How five Hong Kong protesters escaped by speedboat and found freedom in the United States


They had set out from Hong Kong that morning under blue skies, with only iPhones and a compass to guide them through hundreds of miles of high seas to Taiwan. As they headed for deeper water, the waves rocked the ship, sending life jackets overboard and knocking some of them over.

The five, aged 18 to 26, barely knew each other before leaving in July 2020. They were all fugitives from Hong Kong, fleeing what they saw as unfair prosecution and inevitable prison sentences for their roles in favor of democracy. events in 2019.

Months after reaching Taiwan, all five eventually traveled to the United States to seek asylum, after the US State Department became involved.

This account of the only group confirmed to have traveled to freedom by boat is based on interviews with three of the men. These three people were fleeing the Hong Kong authorities at the time of their escape, two of them being charged and risking being sentenced to several years in prison. The whereabouts of the two remaining men on the boat could not be determined.

The three men who spoke to the Wall Street Journal asked to be identified by their English first names. The Journal verified their identities and corroborated their stories wherever possible through interviews with people familiar with the matter, official documents and comparisons with local media reports.

People have left Hong Kong by the thousands since Chinese authorities imposed a national security law last year and used it to stifle dissent. Many have taken advantage of a UK residency rule that opens the doors to millions of people in Hong Kong, or flew to other places including Canada, Australia or Taiwan.

Some defendants in connection with the protests see clandestine escape attempts as their only way out. More than 10,000 protesters have been arrested and prosecutors are asking for extended prison terms. A group of dissidents awaiting trial sought refuge in vain at the US diplomatic mission in the city.

Getting caught at sea can also have consequences. In August 2020, the month after the five men escaped, the Chinese Coast Guard intercepted a dozen other pro-democracy protesters making a similar attempt, landing them in a mainland jail before most were returned to Hong. Kong to stand trial there.

A Hong Kong government spokesman said depending on the circumstances, police would track down the fugitives and prosecute them according to law.

The five men aboard the boat became involved in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in 2019, after it was sparked by a now scrapped bill that would have allowed people to be extradited to the mainland.

Ray, 25, a warehouse clerk, was involved in days-long clashes between protesters and police at two Hong Kong universities in November of that year. Police besieged one of the campuses and eventually arrested over a thousand people.

He escaped by crawling along a train track in the dark, he said. Authorities searched his parents’ apartment several times, he said, but he was already in hiding.

Tommy, 22, was an art student and a part-time bartender and barista. He spent three days in jail for unlawful assembly before being released on bail. Authorities confiscated his passport, he said, preventing him from leaving Hong Kong legally. More charges followed, including rioting.

Kenny, 26, was a civil engineer. He was arrested in October 2019 after clashing with police at a protest and charged with multiple counts, including assaulting a law enforcement officer.

He said that while in detention, officers punched him in the back of the head until he lost consciousness. A Hong Kong government spokesperson said authorities take such allegations of abuse seriously, although complainants must provide evidence for a full investigation.

The three men decided to leave at different times. Tommy and Kenny had each sunk the equivalent of thousands of US dollars in multiple escape attempts separately. Both said they believed some of the arrangements were scams.

For the last trip, the three men each contributed about $1,300 to buy the twin-engine inflatable speedboat. They declined to disclose who arranged the trip, citing fear of reprisals from Hong Kong authorities.

During Tommy’s last meal with his family before he went into hiding, he said, his grandmother recounted an illegal crossing she had made decades earlier from the mainland to Hong Kong. Tommy had heard the story before, but he kept quiet, not wanting to give any clues about his plan.

One morning in mid-July, the five gathered at a remote dock. All dressed discreetly in T-shirts and shorts. One brought a fishing rod, another his savings. Fearing that there might be a spy among them, they exchanged a few words.

The men took turns leading while the others stood guard. Some of them had prepared by watching YouTube videos on how to maneuver a boat in rough water. For more than five hours, their phones’ GPS showed that they were still in Chinese waters.

“We were scared to death,” Ray said, recalling times when they saw ships they couldn’t identify. “We didn’t know what they were doing.”

Once they reached international waters, they slowed down engines and looted their potato chips, candy and canned corn stores. After more than 10 hours on the water, they shut down the engines. Kenny intentionally overheated one of the engines by tangling a rope in its propeller. The men believed that anyone who found them would be forced to bring them ashore with only one engine running and their fuel reserves low.

They signaled SOS with flashlights in the dark. After an hour, a white light appeared in the distance. It was the Taiwan Coast Guard.

They were first taken to Dongsha, a trio of Taiwanese-held islands in the South China Sea, about two-thirds of the way from Hong Kong to the mainland of Taiwan, and from there to a place secret in Kaohsiung, a port city in southwest Taiwan. . Confined to a government facility, the men were given clothes, cigarettes and local newspapers.

Some of the men had hoped to stay in Taiwan, but were all told they had to leave, they said. Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of Chinese territory, has stepped up its military activities in the region, raising fears that it may attempt to invade Dongsha. According to a person familiar with the matter, Taiwanese national security officials feared that being perceived as actively helping Hong Kong fugitives could be used as a pretext by Beijing to justify an invasion.

A spokeswoman for Taiwan’s presidential office declined to comment on the situation, citing security and privacy concerns. She said the government would continue to provide humanitarian aid to Hong Kong residents in accordance with the law.

The Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing did not respond to a request for comment. In response to the situation last year, a spokesperson for the office said it had no specific information about the incident, but blamed Taiwan’s ruling party for intervening in Hong’s affairs. Kong and accused the government of having political motives for doing so.

Unbeknownst to the men at the time, efforts were underway to bring them to the United States. Samuel Chu, a Hong Kong-born activist who lives in Washington, DC, said the State Department contacted him after learning of their escape and asked for his help. bring them in through a process called humanitarian parole.

The State Department declined to comment. In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States should open its doors to people fleeing political repression in China. If they stand up for their rights and “if they are victims of repression by the Chinese authorities, we should do something to give them refuge,” Blinken told MSNBC.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has repeatedly said that the United States should not interfere in Hong Kong affairs.

The task of bringing the five men to the United States resembled Operation Yellowbird, a clandestine effort carried out three decades earlier by a group of people that included Mr. Chu’s father, the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, who had smuggled hundreds of young Tiananmen Square protesters into shelters in Hong Kong, where they were waiting for papers to enter the United States, France and other Western countries.

“Taiwan is now sort of playing the role that Hong Kong played in 1989,” said young Mr. Chu.

While Mr. Chu was working in Washington, US officials based in Taiwan visited the Kaohsiung men to reassure them.

It took the United States and Taiwan six months to find a way for the men to leave safely, according to another person familiar with the matter. On January 13, the five men took a commercial flight to Zurich and then New York.

After their arrival, the men were able to contact their families by video for the first time since their flight. Tommy’s parents, brother and sister collapsed sobbing. Ray’s mother told him she was surprised to learn he was still alive.

Kenny moved to Washington, DC, where he lives in an apartment with other refugees from Hong Kong. He co-founded an organization to help protesters in Hong Kong.

Ray and Tommy stayed in New York and rented a basement apartment together. Both want to go to college and join the US Army.

On June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when protesters were killed as Chinese troops suppressed pro-democracy protests, they joined a rally in New York’s Washington Square Park. They waved a black flag calling for Hong Kong freedom, lit memorial candles and took photos of themselves with others from Hong Kong.

Referring to the student protesters in Tiananmen, Tommy said, “We are just the same group of people suppressed by the Communist Party.”

This story was published from a news agency feed with no text edits

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