• Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

Hong Kong activist convicted under security law flees to the U.K.


Dec 29, 2023


LONDON — One of the youngest pro-democracy activists to have been sentenced in Hong Kong under a national security law imposed by China has fled to Britain, where he said he will seek asylum.

Tony Chung, who in an interview described attempted brainwashing while incarcerated and arbitrary rules imposed on him even after his release, is the latest high-profile Hong Kong activist to leave the city in violation of restrictions on overseas travel. Chung told authorities he was planning a trip to Okinawa in Japan for vacation and promised to return to Hong Kong. Earlier this month, Agnes Chow, another democracy activist, announced she had left Hong Kong for Canada in violation of her bail conditions and would probably not return for the rest of her life.

The continued exodus of young activists — despite attempts by the Hong Kong authorities to compel their loyalty — underscores the deterioration of freedoms in a city meant to be autonomous from mainland China. The Hong Kong government has continued to claim that the city’s rights and freedoms are “better protected” after passage of the national security law.

Chung joins a growing number of exiled Hong Kongers who hope to continue exerting pressure on Beijing over the loss of political freedom in Hong Kong, despite cash bounties offered by city authorities for the arrest of 13 overseas activists.

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“I have always believed that Hong Kong is the only home of our nation, we shouldn’t be the ones leaving,” Chung said in a statement. But he said the trauma of his arrest, detention and continued surveillance has left him feeling “immense pressure and fear,” which compelled him to leave.

A duty officer from the public relations wing of the Hong Kong Police Force said in an emailed statement that “some individuals who have committed crimes endangering national security openly violated supervision orders or bail conditions and fled Hong Kong, completely betraying trust and integrity.”

“Not only have they failed to reflect on the harms they have caused to Hong Kong and members of the public, but they have also shamefully begged for assistance from foreign anti-China forces under the guise of being victims,” the statement added.

A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in London urged the U.K. to bring Chung “to justice as soon as possible and repatriate him to Hong Kong.”

Chung, 22, was just a teenager when he became involved in politics. He co-founded Studentlocalism, a group that advocated for Hong Kong to be independent from China, a red line for the Chinese Communist Party. In an interview with a local English-language publication in 2017, Chung said he came to believe independence was “the only way” to achieve self-rule and democracy for Hong Kong. The political position was fringe at the time and continues to be so even though it gained some traction during mass protests in 2019.

Studentlocalism dissolved before the national security law came into force in June 2020. Though the authorities promised the security law would not be used retroactively, Chung was among the first arrested under suspicion of inciting “secession.” He was initially released on bail.

Chung, whose passport was confiscated, decided to seek protection at the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong. He knew it was a long shot, having looked up laws that spell out how asylum is granted once someone is on U.S. soil, but he was desperate. Such an attempt was not unprecedented — two Chinese dissidents had been granted protection by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 1989 and 2012.

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Chung never made it to the consulate gates. As he was alighting from a taxi across the road from the consulate in late October 2020, Chung saw several men watching him. The men turned out to be undercover police officers who detained him.

“I was completely broken,” Chung said of his mental state at the time. “I couldn’t really think.”

Chung said felt he had no choice but to plead guilty to the charges against him. He was sentenced in November 2021 to three years and seven months in prison. His alleged crimes, as detailed by prosecutors, involved no violence — only Facebook posts and other political speech. The judge presiding over the case said the sentence was needed to “deter future acts.”

While in detention, Chung was made to participate in a deradicalization program aimed at changing his beliefs and that of other young prisoners arrested for political crimes. The program was compulsory, he said. Chung confirmed details about the program previously reported by The Washington Post, such as mandatory history lessons that showcase China’s achievements.

Guards “kept telling us that the United States government is really bad and that we had been manipulated by the United States,” Chung said. “We felt like we had to agree with them, that we couldn’t disagree or argue back” for fear of punishment, he added.

Hong Kong prisons work to compel loyalty to China among young activists

Chung was eventually released in June 2023, his time reduced for good behavior. One week before he was due to be released, police from the national security division visited him and warned him not to continue any activities related to “splitting” China, to keep a low profile and not to leave Hong Kong for a year. Conditions of the order included not posting or saying anything that would harm Hong Kong’s national security — a wide-ranging and unclear restriction — and not speaking publicly. Authorities also prevented him from taking up a temporary job he had secured as a waiter in a restaurant, Chung said, stating without explanation that he could not work in that specific business.

Without the job, Chung struggled financially. Amid those difficulties, national security officers proposed he work as a paid informant. Chung provided some basic updates and photos pertaining to people of interest to the police, fulfilling the “minimum requirements” of the police, he said, and was paid a fee.

Since Chung’s release, officials from Hong Kong’s Correctional Services Department have requested meetings every two to four weeks, summoning him to random locations and then transporting him to undisclosed places in a seven-seater van, its curtains drawn shut. Chung said that during those encounters, he was interrogated about his activities over the previous weeks, asked to provide the names of elementary school classmates as well as “detailed information about his visits to restaurants and bars, along with contents of [his] conversations.”

In one meeting this September, officers asked him if he’d be willing to travel to mainland China, where they could arrange a tour for him. Chung replied that would go only if his safety was guaranteed. Officers did not bring up the proposal again.

Chow, the activist who left Hong Kong in early December, said on an Instagram post and in interviews she was brought to the mainland on such a tour, and was made to visit the headquarters of a Chinese technology company and attend an exhibition showcasing China’s rapid economic development — part of an apparent effort, she said, to convince her she should support the Chinese system.

Chung said he considered other potential destinations to seek asylum, including the United States and Canada, but felt his chances were highest in Britain. He convinced his minders that he wanted to travel to Okinawa for a vacation over Christmas, saying he needed to “emotionally adjust” to life outside detention. Chung submitted a full travel itinerary, including his flight and accommodation details, and the National Security Department approved the trip. Once in Okinawa, Chung bought a plane ticket from Okinawa to Britain before his deadline to return to Hong Kong.

Chung plans to continue his studies and says he will contribute everything he can in exile, “just as before.”


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