Pro-democracy supporters who fled Hong Kong for Britain speak about continued harassment, threats and physical attacks
By Tom Levitt and May James
October 17, 2023
Demonstrators holds flags and placards during a rally of HongKongers against the Chinese Communist party in Chinatown, London, in 2021. Photograph: May James
Ah Man*, 28, was forced to leave Hong Kong at the end of 2020 after being arrested at the height of the pro-democracy protests, when millions took to the streets in defiance of the growing influence of Beijing.
But the UK has felt anything but a safe haven for the former Hongkonger after a string of incidents involving Chinese activists.
“Of course there is repression,” says Ah Man, who always wears masks and covers himself in black during protests, and avoids using a bank card or having any online presence.
“We have learned how to protect ourselves and we observe people around us. When they insist on certain things, we know they are ‘ghosts’, people who try to immerse themselves in groups to gain information. They could be Chinese agents or Hongkongers who have been arrested and tasked with collecting information in return for escaping jail.”
A scuffle between Hong Kong democracy activists and Beijing supporters in Chinatown, London, in November 2021. Photograph: May James
The Guardian has spoken to more than half a dozen Hongkongers living in the UK who say they feel ignored and unprotected by the UK government. Ah Man says that on one occasion, he and others were followed for several hours by an individual after a protest. They eventually confronted the person and scared him away.
The constant threats and intimidation have taken their toll on Rumi*. After being arrested in Hong Kong and released on bail, he was then followed by police. His name, address, school and phone number, as well as details about his parents, were shared online. He left Hong Kong in 2021 and now wants to tell the story of how protesters were treated and forced into exile by the authorities.
“I am exhausted. I’ve lived with these online personal attacks for the past two years. My girlfriend left me and my family is angry about me. But I just want to tell the truth and get justice.
“People wait outside my parent’s home [in Hong Kong] and watch them, sometimes even knocking on their door to threaten them. ‘Ask your son to watch out for what he said. We know who you are and where you live,’ one said to them.”
Pro-democracy activists including Finn Lau, centre, during a rally in London in June 2021 to mark the second anniversary of the start of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Photograph: May James
Finn Lau, 29, a prominent critic of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) who now lives in the UK, is one of eight overseas activists facing an arrest warrant from Hong Kong police, which includes a reward of HK$1m (£105,000) per person. Hong Kong’s chief executive, John Lee, has said the activists would be “pursued for life”.
Lau says that he has been sent screenshots of Chinese nationalists discussing how to abduct and kill him. After the bounty announcement, he contacted the Home Office, but says he received no support. He now carries a strobe torch and a rape alarm given to him by a fellow Hongkonger as a deterrent to potential attackers.
Lau has already been violently attacked when walking through Richmond, west London, in a case the Metropolitan police classified as a hate crime. The worst situation, he says, is being abducted and taken to China or killed by a Chinese agent. “To be honest, the UK is not safe,” he says.
Lumli and Lumlong in their studio in the UK. Photograph: May James
Just a few months ago, on their way home after a protest, they received a mysterious message on their phone outlining the route they had travelled in the previous two hours. They also found they no longer had access to one of their email accounts.
They have installed a virtual private network at home and cover their phones with an aluminium bag while talking in an attempt to block their signal. “I feel we’re crazy. We just want to express ourselves and protect our [Hong Kong] history from being rewritten,” says Lumlong.
“We didn’t think the UK was 100% safe, but we didn’t realise we could face so much repression. Not just cyber-attacks, but also physical [referring to the attacks in London, Manchester and Southampton]. We don’t feel safe here in the UK, but we can’t get back. “The artist Ai Weiwei once said something that I didn’t understand before: ‘If we want to feel safe, we need to be loud.’ I really hate the CCP and I can’t stop myself. We will keep drawing and speaking out. We don’t want to die in silence. It is like a lifeboat for us.
“We hope the UK government can put more effort to safeguard Hong Kong people living in the UK,” she says. * Names have been changed to protect identities