosity of friends, and living frugally. Some say the $1,200 coronavirus handout the Hong Kong government provided earlier this year has helped sustain them.
Ray Wong, however, is farther down that path. The 27-year-old skipped bail on rioting charges to seek asylum in Germany in 2017. He says he spent the first 10 months in German refugee camps waiting for his application to be approved. “That period, it was pretty tough for me,” he remembers.
Then there was the task of learning the “hidden norms” of a new culture. “I was already worried that I would break their rules, or conventions,” he says. “I was quite anxious.” Wong describes, for example, how in Germany pedestrians must walk on the right side of the street. “This is something really trivial, but if you don’t follow it, German people would give you a malign stare,” he says.
Meanwhile, one of his peers, who faced charges over the same riot, was jailed for six years back in Hong Kong. Last summer, when Hong Kongers swarmed the streets to protest an extradition law with China, Wong was abroad.
He pines for home. “I miss basically everything in Hong Kong,” he says. “I miss being surrounded by Hong Kong people, being surrounded by Cantonese-speaking people. I even miss the very unpleasant climate in Hong Kong. That’s very humid and no wind.”
Wong says he hasn’t seen his mother for three years. “I miss her really a lot. And that’s really difficult to articulate. It’s too heavy. It’s not easy to put into language,” he adds.
And living in a Western democracy doesn’t guarantee safety. Wong recounts how last year, when a group of Hong Kong students visited him in Berlin to meet with politicians there, he says a Chinese couple tailed the group for days, sitting close by in restaurants, pointing at them on the street, taking photographs.
“It was pretty obvious that, I think, the Chinese embassy or the Chinese government wanted to tell us they are monitoring us,” he says. “I was worried, to be honest, because I didn’t know what would come next. Maybe first they follow us, and they could kidnap us. They could assassinate us.”
Many of the exiles in Britain interviewed for this piece refused to reveal which city they lived in out of security concerns, with some saying they regularly change location, and would only speak on encrypted apps.
Cheng last year claimed he’d been tailed in the UK by a man “of east Asian appearance, possibly Chinese.”
“There’s a track record of these authoritarian countries putting their hands on exiled activists,” says Law, noting the grisly history of Russian dissidents in the UK.
When asked about Wong and Cheng’s claims of being tailed by Chinese agents abroad, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “The two people you mentioned have no integrity, and the remarks are not worthy of comment.”
The Glorious Years?
In 1990, Hong Kong rock band Beyond — whose song “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies” has for years been an anthem of the city’s democracy movement — had a hit with “The Glorious Years,” a rousing song about the struggle of human rights activist Nelson Mandela in South Africa. It was a celebration of Mandela’s release from jail that year, after nearly three decades behind bars.
The song includes the lyrics: “Holding fast to freedom in the wind and rain, A lifetime of loss and struggle, Believing in one’s ability to change the future, Who else can accomplish this?”
Today, those lines could be applied to the long struggle seemingly ahead for those dedicating their lives to democracy in Hong Kong.
Mandela-style stints behind bars for the most wanted are plausible. Multimillionaire tycoon Jimmy Lai, whose tabloid Apple Daily has antagonized Beijing for decades and printed front-page splashes calling on Hong Kongers to protest last summer, is facing life in jail under the national security law, for charges of foreign collusion and endangering national security. Lai dismissed his arrest as a “symbolic exercise” by local authorities to demonstrate the national security law has “teeth.” His tweets and interviews with US media outlets have been cited as evidence. At 73 years old, Lai is unlikely to survive decades in prison.
Wong, the bespectacled face of the Umbrella Revolution — who was once nominated for Time Person of the Year, published a book written partially in jail, and was the subject of a Netflix documentary — is serving his fourth, and longest, stint behind bars.
Agnes Chow spent her 24th birthday in a cell. Chow’s youth and fragility — in 2014 she publicly stepped back from the Umbrella Revolution saying: “I am sorry. But I am only a 17-year-old. I am very lost and tired in front of the exceptional pressure” — have made her a powerfully relatable figure, dubbed the Goddess of Democracy and the “real Mulan,” by her masses of fans, including a huge base in Japan (Chow is fluent in Japanese.)
Lai and Wong have both pledged to never leave Hong Kong. Although it is dubious whether either would be able to: while facing charges their passports were seized.
Former lawmaker Claudia Mo says she believes any high-profile activist who wants to flee “would have left by now.” For those facing prosecution, “it is far too late,” she says. Mo predicted that bail conditions would be strengthened after Hui’s escape last month, which a Security Bureau spokesman condemned.
Lester Shum, a district councilor, is the only high-profile Umbrella Movement leader to remain free in Hong Kong. Born in New York, he gave up his US passport to stand for election to the city legislature. It was a wasted sacrifice: in the end, he was disqualified from running, along with 11 other pro-democracy candidates. Condemning that decision, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Shum, and others, had been barred for “their political views.”
From his small office in the city’s Tsuen Wan district, Shum says he has no plans to leave Hong Kong, but admits the space for activism is shrinking daily. He feels it is a matter of when, not if, he will be expelled from his post.
But he says the sacrifices of others make it imperative to keep going.
“I feel depressed, tired and defeated every day,” Shum says. “Nearly every morning, I wake up to news that some of my friends have been arrested. There is some sense of survivor’s guilt, because a lot of my colleagues have either gone to jail or into exile.”
Sanctions and strategies
As the exiles settle into their new lives, they are pursuing different goals.
Some call for independence, others focus on universal suffrage, splinter groups argue for Hong Kong nativism, and different factions have varying levels of tolerance for violence.
Even within those self-exiled to Britain, subtle divisions have emerged. Cheng, the former British consulate worker, says that Nathan Law, for example, has not been approachable or available for a meeting. Law, who has had notoriety for years, has the ear of politicians in the UK, recently meeting Home Secretary Priti Patel at Downing Street. Baggio Leung says he went to Washington D.C. because it was an untaken spot on the map.
Many activists, such as Leung, are hoping to harness the power of economic warfare — the US has already sanctioned certain figures for their role in implementing the national security law; consequently, Lam cannot open a bank account in the city she rules due to being locked out of the dollar economy. Such actions will further entrench Leung’s exiled status — calling for sanctions on China is illegal under the national security law.
Law wants the exiles to encourage ministers in their chosen country to connect the Hong Kong issue to the bigger push to safeguard democracy against the global creep of Chinese-style authoritarianism. “The leaders of democracies should sit together, and come up with solutions that we could really curb this authoritarian influence, and to preserve and protect the values that we treasure,” he says.
Cheng has taken a different approach. In July, he co-founded Hong Kongers in Britain, which supports those emigrating to the UK, advising the government on what new arrivals need and trying to get the scheme expanded to those born after 1997, the cutoff date for eligibility for BNO passports, given the youth of many of last year’s protesters.
Former protester Sunny Chou, who sought asylum in the UK earlier this year, is throwing his efforts into Project R, a platform selling products made by Hong Kongers who support democracy, bolstering the “yellow economy,” the color of the movement.
“If you stay, you can’t just help by being a victim,” says Chou.
Of course, the Hong Kongers in exile will not be the first Chinese nationals to lobby overseas governments to take action against Beijing. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, many of the young leaders of those protests fled to the US and to Taiwan — where they largely remain.
Many activists feel that efforts to promote democracy in China from abroad have been unsuccessful, and many have grown disconnected from the country where they grew up, the Tiananmen incident itself has been wiped from historical memory by censorship and propaganda in mainland China. Many of those who did stay in China and continued to organize against the government were crushed, with one former Tiananmen activist, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, dying in custody in 2017.
Retain the core
Back in outer Hong Kong, Chu is at his office taking phone calls with journalists, stuffing letters into prisoners in envelopes, and trying not to think about the diminishing number of days he has left with his daughter before his cases come to court. His focus now, he says, is to get her primary maths skills up to scratch, while he’s still here.
“She needs to get prepared for my prison term,” he says.
Although Chu does not have the profile of Jimmy Lai or Joshua Wong, he is one of the city’s most-seasoned activists, with decades of experience taking on the government over heritage issues. In 2006, while protesting the relocation of the historic Edinburgh Pier, he crossed paths with then-development secretary Carrie Lam. Back then, she believed in the right to protest within a civil society, Chu says. “She was not the same person.”
Today, Lam’s city leaves scant room for opposition. “Months ago, maybe I would have waved the banners saying ‘Liberate Hong Kong.’ But now I will have second thoughts on whether to take this risk,” he says. Doing so could carry a sentence up to life in prison.
Despite the risks, Shum feels there needs to be a “core base” in the city to keep energy in the movement. If Hong Kong becomes as repressed as Xinjiang or Tibet, heavily policed regions of China with large non-Han populations, it will “make it really, really difficult to organize some activities overseas,” he says.
Shum points out that the international uproar over Hong Kong last year was due to events on the ground.
By the same token, exiled activists will have to work to stay in touch and relevant to a place they may not be able to step foot in again for decades; some within the camp say they discreetly still coordinate with those left in the city.
Perhaps for those who stay, effective action means a cycle of protesting and going to jail — Chu is mulling it all over, whiplashed by a year that remade Hong Kong. “I grew up in a liberal society with all the freedoms of Western democracy,” says Chu. “Ten years ago, I would not think that participating in public issues will end up with decades in prison.”
But Chu notes that as a professional politician, he has been able to “keep pace with the level of prosecution.” “It is a very different story to those young activists who entered into the movement last year,” he says. “They suddenly jumped from zero to 100.”
Chu’s resolution that his place in the movement remains within Hong Kong was perhaps inevitable. After all, nine years ago he gave that little girl who now haunts his dreams a prescient name, in memory of a slogan he’d used for another political campaign. It was also an irrevocable commitment to his deepest core values.
In Chinese, she is called: Chu Pat Chin.
In English, that translates literally to: Never Move.