Early in the evening of August 23, 12 Hong Kong activists boarded a boat in the Hong Kong fishing village Po Toi O and set off for Taiwan, fearing prosecution under Hong Kong’s new national security law. Three days after their departure, the Chinese coast guard announced they had intercepted the boat roughly 45 miles off the coast of Hong Kong. Subsequent briefings revealed the activists are currently being detained on the mainland in Shenzhen. The fate of the “Hong Kong 12” touches on a host of issues, including the national security law, activist’s decisions whether to stay in or flee from the city, and the detainees’ rights under Chinese law. On September 12, families of the detained held a news conference beseeching Chinese authorities to allow contact between detainees and their loved ones, and lawyers hired on their behalf. Today, Alice Su of the Los Angeles Times reports the activists’ independent lawyers have been barred from meeting with their clients, and directed to abandon their defense:
He had also been called in by the local justice bureau, state security department, and lawyers’ association after his first trip to Shenzhen. Some had warned him to drop the case and others to stop speaking with media. He said officials “reminded me that it will be ‘detrimental’ to me if I continue,” he said.
Another of the family lawyers, Lu Siwei, said he had made several visits and been denied access for bureaucratic reasons, including claims about missing documents or that the detainees had chosen other representation.
“As lawyers, we have signed a contract, so we must continue,” he said. “They are my clients. I must try to secure their rights. It’s that simple.”
The Hong Kong detainees can be held up to 37 days — until Sept. 30. Then officials can either send them into the normal criminal court process, place them under “residential surveillance in a designated location” — a form of incommunicado detention without trial for up to six months — or release them on bail, said Leo Lan, a researcher for the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a China-focused human rights coalition. [Source]
Deputy U.S. ambassador to Geneva Mark Cassayre called on the Chinese government to clarify the status of the 12 detainees.
It is unclear whether the activists will be charged with illegally crossing the border or with “splittism,” a charge Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying implied might be leveled against the group.
…when it accused the group of wanting to separate HK from the Motherland, would draw serious prison time. It may also result in longer pre-conviction incommunicado detention with enhanced prospects for torture, coerced confessions, and TV confessions long prior to “trial.” 2/2
— Jerome Cohen 孔傑榮(柯恩) (@jeromeacohen) September 15, 2020
Dramatic sea escapes are central to many Hong Kong origin stories. A 1972 New York Times article detailed attempts to swim from mainland China to Laufaushan, Hong Kong. After the central government crushed the Tiananmen protests in 1989, democracy activists escaped Beijing through Operation Yellow Bird, an ambitious effort to smuggle student activists to safety in Hong Kong. For CNN, Ivan Watson, Rebecca Wright and Vanesse Chan report that many Hong Kong residents now feel the need to flee the city:
Some Hong Kong activists are starting to see parallels between the current situation and the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when hundreds of mainland Chinese protesters were smuggled by land and sea to Hong Kong via an organized pipeline called Operation Yellowbird. At the time, Hong Kong authorities did not return dissidents to mainland China.
“This time, the territory we need to escape from (includes) Hong Kong, and Taiwan becomes the destiny of people, the hope of Hong Kong people,” said Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy lawmaker. [Source]
Activists flee to Taiwan in the hope that Taiwanese authorities will not detain those who arrive on the island. Shibani Mahtani, Nick Aspinwall and Ryan Ho Kilpatrick reported on the decision to flee to Taiwan for the Washington Post:
People arrange these boat journeys with help from contacts in Taiwan, including in the Taiwanese government, which ensures that the refugees are not immediately detained, according to three people familiar with the matter.
Although Taiwan restricts travel because of the coronavirus pandemic, it has made exceptions through various channels for those fleeing persecution, these people say.
A person familiar with the Taiwan government’s approach said Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which deals with Hong Kong affairs, is willing to help quietly and has urged Hong Kong protesters to equally stay quiet, adopting a policy of “just do it, and keep your mouth shut.” [Source]
A report by Taiwan’s China Times that five Hong Kong activists stranded near the Pratas Islands had been shepherded to Taiwan sparked robust domestic debate about the appropriate extent of Taiwanese help for Hong Kong activists, and whether any such assistance should be publicly disclosed.
After the passage of the National Security Law in June, Brian Hioe wrote at Lausan that “[i]nteractions between Hong Kong activists and Taiwanese activists involve the exchange of not just tactics, but also discourses, and conceptual framings of history and politics.”
Still, Hioe is right to point out the potential pitfalls, whether it's a misguided "tankie" solidarity built on wishful thinking and misunderstanding, or whether it might even backfire, as hinted at, should a liberal Taiwan refugee policy for HK lead to an ethnonationalist 6/n
— James Lin (@jamestwotree) July 23, 2020
The nature and extent of ties between Hong Kong protesters and the international community is at the heart of the plight of the “Hong Kong 12.” One of the 12 activists arrested in the ill-fated boat escape, Andy Li, arranged for international poll monitors to supervise local elections and had previously travelled to Washington, D.C. to advocate for pro-democracy activists. In a September interview in The Nation, Hong Kong activists Wilfred Chan and Jeffrey Ngo debated the efficacy and ethics of appealing to the United States for support:
[Wilfred Chan]: I think our recurring disagreement is over the value of involving the United States. Why do you seem to embrace the logic of US-China competition as something that could be helpful for Hong Kong people?
[Jeffrey Ngo]: I wouldn’t say my support of US actions regarding Hong Kong stems from wanting to see the US compete with China at this level. My support of US actions is much simpler. It is looking at the world right now, looking at how small Hong Kong is and how big China is, seeing how unequal the power relations are, and then looking at the map and saying, “Well, if we want to be realistic, if we want to be practical, what allies should we seek on the international stage that will help our cause?”
Now, I’m as aware as you are that US foreign policy is imperfect. A good number of Hong Kongers are like me, they are critical of US foreign policy in various places. But I think in order to ensure the survival of Hong Kong in such desperate circumstances, we still want some support by people in Washington, because that’s the only way things will be effective. Behind the scenes, if Xi Jinping is going to listen to a world leader telling him to stop encroaching on Hong Kong, it’s not going to be the prime minister of New Zealand, it’s going to be the president of the United States. This is the geopolitical reality that we have to work with. [Source]