Hong Kong activists in the UK fear the Chinese police’s long-range repression

Hong Kong activists in the UK fear the Chinese police’s long-range repression

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Thousands of protesters rallied in European capitals in December to demand an end to China’s zero-Covid policy — and the ouster of the government that enforced it.

But in London, Berlin and other cities hosting demonstrations against the draconian restrictions being lifted by Beijing, nearly all protesters wore face masks – not as a Covid precaution, but to protect against the Chinese government’s long-range surveillance.

“We don’t use our real names, we wear masks. We’re still scared. We end up censoring ourselves,” said a Hong Kong community organizer in the UK, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals against relatives still in Hong Kong.

More than 144,000 Hong Kongers have arrived in the UK over the past two years under the government’s new Visa Scheme for British Nationals Abroad (BNO), designed to help those fleeing Beijing’s crackdown on the political right. But fear of Chinese government retaliation has followed some of them.

Hong Kong’s National Security Law, passed in 2020, includes an extraterritorial clause criminalizing support for Hong Kong’s independence anywhere in the world.

“Since the national security law, Hong Kongers in Europe have tried not to reveal their names and identities when it comes to engaging in Hong Kong affairs, even at cultural, non-political events,” said Iverson Ng, Co. from Estonia, coordinator of the Hong Kong-Europe Diaspora Alliance.

“The fear comes because we don’t know the real impact,” he added.

Activists have spoken to Hong Kong Police’s Financial Times about using the clause to prosecute activists in the UK and across Europe, either after they return to Hong Kong or by putting pressure on their families in the area.

Charlie, a young Hong Kong man using a pseudonym, spoke at a rally in Glasgow in support of Hong Kong democracy and attended another protest in Manchester in 2022.

A month after his return to Hong Kong in 2022, the police called him to the Mong Kok Police Station. They then identified themselves as employees of the National Security Bureau and presented him with photos of his face at protests that had not appeared online. He suspected they were taken by someone in the UK who was working with Hong Kong police.

“They have taken part in demonstrations and made speeches abroad, which is enough to constitute terrorist activity,” police told him before releasing him without formal bail. Shortly thereafter he left Hong Kong.

Simon Cheng, founder of community organization Hong Kongers in Britain, said the group had heard of about 10 cases of Hong Kongers being pressured by police to return to the territory for political activities abroad and even more cases in where relatives had been molested at home. Very few are willing to speak publicly, even anonymously, about their experiences.

“The police ask them which activists and organizations they met abroad. They view the crime of “collaborating with foreign forces” as meeting with any groups they consider anti-Chinese, not just foreign governments,” Cheng said.

Hong Kongers in the UK presented an example of extraterritorial surveillance in a submission to the UN Human Rights Committee’s regular review of civil rights last year. The committee called China to repeal the national security law and said it was “deeply concerned by the over-expansion . . . and arbitrary application of law”.

Veteran activists say many protesters — as well as journalists and bystanders who photograph demonstrations — have developed a flair for malicious surveillance, with photographers often pointing cameras at protesters’ faces and zooming in on details.

“Having been to several protests, you develop a sense of how to distinguish suspicious people. They don’t go along with it, if someone comes up to them, they either don’t want to talk or speak Cantonese or Mandarin badly,” said Ray Wong, chairman of the German NGO Freedom for Hong Kong. was filmed during protests in Berlin and Göttingen.

The identities of those filming are usually unclear. Activists suspect some are being organized by the Chinese government through local embassies, while others may be nationalist volunteers acting on their own initiative.

Police intervene in a scuffle between a pro-democracy Hong Kong protester and Chinese consulate staff in Manchester in October 2022Police intervene in a scuffle between a pro-democracy Hong Kong protester and Chinese consulate staff in Manchester, October 2022 © Matthew Leung/The Chaser News/AFP/Getty Images

Some activists were also persecuted. After Wong took a group of Hong Kong students to meet German lawmakers in 2019, he noticed two people following them. “They even pulled out their phones to take pictures of us while we were eating at a restaurant,” Wong said. The following year he was shadowed when he met another activist in London.

“You are obvious and you don’t try to hide – it’s a common tactic used to pressure dissidents to tell you you’re being watched,” Wong said, adding that the same methods are used by security agents in Hong Kong were applied.

Despite the pressure, activists continue to organize events with local civil society groups, including others affected by transnational repression.

“There is a lot of room for learning between different groups that have faced Chinese government harassment – Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, Tibetans,” said Nicola Macbean, founder of the NGO The Rights Practice, which is convening a civil society forum on transnational repression by the Chinese government has.

“Some, like the Tibetans, have been subjected to this type of pressure for years. Over time, they’ve created a strong community that can resist,” Macbean added.

Governments are also beginning to devise effective responses to surveillance. Andrew Chubb, a researcher at Lancaster University, advocates the creation of a “Transnational Rights Protection Office” within the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, in part to allay victims’ fears of retaliation for collaborating with state security agencies.

Following the attack by a Hong Kong protester at the Chinese consulate in Manchester in October, British MPs from across the party spectrum have called for more action to end Beijing government interference in the UK’s freedom of assembly and speech.

“We have a duty to Hong Kongers to ensure they are protected. They are leaving Hong Kong because of oppression and that oppression should not be chasing them here to the UK,” said Afzal Khan, MP for Manchester Gorton, where the attack took place.

In November, UK Security Secretary Tom Tugendhat chaired the first meeting of the Defending Democracy Taskforce, a new entity bringing together government and intelligence agencies to tackle what the minister described as “growing and changing” government threats in the UK.

“I am committed to fighting transnational repression wherever it takes place,” he added.

Referring the FT to an earlier statement, the Chinese embassy in London said that “no one is above the law by using liberty as an excuse and those who break the law must be held accountable”.

Nathan Law, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent former lawmakers and now in exile in London, believes pro-Chinese communist party groups in Britain have already become more reticent, possibly in response to London’s signal for a more restrictive relationship with Beijing. He said pro-CCP counter-protests at Hong Kong’s 2019 independence demonstrations were once common but have faded.

“The [UK] The government’s stance is very important to send out a warning,” Law said. “We must show that people are being investigated when there is evidence of collusion with the National Security Police.”

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