Hong Kong authorities have put bounties on the heads of five pro-democracy activists living abroad — offering 1 million Hong Kong dollars for information leading to their arrest.
“It still feels surreal to be on the wanted list with a bounty,” Simon Cheng, a 33-year-old pro-democracy activist and political refugee based in London, told The Post. “It’s ridiculous because my request is a really humble and legitimate one: expecting citizens in Hong Kong to have our choice for a political leader.”
Cheng and four other activists are accused of colluding with foreign forces and inciting secession for their pro-democracy activism abroad.
“This bounty is an attempt to name and shame any individuals being disobedient and try to isolate and make them financially vulnerable and cut them off from anyone who supports them,” Cheng explained.
Hong Kong police, who claim the activists “all betrayed their own country,” are offering the equivalent of $128,000 USD for information leading to the arrest of the dissidents, and have warned they are being pursued for life.
“I’m actually not surprised because I’ve been very vocal overseas and keep criticizing the government,” Cheng, who is the founder of the non-profit HongkongersUK, said. “Sooner or later, I was going to be a target because I’m making noise internationally.”
It’s just the latest move in Hong Kong to crack down on pro-democracy agitators. Authorities have targeted activists under the 2020 National Security Law, which enables them to arrest anyone accused of endangering national security.
“‘Endangering national security’ can mean virtually anything,” according to Amnesty International, which says that “the law has been abused since day one.”
Frances Hui, a 24-year-old pro-democracy activist, was included among the bounties. She was forced to flee Hong Kong when the National Security Law was passed in 2020.
Hui has been an activist since age 14, when she joined the Scholarist student organization and, while wearing her schoolgirl uniorm, protested in solidarity with the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Protests in Hong Kong, which ended with hundreds of arrests and injuries.
“It’s not about political issues when people who are peacefully rallying were beaten bloody and criminalized,” Hui said. “It was so different from what I grew up with, and it was a threat to freedom of speech itself. It’s a basic human right to be able to speak the truth and to share ideas, and that was taken away.”
While studying journalism at Emerson College in Boston, Hui gained international attention for organizing solidarity protests for pro-democracy demonstrations back home. She returned to Hong Kong after graduating but soon had to flee back to the United States to avoid arrest.
Hui currently lives in Washington, DC, where she works as a policy and advocacy coordinator for the Community for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation.
Although she anticipated a bounty could be taken out on her, she tells the Post it’s “still very shocking” to have a price on her head.
“A million Hong Kong dollars is quite substantial. It’s more than [is listed for] a child rapist or a murderer in Hong Kong, which is insane,” Hui told The Post. “Obviously it’s an act of intimidation. They want to make you scared.”
In response, she is upping her personal security system in DC and taking care to reduce her digital footprint. But she worries more about those she knows back home than her own personal safety in the United States.
“It won’t change my life here, but it will impact my connections in Hong Kong. They’re trying to cut us off from people on the ground by making us fugitives,” she explained. “The arrest warrant is put up all over Hong Kong. It’s aired on the TV channels. People who walk on the streets will probably see my face.”
Cheng, who was forced to cut ties with his family after seeking refuge in the United Kingdom, also feels concern for those back home: “I worry if one day my parents or my relatives could get into trouble just because of my activities abroad.”
He also has fears about his personal safety in London, where pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong have faced threats and physical attacks.
“I worry about surveillance and secret agents and informants,” he said. “It’s difficult to trust other people because of totalitarian tactics, even overseas. You always have to worry about whether people are trustworthy.”
Cheng used to work as a trade and investment officer at the British Consulate and was arrested by Chinese authorities in 2019, when he alleges he was tortured over suspicions that he was a British spy who instigated pro-democracy protests.
After speaking out about his torture in the media, Cheng was forced to flee Hong Kong and seek refuge in London in 2019.
There, he founded an organization called HongkongersUK, which helps political dissidents relocate and integrate in Britain with everything from yoga classes to information sessions about buying property.
“It’s really important to build a diaspora community to have more vibrant pro-democracy voices,” Cheng said. “The whole community has been targeted by the Chinese regime, and that’s why we need to stick together. We can’t be isolated.”
He got news of the bounty a day after flying from Taiwan to London.
“I actually felt very lucky when I heard the news, because I had just passed through Chinese and Hong Kong airspace the day before,” he said.
Within days of the warrant, a colleague at HongkongersUK was informed about a government backed attack on his Google account, which Cheng suspects was state sponsored private hackers working for the Chinese government.
Now he worries the bounty might make people in Hong Kong — and fellow dissidents abroad — more cautious about joining the fight for democracy.
“An effect of the national security law in Hong Kong is that it’s actually less free here in the UK,” he said. “It has a chilling effect abroad because Hong Kong people could fear engaging with me.”
But Cheng will not be deterred by the bounty.
“I already made up my mind that no matter how hard it will be, I will continue to speak out,” he said. “There’s no going back as an activist. The only way forward is having this suppressive law repealed so my people have basic freedom and dignity.”
“Nothing is going to change because of this bounty,” she said. “I am not going to comply and be silent.”