Hong Kong leader says 8 pro-democracy activists who escaped to the West 'will be pursued for life'

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FILE - Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee speaks during a news conference in Hong Kong, March 21, 2023. Lee said Tuesday, July 4, that eight pro-democracy activists who now live in the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia will be pursued for life for alleged national security offenses, dismissing criticism that the move to have them arrested was a dangerous precedent. (AP Photo/Louise Delmotte, File)

HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s leader said Tuesday that eight pro-democracy activists who now live in the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia will be pursued for life for alleged national security offenses, dismissing criticism that the move to have them arrested was a dangerous precedent.

Chief Executive John Lee expressed his support for police efforts to arrest the eight. At his weekly media briefing, Lee said anyone, including their friends and relatives, who offered information leading to their arrests would be eligible for rewards offered by the police.

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“The only way to end their destiny of being an abscondee who will be pursued for life is to surrender,” he said.

The arrest warrants were issued for former pro-democracy lawmakers Nathan Law, Ted Hui and Dennis Kwok, lawyer Kevin Yam, unionist Mung Siu-tat and activists Finn Lau, Anna Kwok and Elmer Yuen. They were accused of breaching the Beijing-imposed National Security Law by committing offenses such as collusion with foreign powers and inciting secession.

More than 260 people have been arrested under the law, which was enacted in 2020 as part of a broad crackdown on dissent in the territory, but the rewards of 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($127,600) for information leading to each arrest are the first offered under the legislation.

The move quickly drew criticism from the U.S. and British governments, which took issue with the extraterritorial application of the security law. The U.S. said it marked a dangerous precedent that threatened human rights. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong tweeted that her country was “deeply concerned” by reports of Hong Kong authorities issuing arrest warrants for democracy advocates.

But Lee insisted that extraterritorial power exists in the security laws of many countries. He said his government will not be swayed by comments by overseas officials and politicians.

“I’m not afraid of any political pressure that is put on us because we do what we believe is right,” he said.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said China strongly deplored other countries’ “flagrant slandering” of its National Security Law for Hong Kong. “Justice will never be delayed or absent,” she said.

The row reflects a fresh source of contention between Beijing and the West over the alleged overseas reach of China’s enforcement agencies. China was reported to be running secret overseas police stations across North America, Europe and in other countries where Chinese communities include critics of the Communist Party who have family or business contacts in China. Beijing denied they are police stations, saying they exist mainly to provide citizen services such as renewing driver’s licenses.

Hong Kong Secretary for Security Chris Tang doubled down on the crackdown against the eight activists, saying authorities are seeking to cut access to their finances including freezing and confiscating their assets. Investigations will be conducted to find those who support them financially in Hong Kong and overseas, Tang said.

He warned that anyone who assists them in endangering national security may be violating the law.

Hong Kong’s action did not stop the activists from speaking up.

Law, who is accused of foreign collusion and inciting secession, said on Facebook that he was again being targeted by China’s Communist Party and that he felt the “invisible pressure.” However, he refused to surrender.

“All I did was reasonable, justifiable and peaceful advocacy work,” the British-based activist said.

Mung said in an online interview that even though he is not facing imminent arrest because he is now based in the U.K., he worries that the warrant could trigger some Chinese nationalists in Britain to threaten him. Still, he pledged to continue his advocacy work.

“The Chinese government is ... trying to spread the fear not only in Hong Kong, but also outside Hong Kong," he said. “If we just give up because of this kind of suppression, then it will ... encourage the regime to do more suppression to silence the people."

Yam told Australian media that the move was not completely unexpected. “The only remaining voices of dissent are now outside Hong Kong, and that’s where they’re expanding to next,” he said.

Anna Kwok tweeted that she would not back down. She reiterated her call to bar Lee, who was sanctioned by Washington over his involvement in the harsh crackdown on rights in Hong Kong, from attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in November in the U.S.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, has come under increasingly tight scrutiny by Beijing following months of mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Police on Monday acknowledged they will not be able to arrest the eight if they remain overseas.

Eunice Yung, a pro-Beijing lawmaker and the daughter-in-law of Yuen, supported the police move and said she cut ties with Yuen last August.

“All his acts have nothing to do with me,” she said on Facebook.