Hong Kong targets exiles’ loved ones as crackdown turns to old CCP playbook

Hong Kong authorities are targeting the relatives of activists overseas in latest sign of alignment with mainland China.

Hong Kong authorities have cracked down on dissent in the city since the imposition of a sweeping national security law in 2020 [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Taipei, Taiwan – After silencing Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, authorities in the territory have found a new target: the family members of dissidents who fled overseas.

As pro-democracy Hong Kongers continue their activism in self-imposed exile, police are turning their attention to their families, friends, and associates still living in the city.

Last month, Hong Kong police announced a one million Hong Kong dollar ($128,888) reward for information leading to the arrest of eight overseas-based dissidents wanted for national security offences, prompting condemnation from human rights organisations and Western governments.

Since then, national security police have raided the family homes of at least four of the wanted activists – businessman Elmer Yeun, trade unionist Christopher Mung, and former legislators Nathan Law and Dennis Kwok – and brought in more than a dozen family members for questioning.

On Thursday, authorities raided homes belonging to family members of Yeun, who is based in the United States, for a second time in little over a week, taking in his ex-wife and son for questioning after earlier interrogating his son, daughter and daughter-in-law.

No arrests were made following the raids.

The eight suspects – who also include lawyer Kevin Yam, ex-legislator Ted Hui, and activists Anna Kwok and Finn Lau – face a range of vaguely-defined offences, including foreign collusion and subversion, under Kong’s sweeping national security law (NSL), which has all but wiped out opposition to Beijing since its passage in 2020.

Many of the offences they are accused of under the Beijing-drafted legislation, which claims jurisdiction over every person on the planet, relate to acts carried out outside of the city.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has been practically wiped out under a Beijing-led crackdown on the city [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Hong Kong authorities’ shift to targeting families is the latest sign of the city’s growing alignment with the authoritarian tactics of the Chinese mainland, where families and friends of dissidents are often harassed by police and pressured to encourage their loved ones to return to China or stop their activism, activists say.

“Now [Hong Kong police] behave like the security apparatus in the mainland,” Chongyi Feng, an associate professor in China studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, told Al Jazeera. “It’s exactly what they call the ‘mainlandisation’ of Hong Kong politics and governance.”

China’s ruling Communist party has long been known for its efforts to silence dissent overseas.

Uighur activists such as Rebiya Kadeer and Zumrat Dawut have spoken publicly about their families in China facing intimidation due to their advocacy against Beijing.

In April, the US justice department charged 44 people in China and abroad over the “transnational repression” of Chinese dissidents allegedly subject to harassment while living in the US.

Hong Kong Police Force did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

The police have previously told media outlets that they have questioned family members of fugitives on suspicion of “assisting persons wanted by police to continue to commit acts and engage in activities that endanger national security”.

Even after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the former British colony for decades retained a vibrant civic life, political diversity and one of the most trusted legal systems in Asia under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems”.

Since the imposition of the NSL following often violent antigovernment protests in 2019, free speech and assembly rights have been radically curtailed and critical voices have all but vanished the political and media landscape.

All bets off

As far as pro-democracy figures are concerned, all bets are off – for both themselves and their families.

“You may sacrifice yourself for your own political beliefs,” said Feng, who was detained for 10 days while visiting China in 2017 and has had his family and 90-year-old mother in the country visited by police.

“But when your family members or friends have been subjected to torture or punishment, you will develop a strong sense of guilt that you’re bringing trouble to your relatives and to your loved ones. That is a very brutal tactic used by dictatorships.”

Eric Lai, a Hong Kong-born nonresident fellow at Georgetown Center for Asian Law, said that questioning dissidents’ families and putting up bounties and wanted posters for their arrest had more to do with sending a message than typical law enforcement activities.

“If you are investigating money laundering or [organised] crimes, then you will not announce who you’re going to interrogate to alert fugitives and wanted persons,” Lai told Al Jazeera. “So, it’s more like a political show.”

Former Hong Kong legislator Ted Hui lives in Australia after fleeing the city [File: Kin Cheung/AP Photo]

Hui, the self-exiled former legislator, said he had been visited three times by police before fleeing to Europe with the help of Danish legislators while on bail pending trial for protest-related charges.

“In the three months before I left Hong Kong … I had police morning raids, meaning that they knock on your door at five or six in the morning, then arrested me, handcuffed me, and questioned me, and searched my home while my wife and my kids were there,” Hui told Al Jazeera.

“The first time was quite terrifying because my family never experienced that. The second time and the third time we were alerted and sort of being prepared when we heard that knocking. So my wife was like, ‘It’s them again. It must be,’” he said.

Hui said his parents, wife, children and sister all now reside in Australia with him, but other activists are not so lucky.

“I’ve been in contact with quite a few of them and, yes, some of the younger ones, the ones without that much experience of being issued arrest warrants, they are a bit more worried about personal safety,” he said. “But I think the major factor is still that they still have family members in Hong Kong, and they’ve been harassed, they’ve been questioned. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Yeun, Mung, Law, Yam, Lau, and Dennis and Anna Kwok did not respond to requests for comment.

In a recent opinion piece in the Australian newspaper, The Age, Yam, whose family is with him in Australia, said that he had scaled back social media activity and removed followers who had worked for the Hong Kong government or may support Beijing.

“Many of my friends have been jailed simply because they wanted rights that we in Australia take for granted,” he said. “Living as a citizen of a liberal democracy, I owe it to brave Hong Kongers to continue speaking out for them until Hong Kong is free.”

For the families of exiles still in Hong Kong, they have little legal recourse, according to a former lawyer there who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“There’s nothing that a person who’s been taken in for questioning or simply arrested and then not charged, can do,” the lawyer Al Jazeera. “They don’t have any specific course of action they can take unless it amounts to something like false imprisonment.”

“The police, knowing that they can’t physically go after these people who are overseas, are just trying to do everything that they can to harass them, which is by putting their claws into their family members and whatever assets they have left in Hong Kong,” the lawyer added.

Source: Al Jazeera