China’s crackdown targets exiled Hong Kong activists

HK government moves to suppress dissent overseas by harassing pro-democracy advocates

Hong Kong’s government has extended its efforts to suppress political dissent overseas, issuing arrest warrants for eight exiled pro-democracy advocates. It has offered bounties of HK$1 million, or around US$130,000, each.

The targeted activists, who now live in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, were selected from a long list of wanted dissidents.

There is a curated feel to their profiles – three ex-legislators, three activists, a unionist, and a lawyer – that suggests the list is symbolic, as well as pragmatic.

It is reminiscent of the infamous “Umbrella Nine” trial that capped years of prosecutions after Hong Kong’s 2014 protests. Three academics, three politicians, and three activists were tried and convicted together to send a message to “troublesome” sectors of civil society.

The mugshots of those issued with arrest warrants this week depict not gun-slinging outlaws, but amiable-looking intellectual types.

Their “very serious crimes,” according to police, consist mostly of calling for sanctions to turn the tide of political repression in Hong Kong. In terms of the controversial national security law under which the warrants were issued, this is considered a “subversion of state power.”

Life imprisonment

The offense is punishable by up to life imprisonment.

Hong Kong is nominally a self-governing region of China under the “One country, Two systems” model agreed to when the UK handed the territory back in 1997.

Yet the national security law was drafted in Beijing and applied to Hong Kong after the tumultuous, protracted protests that gripped the city in 2019. These were prompted, ironically, by fears the region’s autonomy was breaking down.

A curious feature of the national security law is its purported extraterritorial effect. It claims jurisdiction over any person of any nationality who has committed offenses in the city anywhere in the world.

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Whether the Hong Kong government can realistically bring these people to trial is another matter entirely.

The international law of extradition includes certain safeguards. The act must be a sufficiently serious crime in both places, and it must not be a political offense.

The warrants in question fail these tests, notwithstanding the Hong Kong government’s hyperbolic claims about national security.

Moreover, extradition is guided by bilateral agreements between jurisdictions. Numerous Western countries, including the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, suspended their extradition agreements with Hong Kong when the national security law was imposed.

The pro-democracy figures targeted this week knew which way the wind was blowing when they left the city. They will probably never return.

Sympathetic governments

But they may also need to reconsider their travel to jurisdictions that do maintain extradition agreements with Hong Kong or China.

The risk goes beyond formal arrest and extradition. The bounties on offer may encourage vigilantism, and sympathetic governments may even facilitate the extra-legal rendition of the eight exiled activists.

This is illustrated by the 2015 case of the five Hong Kong booksellers who disappeared from various locations, including Thailand, and later showed up in China where they “confessed” to crimes in the state media.

The existence of overseas dissidents has long rankled Beijing – as the lifetime of spats with the Dalai Lama illustrates. But in recent years it has shown increased determination to monitor and influence the overseas Chinese diaspora.

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The government has even set up secret “overseas police offices” in Europe, North America and elsewhere, as bases for information-gathering and harassment.

In the past, China and Hong Kong could be regarded as distinct political entities, but over the last decade, the “firewall” between the mainland and the region has gradually collapsed.

The city’s government and political system have been stripped of democratic elements, and its national security and law enforcement apparatus are now dictated by the mainland.

Compared with China’s administration, the Hong Kong government goes to greater pains to paper over its actions with a veneer of law and legal process.

Repressive reforms

But this tactic is increasingly transparent as it ramps up its pursuit of authoritarian goals. The co-option of Hong Kong’s once-celebrated legal institutions undermines their already-damaged legitimacy.

Hong Kong’s civil society has been brought to heel via a raft of repressive reforms spanning the legal, political, education, and media sectors. These new warrants are the latest sign that China will never stop trying to muzzle its critics, so long as they are willing to speak out.

Ultimately, this may be a futile overreach – for the sake of their targets, we can only hope that is so – but the intention behind these actions remains reprehensible. They are a threat to freedoms that lie at the core of our democratic society.

Brendan Clift is a lecturer at The University of Melbourne.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.