Hong Kong Vows to Hunt Activists for Life After Bounty Offer

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee pledged a lifetime of police pursuit for eight democracy activists who fled abroad to evade national security charges, one day after authorities put a HK$1,000,000 ($127,650) bounty on each.

(Bloomberg) — Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee pledged a lifetime of police pursuit for eight democracy activists who fled abroad to evade national security charges, one day after authorities put a HK$1,000,000 ($127,650) bounty on each.

The first rewards to be issued in relation to security crimes were announced, along with arrest warrants, by chief superintendent Steve Li at a news conference Monday. They apply to former lawmakers Nathan Law, Dennis Kwok, and Ted Hui, lawyer Kevin Yam as well as activists Finn Lau, Anna Kwok, Elmer Yuan and unionist Mung Siu-tat. 

Lee said at a regular press briefing in the city Tuesday the arrest warrants sent a “strong message” that acts endangering national security “won’t be tolerated.” 

“I also want to tell the criminals that the only way to manage the destiny of being an abscondee, who will be pursued for life, is to surrender,” he added, encouraging friends and family members of the eight to provide information to the police.

All those targeted are currently residing in countries such as the US, UK, Canada and Australia — nations whose governments have publicly condemned the Beijing-drafted national security law. None of the people Hong Kong named as suspects are likely to return, making their prospect of arrest in the territory close to zero.

Hong Kong authorities could try to persuade other jurisdictions to hand over the individuals. The UK government has previously alerted people in Britain named in a Hong Kong national security case to avoid traveling to countries that have extradition treaties with the Chinese territory. 

Thailand has bowed to pressure from the Chinese Communist Party to deport Uyghurs to China, while Beijing has been accused of pressuring Turkey to do the same. Chinese authorities have also apparently kidnapped individuals living overseas: Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai was snatched from his home in Thailand in 2015, before resurfacing in China. 

The bounties will likely add to concerns the crackdown on rights under the China-imposed legislation is diminishing Hong Kong’s rule of law, which for decades has been a foundational pillar of its standing as an international financial center. The UK last year withdrew its top judges from the city’s Court of Final Appeal over such concerns. 

US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller called on Hong Kong to withdraw the bounties, saying the NSL threatened the “fundamental freedoms of people all over the world.” Australia’s government said in a statement the rewards showed the “corrosive effects” of the NSL on the rule of law in Hong Kong. UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly asked the Hong Kong government to stop targeting those who “stand up for freedom and democracy.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Tuesday at a regular press briefing in Beijing that her government opposed nations’ “interference” in legal matters. She also called on countries “to respect China’s sovereignty” and to “stop providing a safe haven for fugitives.”

The Hong Kong government said Monday that even after fleeing the city the eight activists had continued to commit offenses under the security law, which asserts global jurisdiction for cases involving terrorism, secession, subversion and collusion with foreign powers. Those offenses carry sentences as long as life in prison.

“The fugitives should not have any delusion that they could evade their legal liabilities by absconding from Hong Kong,” a government spokesperson said in a statement. The authorities also warned Hong Kong residents that funding the eight activists could violate the national security law. 

Many of the wanted individuals have remained active on social media since leaving the Chinese territory. A Hong Kong student was arrested by security police earlier this year over a series of pro-independence comments she allegedly posted on social media while studying in Japan, local media including the South China Morning Post reported, showing the long-arm of security legislation.

See: Hong Kong Supercharges 1938 British Sedition Law to Curb Dissent

Some 260 individuals, between the ages of 15 to 90, have been arrested for acts endangering national security in the past three years, Li, the police official, said Monday. He added that two-thirds of those had been charged. That figure includes arrests under the colonial sedition law that has been revived by security police.

The security law and years of strict Covid curbs sparked a population exodus in Hong Kong. From the end of 2019 through 2022, the city’s population fell by about 187,300 to 7.33 million.

As Hong Kong tries to repair its image and woo talent back now pandemic curbs have lifted, Thomas Kellogg, the executive director of Georgetown Center for Asian Law, said firms should be aware of the “reputational risks” of operating in the hub.

“The government is not going to soft-pedal implementation of the NSL as part of its effort to win back foreign investment,” he added.

–With assistance from Ka Ho Cheuk, Ellen Milligan, Jon Herskovitz and Philip Glamann.

(Updates with comments from China’s Foreign Ministry.)

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