Hong Kong’s top leader said Tuesday that eight dissidents who had fled overseas would be “pursued for life” with large rewards being offered in exchange for information leading to their prosecution.
The rewards of 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($128,000) reflect a stepped-up effort to pressure and intimidate influential activists who left Hong Kong after a stringent new law was imposed in 2020. The so-called national security law has resulted in the arrests of 260 people, the majority of them accused for activities that took place in Hong Kong.
On Monday, the police emphasized the extraterritorial reach of the regulations, which criminalize activities endangering China, even if they had taken place outside Hong Kong and mainland China. They said the accused had violated provisions on foreign collusion and inciting secession.
The eight who were charged by the police are the activists Nathan Law, Anna Kwok and Finn Lau; two former lawmakers, Dennis Kwok and Ted Hui; a lawyer, Kevin Yam; a union leader, Mung Siu-tat, and the businessman and YouTuber Elmer Yuen.
Ms. Kwok, the head of the Hong Kong Democracy Council in Washington, remained defiant. “It’s encouraging me to go faster and stronger,” she said in a phone interview.
Could the activists be extradited?
The government’s announcement that it was seeking to seize the eight raises the question of whether Hong Kong would appeal to Interpol, the international law enforcement clearinghouse, for help in pursuing the dissidents. Ronny Tong, a former lawmaker who serves in the cabinet of John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said that the extradition of overseas activists is unlikely.
“Hong Kong law follows very strictly the U.N. model law on extradition, which means that we will not seek extradition of people committing political offenses or defendants who have a political background,” he said in a phone interview.
He added, however, that the activists could be detained when passing through “friendly nations.” And Hong Kong authorities could still request legal assistance from international bodies, like intelligence on the whereabouts of the eight individuals and their activities, which could be used to prosecute them in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong police, asked if it would seek Interpol’s help, said in a statement Tuesday that it would “take all necessary measures in accordance with the law to stop those absconders.”
What’s driving the arrest warrants and bounties?
Legal scholars said the charges and bounties were intended to sow division among the exiled activists, isolating and stigmatizing them as they agitated for new laws in the United States, Britain and Australia responding to Hong Kong’s crackdown.
“The suggestion is being made that they are dangerous criminals, when in fact they are peaceful critics of the Hong Kong government’s authoritarian turn,” said Thomas E. Kellogg, the executive director of the Center for Asian Law. He added the moves may backfire and instead put greater pressure on governments to act against Hong Kong.
The bounties were an extension of tactics used by Beijing to target activists overseas, such as Chinese police outposts, said Eric Lai, a visiting researcher at King’s College London School of Law. Last March, the U.S. Justice Department charged five people with spying on or intimidating Chinese American dissidents on U.S. soil.
The Hong Kong police acknowledged the difficulty of arresting individuals living abroad in self-imposed exile, but they offered the $128,000 bounty in exchange for information that could be used as evidence in local courts for the “successful prosecution” of each individual. One of the primary objectives, the police added, was to ensure that authorities obtained sufficient evidence to charge the individuals should they voluntarily return to Hong Kong.
“If they don’t return, we won’t be able to arrest them — that’s a fact,” Li Kwai-wah, the chief police superintendent, said at a news briefing. “But we won’t stop pursuing them.”
Hong Kong’s leader, John Lee, put it more starkly. “The only way to end their destiny of being an abscondee who will be pursued for life is to surrender,” he said on Tuesday.
How have other governments responded?
The charges prompted an outcry from officials in the United States, Britain and Australia, where the eight individuals now live. The State Department called the extraterritorial application of the national security law “a dangerous precedent that threatens the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people all over the world.”
Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, said the government was “deeply concerned” by the arrest warrants and would continue to speak out on human rights issues. “Freedom of expression and assembly are essential to our democracy and we support those in Australia who exercise those rights,” she wrote on Twitter on Monday.
Britain’s foreign secretary, James Cleverly, said in a statement on Monday that Britain “will not tolerate any attempts by China to intimidate and silence individuals in the U.K. and overseas.”
But a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in London accused British politicians of “open sheltering of wanted fugitives” and in turn meddling in China’s internal affairs.