After four months, I was finally granted asylum in Britain. My journey from elected legislator in Hong Kong to political refugee reflects the erosion of freedom in the city I love, writes Nathan Law in the Spectator.
By Nathan Law, April 14, 2021
On 26 June 2020, I boarded a plane from Hong Kong international airport bound for the United Kingdom. Last week, after a wait of four months, I was finally granted asylum in Britain. My journey from elected legislator in Hong Kong to political refugee reflects the erosion of freedom in the city I love.
The Chinese government has made considerable efforts to portray me as a violent agitator, a secessionist who wanted to separate Hong Kong and China. This is because I support democracy in Hong Kong and believe in accountability for Beijing’s despotic regime.
The Chinese government’s approach is to smear you then use that smear to justify all political persecution, including extra-legal assaults and imprisonment. I have experienced both, unfortunately. In early 2017, I was physically attacked by pro-Beijing mobs inside the Hong Kong airport. Later that year, I was jailed because of my participation in peaceful protests as part of the 2014 umbrella movement.
I was jailed for two and a half months in the rural area outside the city. This was a short stay compared to the sentences that protestors now receive. During my time inside, I lived with up to 20 cellmates and worked in a garment workshop. I was lucky enough to avoid being targeted and assaulted, but the experience of imprisonment was awful.
My activism began in 2014 when I was elected as the representative of the Student Union at Lingnan University. I participated in the students’ movement because I believe that if change is to come then it has to be youth-led. In 2016, I co-founded the political party, Demosisto. My co-founder Joshua Wong was already inside for 13 and a half months for organising an unauthorised assembly outside Wan Chai police headquarters in June 2019. He received an extra four months today for violating emergency laws during a demonstration in October the same year.
After years of being at the centre of the political storm, I realised that I needed to leave Hong Kong. China’s National Security Law provisions changed everything: upon learning about it last year, it became clear that simple liberties such as the right to protest would be criminalised, with the ultimate punishment being life imprisonment. How could I possibly remain?
This law has terrified Hongkongers, the Chinese government has the utmost authority in determining what constitutes a breach to ‘national security.’ In the narrowest definition, criticising the government has already crossed the low threshold. There have been individuals arrested because they simply chanted protest slogans or demonstrated protest signs. Two months after I left Hong Kong, Beijing put my name on the wanted list under the National Security Law. The fact that I became a fugitive means I can never return to my beloved city as long as the Chinese Communist party holds power.
Given the risk to my family, I couldn’t even explain to them my decision to leave the city. Multiple cases in Mainland China have shown that Beijing has no compunction in targeting human rights activists’ close friends and family members, freely wielding the tools of harassment, intimidation and blackmail. I was fully aware, therefore, that any mention of my plans to my friends or family would be a danger to them. To give my loved ones even greater protection, I had to sever my relationships with them forever — a decision I would not wish on even my worst enemy.
Since arriving in Britain, I have tried to raise awareness of Hong Kong: I’ve attended countless talks, conferences, and discussions. I believe we have had some success and public awareness is growing in the UK and the international community.
I applied for asylum because I had been haunted by the fact that I had no eligible status to reside anywhere, other than in Hong Kong. Before last week, my only visa was a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport. Once that expired, I would have been forced to return to Hong Kong and could have faced imprisonment for decades. Unlike more than three million British National (Overseas) passport holders who are eventually eligible for the visa scheme to obtain UK citizenship, I have to apply for asylum so that I can have legal status to remain here.
Tens of asylum cases from Hong Kong have already been filed throughout the past few years, but I had never imagined myself as one of them. Leaving my beloved city disheartens me. Yet, I carry a responsibility to speak up for persecuted Hongkongers and continue the spirit of the city’s democratic movement. If this is the necessary step to unshackle me from the chains imposed on me by the CCP, then I am willing to pay the price.
There is ample evidence that I am likely to be politically persecuted if I return to Hong Kong, which is why I was identified as a refugee under the international refugee convention. But other Hong Kong asylum seekers might find it harder to provide sufficient evidence to meet the necessary threshold. For example, I have met several fleeing protestors who are concerned about the possibility of being arrested as they leave the city. The special nature of Hong Kong’s would-be asylum seekers is further complicated by the fact that protesters understandably try to hide their involvement in the pro-democracy movement. There are few things more disconcerting than living as a failed refugee.
These people have dedicated themselves to various demonstrations and protests, big and small. But they are often neglected by the public. Hongkongers who have moved already to the UK — or are planning to move — are a gigantic community, potentially numbering the hundreds of thousands. They must not be forgotten.
Even though I’m now eligible to live in the UK, the threats from the Chinese totalitarian regime lingers over me. On several occasions, Chinese agencies have followed, intimidated or even attacked activists in exile. The Chinese united front organisations have infiltrated every aspect of the communities, including civil and private ones, and pose security threats to active CCP critics. I have lived a very discrete life due to the worries of repercussions, and my concerns over my safety still haunt me day and night. These experiences are most definitely shared by many Hongkongers who have voiced their opposition against the one-party dictatorship.
My asylum application was heavily criticised by Chinese officials who threatened the UK government, urging it to ‘correct the wrongdoings.’ Once again the aggression of the Chinese government is revealed. That’s why I am relieved to be living in a free country now, despite the continuing threats to me from the CCP.
The BNO visa is a lifeline for Hongkongers facing persecution. In the coming years, the Hong Kong community in the UK will grow — and so too, I hope, will our contribution to the country that has taken us in.
Nathan Law, currently in exile in London, is the former leader of the pro-democracy party Demosistō and activist from Hong Kong. Law is also MLI’s Ambassador on Canada-Hong Kong policy.