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Hong Kong Police Question Relatives of Activists Living Overseas

FILE - Police patrol at Victoria Park in Hong Kong, June 2, 2023.
FILE - Police patrol at Victoria Park in Hong Kong, June 2, 2023.

Hong Kong national security police have adopted what analysts have described as "scare tactics" targeting several overseas activists over the last few weeks, issuing arrest warrants and bounties worth more than $127,000 against them, as well as summoning dozens of their family members in Hong Kong for questioning.

"It’s a mafia-style crackdown against family members of overseas Hong Kong activists,” Patrick Poon, a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo, told VOA in a phone interview.

While none of the family members has been charged or arrested, Poon says Hong Kong authorities are trying to exert pressure on the activists and the diaspora by treating their family members as “hostages.”

“The authorities are sending overseas activists a clear signal that no matter where they are, the police will try to track them down,” he noted. “Hong Kong police tactics are similar to the Chinese authorities’ tactics against dissidents.”

Since the former British colony returned to China in 1997, authorities have tried to increase control over all aspects of civil society.

Following a monthslong anti-government protest in 2019, a Beijing-imposed National Security Law (NSL) aimed at stamping out what the government views as subversion came into effect in July 2020. Since then, 260 people have been arrested under national security-related charges in Hong Kong and some observers say Hong Kong authorities hope to further silence critics abroad.

“They are targeting Hong Kongers and Westerners who might dare criticize them around the world,” Samuel Bickett, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law, told VOA. According to Bickett, when the NSL was enacted, Hong Kong authorities made it clear that the law could be applied to “anyone who might dare to criticize them anywhere in the world.” “That’s who they are targeting now,” he explained.

The eight activists in question are Ted Hui, Anna Kwok, Dennis Kwok, Finn Lau, Nathan Law, Christopher Mung, Kevin Yam, and Elmer Yuen. On July 3, Hong Kong police issued arrest warrants and bounties of $127,635 on each of them.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee pledged to pursue them “to the end of the Earth.”

On July 11, Hong Kong police took Law’s parents and brother in for questioning. While police alleged his family members were suspected of supporting him, Law said they “have no financial connection” with him and that his work is unrelated to them.

In the subsequent weeks, police took away family members of Dennis Kwok, Anna Kwong, Mung, and Yuen for questioning. After two of her brothers were taken away for questioning on August 22, Anna Kwok said on the social media platform X that she would not give in to the government’s pressure campaign. Kwok is the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based organization Hong Kong Democracy Council.

“Hong Kong police have reportedly taken in my two brothers for questioning in an attempt to silence me,” she wrote. “Little do they know nothing can stop me from pursuing freedom.”

Reports say the relatives of Hui, Lau and Yam have not yet been summoned.

Poon said the eight overseas activists have not given in to the mounting pressure.

“They continue to uphold the principles and show the world that they are doing well even though Hong Kong authorities keep threatening them,” he said.

The U.S. State Department condemned Hong Kong authorities’ ongoing harassment of family members of overseas activists. On Aug. 25, a State Department spokesperson said the move intends to “intimidate and silence individuals for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

“This is also a form of transnational repression to intimidate and silence individuals abroad and to coerce their return. We call on the Hong Kong authorities to cease all

harassment of the democracy activists’ family members,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement.

A spokesperson for China’s foreign affairs office in Hong Kong responded by saying police actions abroad, against those suspected of threating the territory’s national security, are “reasonable and justified.”

Cost of engagement for overseas Hong Kongers

Even though the overseas activists remain committed to their causes, others acknowledge that Hong Kong authorities’ new tactics have increased the price that Hong Kongers abroad must pay when engaging in any form of activism.

“This strategy makes the cost of engaging in activism higher so other members of the Hong Kong diaspora community wouldn’t dare to do the same things,” Frances Hui, an exiled Hong Kong activist and policy and advocacy coordinator of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, told VOA in a phone interview.

She adds that now any Hong Konger who thinks about engaging in activism abroad needs to consider the consequences. The harassment the eight overseas activists face could also happen to them. “If they want to engage in activism, it might jeopardize the safety of people connected to them,” Hui explained.

Bickett said he believes the Hong Kong authorities’ goal is to shut down the broader movement and increase the level of doubt and fear among Hong Kongers who are not central leading figures.

“A lot of people have to make a choice — do they want to exercise their free speech rights in the country where they live or do they want to be able to return to Hong Kong to visit their family members,” said Bickett, who himself has dealt with the territory’s criminal justice system.

Bickett was convicted of assaulting a plainclothes police officer after trying to help a protester who was tackled by the police during protests in 2019. Bickett was sentenced to four-and-a-half months in jail in June 2021 and was deported after spending 12 weeks behind bars.

Poon says it’s important for the diaspora community to assess the risks of engaging in activism or publicly expressing views critical of the government.

“Overseas Hong Kongers need to think of more strategic ways to carry out activism,” he told VOA, adding that members of the diaspora community should exercise division of labor. “Some activists will be more prepared to engage in activism publicly while others can play more supportive roles in the movement.”

And to ensure overseas Hong Kongers can safely engage in activism, Bickett says it’s crucial for host governments to pay more attention to transnational repression in Hong Kong and China.

“There have been lots of incidents of people getting attacked at protests, [including] the Manchester attack, where officials from the Chinese consulate in Manchester walked out and attacked Hong Kongers protesting outside the consulate,” he told VOA.

The incident Bickett refers to happened in October 2022 in Manchester, England. Video appeared to show Chinese officials dragging former Hong Kong resident Bob Chan, onto the consulate’s property and assaulting him. Manchester police say he was hospitalized for his injuries.

In Bickett’s view, the United States has tried to crack down on transnational repression; but he says countries like Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, which have a sizable Hong Kong diaspora community, have done “very little” to address the challenge.

“Hong Kongers there feel exposed,” he said.