T.hey they came one by one, dragging themselves from the sea to the shores of Hong Kong on oyster beds, their bodies bleeding. Some had swam for miles, braving rough and dangerous seas, tied together by ropes. Others made the desperate journey in makeshift boats.
They were known as freedom swimmers ̵
Those who survived to tell their stories were the lucky ones. Many more have not made it. Some were shot to death by border guards, or arrested and sent to labor camps. Others drowned or were attacked by sharks. Some were executed: the act of defection was considered treason.
Those who made it to Hong Kong, now in their 70s and 80s, enjoyed decades of unprecedented civil liberties on the mainland: the right to express their views, access uncensored online news and information, as well as the freedom to manifest.
Until now. Three months ago, China imposed a National Security Act (NSL) in the region in response to months of pro-democracy protests. The change in Hong Kong was swift and brutal.
Dozens of activists and dissidents were arrested. Police broke into an opposition newspaper and arrested high-level personnel. The explicit media was censored. The books were extracted from public libraries. Schools and universities have been ordered to promote “national security education”, liberal-minded fired staff and textbooks have been censored. The slogans of independence are banned and scholars, journalists and ordinary citizens are suddenly afraid to talk about politics. Several pro-democracy figures have been forced to flee abroad, while some have not made it.
Implementation of the law has been particularly painful for freedom swimmers, who now fear the system they risked everything to escape is suddenly upon us.
“The free world would be my rebirth”
Hon Man Po arrived in Hong Kong from China in 1968 after years of trying. In 1966, he swam six hours in the dark from the mainland to Macau and stayed long enough to make enough money to take an illegal boat trip to Hong Kong. During the grueling journey he was sustained by a thought: “The free world would be my rebirth”.
Hon now fears that the very things that have made Hong Kong a safe haven for refugees like him – freedom of speech and expression – are rapidly disappearing. The vagaries of the law, which prohibits acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, mean that its scope and power remain unknown.
“Freedom is like sunlight and air,” he told the Guardian. “When information and press freedom are suppressed, many areas will wither.”
“The precious thing about Hong Kong was its liberal environment where all kinds of opinions could be expressed,” said Hon. “But now, many people are afraid to speak. Living under fear is painful and humiliating. “
Hon’s only ambition as a young man was to leave China. He often went hungry during his university period between 1958 and 1962, when Mao Zedong launched the great leap forward that caused famine nationwide. His studies had been interrupted when the students were called to build railways, make steel in the courtyard furnaces and work on farms.
After graduation, he found the suffocating atmosphere of intensified “political struggles” unbearable. As someone who belongs to the doomed “class of landlords with overseas ties”, Hon was sent to a remote island off the southern coast of China to be a teacher, where he was often criticized for his “bourgeois” thinking. “.
He attempted to escape twice before 1966, the first time he was repelled by a typhoon after hiding in the mountains for 10 hours, the second time he was bitten by a guard dog and held for months. Now he sees his raw despair in the actions of Hong Kong youth.
Twelve Hong Kongers, including a young activist accused under the National Security Act, were arrested by the Chinese coast guard as they tried to flee to Taiwan in late August. Others have fled to the UK and the US, while many residents say they want to emigrate out of fear of their children growing up under the political indoctrination of the Communist Party.
“If I couldn’t leave, it would be the end of my life … I had no choice but to run away,” said Hon, now 82. He loved his newfound freedom in Hong Kong, where he worked in a textile factory at first, but eventually became a freelance writer, founded his own magazine and wrote dozens of books.
“It was a relief to be able to write freely. I repressed a lot of anxiety when I was in China, so I had a lot to take off my chest, “said Hon, also known by his pseudonym Hon San Pik.” Hong Kong has been a place of rebirth and opportunity for me. they were freedom and tolerance and you could do whatever you wanted. I wanted to be a writer and it was impossible in China. “
Rights advocates say the national security law marks Beijing’s most aggressive attack on the city’s freedoms since it was transferred to Chinese control in 1997. Many believe things will only get worse.
“The National Security Act represents a whole society attack in Hong Kong,” said Prof. Victoria Hui, political scientist at the University of Notre Dame in the United States. “By silencing all dissent, Beijing is rapidly dismantling the city’s once competent, efficient and impartial institutions.”
“The way the National Security Law was introduced marked the end of the Chinese government’s ongoing commitment, or claim, to adhere to the Basic Law,” said Prof. Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute in London, referring to the mini-constitution put in place after the transfer of sovereignty from Great Britain to China. “If the same trajectory continues for the next 20 years, Hong Kong will have a new generation that would not know what the current younger generation knows and may not fight for the same. It looks like Beijing’s long-term action plan. “
The Hong Kong government has said that the National Security Law will not undermine the city’s legal or judicial systems and the civil rights of residents guaranteed by the Basic Law and international treaties remain protected. It is “vital to getting Hong Kong back on track and safeguarding our country’s sovereignty, security and development interests,” a statement released to the Guardian said.
“The legal rights and freedoms of our law-abiding and peace-loving citizens, investors and travelers are not concerned,” he said.
The second handover
Many others who illegally fled China to Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s share Hon’s feelings, but having lived under the Communist regime, most feel uncomfortable talking on the minutes of the National Security Act.
Chow Ming Fai *, 73, a former Red Guard of the Cultural Revolution who swam 12km of Dapeng Bay for six hours to reach Hong Kong in 1973, says it breaks his heart to see legislation destroying rights and freedoms. that made Hong Kong a safe haven for him nearly 50 years ago.
“We are rapidly losing our sense of freedom. Just the fact that I don’t feel comfortable talking to you on the record attests to that,” he said. “Hong Kong protected fugitives like us, but now it is no longer free … We fought so hard to come here and now they are turning it into China.”
In 1968 he was one of over 16 million young people sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. The prospect of being stuck there for the rest of his life made him flee.
In 1973, he and his girlfriend walked for days in the wilderness, hiding in the hillside bushes until night and hiking in the dark. They survived on their only food – balls of flour mixed with oil and sugar – until they reached the sea in what is now the boom city of Shenzhen. Armed with a floating ring, they tied themselves together with a piece of rope and went out to sea. Braving huge waves for six hours, they landed in Hong Kong and were greeted by a friendly villager.
“We wanted to go to Hong Kong, not just to fill our stomachs, but for freedom,” Chow said.
In Guangdong province, where Chow grew up, few believed the government propaganda portraying Hong Kong as an “evil capitalist city”. Tired of the omnipresent Communist propaganda, young people secretly listened to the Hong Kong radio broadcast: news, radio dramas and pop songs were their “spiritual food”.
“Whatever the propaganda said, we knew they had plenty of food because our relatives sent us food packages when we were starving,” he said.
Now Chow says he could have foreseen in the midst of the protest movement that raged across Hong Kong in 2019 that China would inflict heavy punishment on what he sees as the “rebellious son,” but few people expected measures as tough as the law. on national security. “China has never been so humiliated by a place under its rule, it would be deeply resentful and vindictive,” he said.
However, he blamed China for failing to deliver on its promise to guarantee genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong for its protracted political crisis. Pro-democracy protests, sparked by a controversial extradition law that could see people sent to mainland China for trial, started out peaceful last year but turned violent as frustrations escalated.
“They wrote a blank check. The Communist Party is not trustworthy, ”he said. “Young people are only fighting for what they have been promised”.
Wong Hung *, who fled to Hong Kong on a wooden boat in 1970, said the national security law equates to the second handover and Hong Kong is no longer governed by the “one country, two systems” policy. “Hong Kong may have returned to China and is now ‘one country, one system’, but people’s hearts have not returned,” Wong said.
He said he could identify with the young Hong Kong activists who had to flee. When he set foot in Hong Kong after surviving high waves and a police boat chase, he cried at the thought of never seeing his family again.
“Like us then, they could never come back,” he says. For Wong, it was touching that the place where he found freedom has become the place his children are planning to leave. “All those years ago I risked my life to come here, and now that I’m old, we’re back where we were,” he said. “We are returning to the Cultural Revolution.”
“This is very painful for me.”
* The names have been changed to protect their identity