Hong Kong was once a safe haven from China. Now activists are fleeing the city by boat to Taiwan

The 73-year previous views the ocean as his route to freedom – a technique of escape from the oppression and poverty of communist China.

On the evening of April 16, 1975, Ha and a buddy slipped previous Chinese border guards and plunged their selfmade, inflatable rubber dinghy into the darkish water of Shenzhen Bay.

They then began paddling towards the brilliant lights of Hong Kong, which at the time was nonetheless a British colony.

Ha mentioned he had already been caught and jailed 3 times throughout earlier failed makes an attempt to swim throughout the water. After the third try, he mentioned, guards beat him so badly his mom cried when she noticed his wounds.

“I was fighting for my freedom,” Ha mentioned. “I was afraid, but compared to life in China the fear was nothing.”

Ha mentioned he and his mom, a college instructor, had been persecuted throughout the Cultural Revolution, a interval of political chaos and violence unleashed by Mao Zedong, due partially to the reality his father had been a Kuomintang army officer who fled Communist rule after his facet misplaced the Chinese civil battle.
During the worst many years of Mao’s rule, 1000’s of Chinese fled south into Hong Kong.

In pictures take​n after Ha’s last, profitable try to make it to the city, the beaming 28-year-old stands trying over Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor, wearing bell-bottom trousers and a trendy striped shirt.

But 45 years later, Ha now not sees this historic port city as a sanctuary.

“Now I feel like freedom is being taken away gradually,” he mentioned, referring to an ongoing crackdown on political opposition in the city by the authorities and Chinese authorities, who lately imposed a nationwide safety regulation on Hong Kong, which has additional restricted area for dissent and left many activists fearing arrest.

The arrests of shut to 10,000 anti-government protesters over the previous yr and the rising focusing on of opposition politicians and activists have created a phenomenon that will have been thought of unimaginable to many simply a few years in the past.

Some Hong Kongers are now taking nice dangers to flee the city, even selecting to attempt to smuggle themselves out by sea.

Motorboat to Taiwan

Flies buzz round rabbitfish drying in the solar on a concrete pier rising from the sleepy fishing village of Po Toi O.

This was the origin level for an finally failed escape try from Hong Kong that started one night in August.

Several villagers — none of whom need to be named to keep away from attainable reprisals — mentioned they noticed a group of individuals loading gasoline onto an open speedboat outfitted with three outboard motors. The group then set out from the pier round sundown.

A resident, who additionally requested not to be named, mentioned the group made a mistake leaving after sundown, when there’s not a lot exercise on the water. He identified that smugglers, transferring all the pieces from frozen meat to folks between Hong Kong and mainland China, usually function in the mild of day, when crowds of enjoyment boats and fishermen present higher cowl from authorities.

Several days after the conspicuous departure from Po Toi O, the Coast Guard in China’s coastal Guangdong province made an uncommon announcement that its officers “seized a speedboat suspected of illegally crossing the sea border.” Guangdong authorities offered coordinates for the seizure, roughly 50 kilometers (31 miles) off the japanese coast of Hong Kong.

The sea round Po Toi O, the origin level for a failed escape try to Taiwan.

The Hong Kong authorities later confirmed that “12 local men and women aged between 16 and 33” had been arrested and had been now in the custody of Chinese regulation enforcement. Shenzhen Yantian Police confirmed Sunday that the 12 have been positioned below legal detention for “illegal border crossing” and their authorized rights are “protected by the police according to laws.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned in a assertion on Friday that he was “deeply concerned” that the group has been denied entry to their attorneys, and known as on the authorities to “ensure due process.” In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted that the 12 had been “not democratic activists, but elements attempting to separate Hong Kong from China.”

Court paperwork reveal most of the 12 arrested had been going through prices in Hong Kong for alleged crimes comparable to arson, possession of firearms and rioting. One of the group had been arrested below the nationwide safety regulation imposed on the city by Beijing on June 30.

‘I do not even know if he’s lifeless or alive’

The households of the detainees gave an emotional press convention in Hong Kong on Saturday, calling for the Chinese authorities to switch their family members again to Hong Kong, to permit calls to the households and entry to attorneys, and to present crucial treatment.

“I can’t sleep every day, I am very worried. Worried that (there is) no medicine for them,” the mom of 30-year-old detainee Tang Kai-yin mentioned throughout the press convention. “I hope Hong Kong can help them to come back (then) at least we can see him. I don’t even know if he is dead or alive.”

In an interview with CNN following the press convention, the spouse of 29-year-old detainee Wong Wai-yin mentioned she had made repeated calls to the Shenzhen Yantian Detention Center, however had acquired no details about her husband.

“I want to tell my husband, don’t worry, I will wait for your return, whether it will take 10 years, 20 years or a lifetime,” she mentioned. “We will not give up on you.”

At least three boats of exiles have left Hong Kong for Taiwan in recent months, sources close to the operation told CNN.

In preparation for his or her ill-fated escape, a supply accustomed to the failed try mentioned the fugitives had taught themselves to drive the speedboat, since no smugglers would danger the journey. The supply didn’t need to be recognized, for concern of prosecution.

The supply mentioned the purpose of the fugitives was to attain the self-governing island of Taiwan, greater than 700 kilometers (440 miles) away. Even on a calm summer season day, the ocean swell off the east coast of Hong Kong bashes in opposition to the final, craggy uninhabited islands earlier than the territory provides means to worldwide waters.

Veteran mariners who spoke to CNN estimate a continuous sea crossing in an open motorboat at excessive velocity to Taiwan would take greater than 14 hours, amounting to an exhausting, bumpy ordeal, with the danger of being caught out in one in every of the area’s frequent harmful storms. Sailors would have to direct their craft utilizing GPS and carry further gasoline, to keep away from being stranded at sea.

While the boat carrying 12 passengers was intercepted, the supply mentioned two different boats carrying escapees efficiently made the journey to Taiwan over the summer season.

The Taiwanese authorities would neither affirm nor deny experiences of boats carrying Hong Kong runaways reaching its shores.

“Our government has emphasized repeatedly that Taiwan supports Hong Kong’s democracy and freedoms, but it is also a society under the rule of law,” the island’s Mainland Affairs Council advised CNN. “Based on safety considerations we absolutely do not encourage (them) to come to Taiwan using illegal means.”

Hong Kong’s authorities responded to an inquiry about the escapees with an enchantment for the return of fugitives. “We urge other jurisdictions to take a clear position not to harbor any criminals who are involved in crimes in Hong Kong and to return them,” the city’s Security Bureau wrote in a assertion to CNN.

Island sanctuary

Some Hong Kong activists are beginning to see parallels between the present scenario and the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square bloodbath, when lots of of mainland Chinese protesters had been smuggled by land and sea to Hong Kong by way of an organized pipeline known as Operation Yellowbird. At the time, Hong Kong authorities didn’t 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,” mentioned Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy lawmaker.

Chu plans to resign his place in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, after the city’s authorities lately postponed elections by at the least a yr on public well being grounds.

As authorities crack down on dissent in Hong Kong, a cottage trade of small companies and organizations supporting the city’s protest motion is arising in Taipei.

Aegis is a espresso store adorned with big murals depicting helmeted, goggled protesters as manga-style superheroes. Patrons are welcomed by a so-called Lennon Wall of Post-it notes with handwritten messages like “Stand with HK” and “Free HK,” a once-ubiquitous sight in Hong Kong at the top of final yr’s protest motion.

The enterprise employs activists who’ve fled Hong Kong.

According to the Taiwanese authorities, the variety of Hong Kong residents settling in Taiwan greater than doubled throughout the first six months of 2020, in contrast to the earlier yr.

One of the most well-known latest emigres is Lam Wing-kee. For years, he ran Causeway Bay Books, a small retailer in the coronary heart of Hong Kong specializing in sensational works crucial of the Chinese management.

But in 2015, he and 4 of his colleagues disappeared from Hong Kong for months — solely to reappear on Chinese state TV in a televised confession admitting to “illegal book trading.”

In a 2016 interview with CNN, Lam accused Chinese safety forces of kidnapping him to the Chinese mainland and forcing the confession.

Three years later, Lam left Hong Kong for good, and began a new Causeway Bay Books in Taipei.

Lam Wing-kee in his Taipei book shop, where a banner displays slogans which have been declared subversive in Hong Kong.

“Taiwan is a lot safer than Hong Kong,” Lam mentioned. “I left a place where I may lose my freedom to a place where I have freedom.”

He spoke to CNN sitting beside the money register in his store, the place he additionally sleeps at evening to save lease. His desk is draped with a flag bearing the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Time.”

The time period has since been declared “subversive” by Hong Kong authorities, and those that use it could possibly be prosecuted.

CNN has spoken to a number of frontline protesters who lately fled to Taipei to escape legal prices in Hong Kong.

A Hong Kong protester who arrived in Taipei in January by plane. He says he misses Hong Kong and wants to return home.

One 19-year-old man, who requested not to be recognized, mentioned he boarded a industrial flight to Taiwan in January, earlier than the coronavirus pandemic triggered a lockdown.

“It’s hard for me,” mentioned the teenage exile, including he felt homesick and needed to return. “I still want to (take part in) the political movement … (but) there’s no room for that in Hong Kong right now.”

Other exiles in Taiwan mentioned they’d heard of fellow activists attempting to escape by sea.

“Right now everyone somehow is trapped in Hong Kong,” mentioned an older activist, who flew to Taiwan in July 2019 after taking part in the storming and vandalizing of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.

“I can’t think of how we should keep fighting, or what young protesters should be doing now,” he added. “If we have a chance, we should escape.”

Advice from older era

On a significantly humid September morning in Hong Kong, Ha Sze Yuen strolled alongside Aberdeen harbor, not breaking a sweat.

He identified a rubber dinghy on the again of a multi-million-dollar yacht, saying it was about the similar measurement as the home-made boat he used to make the 1975 crossing from mainland China to Hong Kong.

Forty-five years later, Ha says he’s dismayed at the Chinese authorities’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy.

“When I first came to Hong Kong I felt so free,” he mentioned.

“I still believed in the Sino-British Joint declaration, which promised Hong Kong would remain unchanged for 50 years,” Ha added, referring to the settlement China made earlier than the British handover of Hong Kong in 1997.

Ha mentioned he helps these younger Hong Kongers now risking their lives to flee into exile. And he feels remorse that he didn’t transfer on from the city to one other location out of the attain of communist China when he had the probability.

“I didn’t expect life would change so fast here,” he says.

CNN’s Sandi Sidhu, Eric Cheung, and Jadyn Sham contributed reporting.

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