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How Hong Kong dissidents have faced harassment in UK since pro-democracy protests

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Published Time: 13.05.2024 - 23:43:01 Modified Time: 13.05.2024 - 23:43:01

China has grown increasingly belligerent in recent years as it tries to silence those calling for democratic freedom It was in the run-up to last Christmas that Hong Kong police began offering generous financial gifts with a twist

China has grown increasingly belligerent in recent years as it tries to silence those calling for democratic freedom


It was in the run-up to last Christmas that Hong Kong police began offering generous financial gifts with a twist. The police force on the island, once a British overseas territory and now under Beijing’s control, issued rewards of a million Hong Kong dollars (about £100,000) for information that would lead to the arrests of pro-democracy activists.

It was a new low in the assault on democracy in the quarter of a century since the UK handed back the island. The HK$1 million bounty was put on the heads of five activists including Simon Cheng, a former UK consulate employee who had been detained by China in 2019, freed after two weeks and subsequently able to claim asylum in the UK. The other four activists also are thought to reside either in Britain or the US.

“They sold their country and Hong Kong, and neglected Hongkongers’ interests,” Li Kwai-wah, the national security department chief superintendent, said. “The national security department will pursue them until the end.”

Mr Cheng was sanguine. “Being hunted by China (Hong Kong)’s secret police, under a one-million-dollar bounty, is a lifelong honour,” he posted on X, formerly Twitter. “If the government deems the quest for democracy and freedom a crime, we embrace the charges to reveal the genuine face of social justice, unyielding to authority.”

: Heathcliff O'Malley

Lord Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, accused Hong Kong police of posing “a threat to our democracy and fundamental human rights” in a statement issued in response to the HK police bounty. Lord Cameron went on: “We will not tolerate any attempt by any foreign power to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in the UK.”

In a tit-for-tat response China accused Britain of the “sheltering of persons on the wanted list” and interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs.

But in recent years China has grown increasingly belligerent, the issuing of bounties being just the latest upping of the ante. In October 2022, Bob Chan, a Hong Kong dissident, was dragged from a protest outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester and into the grounds where he was beaten by a group of men, leaving him with injuries needing hospital treatment. An officer with Greater Manchester Police intervened to pull him to safety.

: TYRONE SIU/REUTERS

Two months after the attack, China removed six officials from Britain, including Zheng Xiyuan, the consul-general in charge of the Manchester outpost, who had been accused of – and had denied – beating up Mr Chan.

Ever since the Hong Kong protests that began in March 2019 and were crushed by the following spring with hundreds detained, China – and by extension Hong Kong – has seemingly grown increasingly intolerant of dissent. It is estimated that 125,000 Hong Kongers have come to Britain since Dominic Raab announced that anyone with a British National Overseas (BNO) passport would be allowed to emigrate here.

: Chris McGrath/Getty Images AsiaPac

In November 2019, a Chinese student was photographed in Edinburgh with a sign supporting Hong Kong citizens’ demands for free elections. The following day, he was secretly photographed at Edinburgh Airport while escorting his mother to her flight.

Both pictures were circulated on Weibo, the Chinese social media site, by someone who believed he was returning to Chengdu, his home town.

The post – entitled “Brothers from Chengdu, beat him to death” – contained the flight number and a call for him to be arrested by police or assaulted by citizens. It was shared 10,000 times.

A parliamentary report by the Intelligence and Security Committee warned that academics and students were facing intimidation from Chinese state authorities. University campuses are increasingly fraught. Also in November 2019, flash mobs allegedly organised by the Chinese authorities confronted Hong Kong demonstrations. One Hong Kong student said: “There is Chinese embassy involvement in these demonstrations… They surrounded us in a circle, waving Chinese flags, singing the national anthem and being hostile.”

Hong Kong students in Sheffield found themselves surrounded when they started handing out pro-democracy leaflets, the incident detailed in the MPs’ report. In Sheffield for example there are 4,000 Chinese students and a few hundred from Hong Kong.

More generally China’s spying agencies have also become more aggressive. MI5 has reported a seven-fold investigation in recent years into Chinese operations in the UK. Beijing’s cyber war on the West is escalating while only last week, the Ministry of Defence’s payroll was hacked by a gang operating out of China. The UK has not taken these growing incidents lying down, calling China out when it can.

: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images AsiaPac

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