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Bounty hunters

IN THE NEWS | Hong Kong pursues exiled dissidents, even overseas


Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Nathan Law speaks at a London rally in 2020. David Cliff/NurPhoto/AP

Bounty hunters
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Anna Kwok awoke around dawn on July 3 to frantic phone calls and knocks on her apartment door. Her colleagues were trying to tell the 26-year-old U.S. resident that she had been placed on Hong Kong’s wanted list: Hours earlier, the city’s national security police announced rewards of 1 million Hong Kong dollars (nearly $128,000) for information leading to the arrests of Kwok and seven other self-exiled Hong Kong pro-democracy activists. Authorities accused them of violating Hong Kong’s national security law.

It marked the first time pro-Beijing ­officials had placed bounties on overseas suspects of national security crimes. It also signaled an escalation of China’s trans­national efforts to intimidate political ­opponents into fear and silence.

In Hong Kong, Beijing has for three years quashed dissent using the national security law imposed in June 2020. While the law criminalizes secession, subversion, foreign collusion, and terrorism, officials have used it broadly to arrest more than 260 people, including many leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. It carries a ­maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Under the national security law, Kwok, executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based Hong Kong Democracy Council, is facing charges of foreign collusion for activities that include meeting with foreign officials to request sanctions against Hong Kong and China. She has been in the process of applying for asylum in the United States, while working under the provisions of a ­program President Joe Biden approved in 2021. The program provides a temporary safe haven for eligible Hong Kongers facing Chinese repression.

The United States, United Kingdom, and Australia—countries where the wanted activists reside—condemned the bounties. U.S. Department of State spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement that the extraterritorial application of the national security law was “a dangerous precedent that threatens the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people all over the world.”

The other wanted activists are former legislators Nathan Law, Ted Hui, and Dennis Kwok; lawyer Kevin Yam; unionist Christopher Mung; online commentator Elmer Yuen; and activist Finn Lau.

Referring to the activists, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said Hong Kong “will be pursuing the abscondees’ criminal responsibilities for life until they surrender themselves.” At the same time, Hong Kong police admitted they can’t arrest the activists unless they return to Hong Kong.

But they could step up the pressure within Hong Kong itself. National security police on July 11 targeted the family of Law, who is residing in the United Kingdom, where he was granted asylum. Police raided the homes of his parents and brother in Hong Kong and interrogated them, asking whether they had funded Law and served as his agents. Days prior, police arrested five former members of the now-defunct opposition party Law had co-founded, accusing them of funding overseas activists who endanger national security.

Lawmaker Dennis Kwok speaks to the press in Hong Kong in 2016.

Lawmaker Dennis Kwok speaks to the press in Hong Kong in 2016. Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Authorities have also used the national security law to shutter news outlets, pull books from libraries, and ban movies. Many families have emigrated in search of greater freedom for themselves and their children. Amid the exodus, more than 64,000 students have left Hong Kong’s school system in the last two years. The declining enrollment is forcing some schools to close in the city of 7.3 million.

Kwok doesn’t think Hong Kong really believed it could pressure the United States, the U.K., and Australia into surrendering her and the other activists: Those countries have already suspended their extradition treaties with Hong Kong. Still, Kwok now has to take extra precautions.

“I definitely cannot travel to countries that have ongoing, existing extradition treaties with the Hong Kong and Chinese governments,” she said. Among the nations she would need to avoid are Singapore, Portugal, and South Africa.

Chinese police have reportedly set up more than 100 covert overseas police stations worldwide.

It’s also possible that China might ask Interpol to issue a “red notice” to pursue the activists. That’s been done before, said Anouk Wear, research and policy adviser of the U.K.-based rights group Hong Kong Watch. “But we have no evidence they are using [the notice] against Hong Kongers for now.” A July 11 search of Interpol’s red notices did not return the names of any of the wanted activists.

Beyond the most recent scare tactics, Chinese police have reportedly set up more than 100 covert overseas police stations worldwide (see “Why are Chinese ‘police stations’ in U.S. ­cities?,” May 20). The stations appear to be involved in pressuring dissidents and criminal suspects to return to China against their will.

“The Hong Kong National Security Law has no jurisdiction abroad, and governments must protect the rights and freedoms of activists in exile,” said Benedict Rogers, chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, in a statement. “We must stand up to the Beijing government and stand alongside our courageous friends from Hong Kong.”

—with additional reporting from Elizabeth Russell

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