Exiled Hong Kong activists feel strain after bounty imposed on them

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS — Two exiled Hong Kong activists say bounties imposed on them last year are causing fear and anxiety as they conduct their advocacy work from U.S. soil amid concerns for their safety.

Anna Kwok expected to face retaliation from the Hong Kong government when she became the executive director of the Washington-based advocacy organization Hong Kong Democracy Council in November 2022. Hong Kong authorities imposed a bounty on her and seven others on July 3, 2023.

Frances Hui, who is the policy and advocacy coordinator for the U.S.-based Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, was one of an additional five who had bounties imposed on them in December.

The 13 are accused of violating a controversial national security law that went into effect in the former British colony in July 2020.

Despite being mentally prepared, Hui and Kwok said they felt shocked when the Hong Kong government issued arrest warrants and bounties worth $127,635 for them and the other overseas Hong Kong activists last year. Hui said the bounty felt like “a death certificate” as it confirmed she would not be able to set foot in Hong Kong again.

“After learning about the bounty imposed against me, I suddenly felt like everything was out of my control because I could no longer get in touch with my family and close people in Hong Kong,” she said, adding that the event pushed her life onto a completely different path.

“I’m officially a wanted fugitive, and whoever in Hong Kong is associated with me will get into trouble,” Hui told VOA by phone.

While Hui described the experience as “jarring and shocking,” Kwok said she didn’t realize how the bounties could affect her until her bank account in Hong Kong was frozen.

“At first, I was surprised for only 10 seconds and immediately went into work mode, thinking about how to use this incident to advance our advocacy agenda in media interviews,” said Kwok.

“When I checked my Hong Kong bank account at 11 p.m. on July 3, 2023, I noticed my asserts were frozen and I suddenly realized the real-life implications of the bounty on my head,” Kwok told VOA by phone.

These activists “betrayed their country, betrayed Hong Kong, disregarded the interests of Hong Kong people, and continue to endanger national security even when abroad,” the chief superintendent of Hong Kong’s National Security Department, Li Kwai-wah, said at a December 14 press conference.

Eric Lai, a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law in the United States, said the Hong Kong government hopes to create a chilling effect that will further disconnect people in Hong Kong from overseas activists by issuing arrest warrants and bounties.

“It’s a silencing tactic to both people around the bounty holders and the bounty holders themselves,” he told VOA by phone, adding that it is part of the Hong Kong government’s efforts to surveil, harass and intimidate political dissidents in exile.

In addition to imposing bounties on more than a dozen activists, Hong Kong authorities canceled the passports of overseas activists last month. In the U.K., three men were charged in May with spying on members of the Hong Kong diaspora community on behalf of the territory’s intelligence service.

Threat to mental health, personal safety

Apart from targeting overseas activists, Hong Kong authorities have interrogated family members of the activists, including Hui’s mother and Kwok’s brothers and parents.

Hui said the interrogations of her family members made her realize that her activism abroad could affect those who are still in Hong Kong. She said that is one way that Hong Kong authorities have limited her freedom.

“It’s a very lonely experience to know that whatever I do could be connected to people who are associated with me; but I also know that if I stop my activism now, that’s exactly what the Chinese Communist Party would want, to intimidate and silence me,” she said.

In addition to the sense of loneliness, Hui said the bounty has increased her fear of threats to her safety.

“I have become extra cautious about talking to people, even those in the Hong Kong diaspora community, and my heightened sensitivity toward security issues has also contributed to my increased level of anxiety,” she said, adding that she is trying hard not to let fear dictate her advocacy work.

As for Kwok, the fear for her safety became real when she began to receive death threats shortly before leaders convened for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, held in November in San Francisco. At the time, she was planning to attend protest rallies against Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“I started receiving death threats and threats of raping me in my inbox, and those accounts are not afraid of using brutal language or insinuating physical harm against me,” she told VOA. She said the messages would appear in her inbox in a coordinated fashion.

While she was shocked about the explicitness of those threats, she tried to take steps to rein in her fear, including maintaining regular contact with close friends, playing with her cats or diving into the world of fiction.

These steps “help to assure me that things are okay and I’m doing something impactful, which is an important realization to me,” Kwok said.

Despite their efforts to overcome the fear created by the bounties, Hui and Kwok say the Hong Kong government’s efforts to launch transnational repression are a threat to the entire diaspora community.

“I think my personal experience shows that there are still many gaps in implementing protection mechanisms against transnational repression in many countries,” Kwok said, adding that the moves initiated by Hong Kong authorities are damaging trust within the diaspora community.

While Hong Kong authorities try to isolate some overseas activists, Hui said she will continue to concentrate her advocacy efforts on speaking up for activists who have been imprisoned in Hong Kong.

“There is a sense of mission for me, and I hope I can continue to advocate for those who can’t,” she said.

In response to criticisms made by the activists, the Hong Kong government said the extraterritorial effect of the national security law is fully in line with the principles of international law and common practices adopted by several countries.

“Absconders should not think they can evade criminal liability by absconding from Hong Kong, [because] ultimately, they will be held accountable for their acts constituting serious offences endangering national security and be sanctioned by law,” a Hong Kong government spokesperson told VOA in a written response.

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