The inspiration for the offenses in Hong Kong’s new National Security Law is the violent street protests of 2019. Beijing wants to ensure what happened last year will not be repeated.
While the law has had an immediate cooling effect on the streets of Hong Kong, the aftereffects of the protests continue to rumble.
Take the recent news of escape bids by people charged or wanted by the police in connection with last year’s social-unrest violence. Five were detained by Taiwan authorities in July as they tried to enter illegally, and another dozen were caught fleeing in late August by the Guangdong Coast Guard in mainland waters.
News reports in December revealed that over 200 protesters had fled to Taiwan in various clandestine operations financed by donors and supporters who covered the cost of the logistics, including payments for those who arranged and escorted those without passports to escape via sea routes.
Donors apparently covered the cost of air tickets for those who still had passports. For those who had surrendered their travel documents as part of bail conditions, donors paid for speedboat rides, usually arranged by people with triad connections for sizable sums of money.
The two recent cases were both escape bids by speedboat. In the case of the five who were intercepted by the Taiwan coast guard, Taiwan journalist Edd Jhong said he had a major hand in helping them to flee. Likely there were other people involved, perhaps both in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
The mainland authorities are investigating the 12 people now in detention in Shenzhen. Their situation seems highly sensitive and perilous.
Illegal border crossing on its own is a crime that could carry a prison sentence of up to a year on the mainland under its criminal law. However, those detained are not seen as just illegal entrants by the mainland. They are not even seen as suspects for petty crimes in the special administrative region of Hong Kong.
So, who are they and what had they done? One had been arrested in Hong Kong for allegedly breaching the National Security Law on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces, while the rest were arrested or charged with various protest-related offenses in 2019, such as arson, and some were linked to homemade-bomb plots. In other words, the offenses are serious crimes.
What role might each have played in the escape? The penalty on the mainland for those with a principal role in organizing such clandestine operations could be life imprisonment. Investigations are presumably zeroing in on the masterminds behind the escapes, which may lead to the discovery of those behind previous operations as well.
The 12 are also squeezed between the worsening Sino-US conflict. Senior American officials have described them as “democracy activists”, which provoked China’s Foreign Ministry into labeling them as “elements attempting to separate Hong Kong from China” and calling upon the US to stop interfering in China’s domestic affairs.
It is unclear if all 12 could be successfully prosecuted for secession under mainland law or Hong Kong’s National Security Law, but that is not the point at this early stage of the investigation. What is obvious is they are in deep trouble with the law, possibly contravening national security laws of both the mainland and Hong Kong, and they have become political footballs in the push-and-pull of complex geopolitics.
It is understandable that their families want to see them back in Hong Kong to face trial rather than go through the criminal justice system on the mainland. But given their complicated circumstances, it could be a long wait to see how things play out.
Another protest-related escape to the United Kingdom took place on July 17. The facts are fascinating, as it relates to the so-called 8/31 Incident. Protesters alleged several people were killed by police inside the Prince Edward MTR station on Aug 31, 2019. According to rumors, someone called Hon Bo-sun was one of them. He is in fact Wong Mau-chun, who was arrested that night on suspicion of multiple offenses. He jumped bail just before his court hearing and is seeking political asylum in Britain.
Wong’s reappearance prompted the police commissioner to warn those continuing to spread rumors that protesters had been killed could be violating the National Security Law: “Some people really wanted to endanger the safety of our country or Hong Kong by inciting many others to do something that they would not normally do or spreading wrong thoughts, or spreading the rumors that someone died on Aug 31”, he said.
In an interview, Wong explained why he didn’t dispel the rumor: “I know many people want to know what happened inside the station that night. … Many people want to hear if someone died in the station. I am scared if I speak the truth, my truth, it is not the truth that people want to hear. Besides, what I say might affect others who are now also charged and on trial.”
It seems many people knew the alleged death was fake news, including friends, lawyers and some in the protest movement. It is time to come clean and dispel an egregious fabrication that stirred protests and may still foment trouble.
The author is a former undersecretary for environment and legislative councilor. She is also chief development strategist at the Institute for the Environment at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS