The 73-year-old sees the ocean as his path to freedom, a means to escape the oppression and poverty of Communist China.
On the night of April 16, 1975, Ha and a friend slipped past Chinese border guards and plunged their homemade inflatable dinghy into the dark water of Shenzhen Bay.
They then started paddling towards the bright lights of Hong Kong, which was still a British colony at the time.
He said he had already been captured and incarcerated three times during previous failed attempts to swim through the water. After the third attempt, he said, the guards beat him so hard that his mother cried when she saw his injuries.
“I was fighting for my freedom,”
In photos taken after Ha’s last successful attempt to reach the city, the beaming 28-year-old is looking at Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor, dressed in flared trousers and a trendy striped shirt.
But 45 years later, Ha no longer sees this historic port city as a sanctuary.
“Now I feel freedom is being phased out gradually,” he said, referring to an ongoing crackdown on political opposition in the city by the Chinese government and authorities, who recently imposed a national security law on Hong Kong, which has limited additional spaces. for dissent and left many activists fearing arrest.
The arrests of nearly 10,000 anti-government protesters over the past year and the increasing targeting of opposition politicians and activists have created a phenomenon that would have been considered unimaginable for many just a few years ago.
Some Hong Kongers are taking great risks to escape the city, even choosing to try to smuggle themselves by sea.
Speedboat to Taiwan
Flies buzz around the sun-drying rabbitfish on a concrete pier emerging from the sleepy fishing village of Po Toi O.
This was the point of origin of a ultimately unsuccessful escape attempt from Hong Kong, which began one evening in August.
Several villagers – none of whom want to be named to avoid possible reprisals – said they saw a group of people loading fuel on an open speedboat equipped with three outboard motors. The group then left the dock towards sunset.
One resident, who also asked not to be named, said the group was wrong to leave after dark when there isn’t much activity on the water. He pointed out that smugglers, moving everything from frozen meat to people between Hong Kong and mainland China, usually operate in the light of day, when a crowd of pleasure boats and fishing boats provide better cover from the authorities.
Several days after the conspicuous departure from Po Toi O, the Coast Guard in the Chinese coastal province of Guangdong made an unusual announcement that its officers “hijacked a speedboat suspected of illegally crossing the sea border.” Guangdong authorities provided the coordinates for the kidnapping, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) off Hong Kong’s east coast.
The Hong Kong government later confirmed that “12 local men and women between the ages of 16 and 33” had been arrested and were now in the custody of Chinese law enforcement. Shenzhen Yantian police confirmed Sunday that the 12 were placed in criminal detention for “illegal border crossing” and that their legal rights are “protected by the police according to the law”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday he was “deeply concerned” that the group has been denied access to their lawyers and called on authorities to “ensure due process”. In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying tweeted that the 12 “were not democratic activists, but elements attempting to separate Hong Kong from China.”
Court documents reveal that most of the 12 arrested were charged in Hong Kong for alleged crimes such as arson, possession of firearms and riots. One of the group was arrested under the national security law imposed on the city by Beijing on June 30.
‘I don’t even know if he’s dead or alive’
On Saturday, the detainee’s families held an emotional press conference in Hong Kong, calling on Chinese authorities to transfer their relatives to Hong Kong, to allow family calls and access to lawyers, and to provide necessary medications.
“I can’t sleep every day, I’m very worried. I’m afraid (there is) no medicine for them,” the mother of 30-year-old inmate Tang Kai-yin said at the press conference. “I hope Hong Kong can help them get back (then) at least we can see him. I don’t even know if he’s dead or alive.”
In an interview with CNN after the press conference, the wife of 29-year-old inmate Wong Wai-yin said she made repeated calls to the Shenzhen Yantian Detention Center, but received no information about her husband.
“I want to tell my husband, don’t worry, I’ll wait for your return, if it takes 10 years, 20 years or a lifetime,” she said. “We do not Surrend.”
In preparation for their ill-fated escape, a source familiar with the failed attempt said the fugitives had learned to drive the speedboat on their own, since no smuggler would risk the journey. The source did not want to be identified, for fear of being prosecuted.
The source said the fugitives’ goal was to reach the self-managed island of Taiwan, more than 700 kilometers (440 miles) away. Even on a quiet summer’s day, the ocean swells off Hong Kong’s east coast against the last few uninhabited craggy islands before the land gives way to international waters.
Veteran sailors who spoke on CNN estimate that a non-stop sea crossing in a high-speed open speedboat to Taiwan would take more than 14 hours, which equates to a grueling and bumpy test, with the risk of getting caught in one of the frequent dangerous storms. Sailors should steer their craft using GPS and carry extra fuel to avoid getting stuck at sea.
As the boat carrying 12 passengers was intercepted, the source said two other boats carrying fugitives successfully made the trip to Taiwan over the summer.
The Taiwanese government has neither confirmed nor denied reports of boats carrying Hong Kong on the run to its shores.
“Our government has repeatedly stressed that Taiwan supports Hong Kong’s democracy and freedoms, but is also a society subject to the rule of law,” the island’s Continental Affairs Council told CNN. “Based on security considerations, we absolutely do not encourage them to come to Taiwan using illegal means.”
The Hong Kong government responded to an investigation into the fugitives with an appeal for the fugitives to return. “We urge other jurisdictions to take a clear stand not to house criminals involved in crimes in Hong Kong and to return them,” the City Security Bureau wrote in a statement to CNN.
Sanctuary of the island
Some Hong Kong activists are starting to see parallels between the current situation and the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when hundreds of mainland China protesters were smuggled by land and sea to Hong Kong via an organized pipeline called Operation Yellowbird. At the time, the Hong Kong authorities did not return dissidents to mainland China.
“This time, the territory we have to escape from (includes) Hong Kong, and Taiwan becomes the destiny of the people, the hope of the people of Hong Kong,” said Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy lawmaker.
Chu intends to step down from his post on the Hong Kong Legislative Council after the city government recently postponed elections for at least a year for public health reasons.
As authorities crack down on dissent in Hong Kong, a craft industry of small businesses and organizations supporting the city’s protest movement is springing up in Taipei.
Aegis is a coffee shop decorated with giant murals depicting protesters with helmets and stunned eyes like manga-style superheroes. Patrons are greeted by a so-called Lennon post-it wall with handwritten messages like “Stand with HK” and “Free HK”, a once ubiquitous spectacle in Hong Kong at the height of last year’s protest movement.
The company employs activists who have fled Hong Kong.
According to the Taiwanese government, the number of Hong Kong residents settling in Taiwan more than doubled during the first six months of 2020 compared to the previous year.
One of the most famous recent emigrants is Lam Wing-kee. For years he ran Causeway Bay Books, a small shop in the heart of Hong Kong specializing in sensational works that criticize China’s leadership.
But in 2015, he and four of his colleagues went missing from Hong Kong for months, only to reappear on Chinese state TV in a televised confession admitting to “illegal book trade.”
Three years later, Lam left Hong Kong for good and opened a new Causeway Bay Books in Taipei.
“Taiwan is much safer than Hong Kong,” Lam said. “I left a place where I could lose my freedom for a place where I have freedom.”
He talked to CNN sitting next to the cash register in his shop, where he also sleeps at night to save his rent. His desk is draped with a flag with the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Time”.
CNN spoke to several frontline protesters who recently fled to Taipei to escape criminal charges in Hong Kong.
A 19-year-old man, who asked not to be identified, said he boarded a commercial flight to Taiwan in January, before the coronavirus pandemic triggered a lockdown.
“It’s hard for me,” said the exiled teenager, adding that he was homesick and wanted to return. “I still want (to take part) in the political movement … (but) there is no place for that in Hong Kong right now.”
Other exiles in Taiwan said they heard of other activists trying to escape by sea.
“Right now everyone is somehow trapped in Hong Kong,” said an older activist, who flew to Taiwan in July 2019 after participating in the assault and vandalism of the Hong Kong Legislative Council.
“I can’t think about how we should keep fighting, or what the young protesters should do now,” he added. “If we have a chance, we should run away.”
Advice from the older generation
On a particularly humid September morning in Hong Kong, Ha Sze Yuen strolled along Aberdeen harbor, not sweating.
He pointed to a dinghy at the back of a multi-million dollar yacht, saying it was about the same size as the homemade boat he used to make the 1975 voyage from mainland China to Hong Kong.
Forty-five years later, Ha says he is dismayed by the Chinese government’s invasion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.
“When I first came to Hong Kong, I felt so free,” he said.
“I still believed in the Sino-British joint statement, which promised that Hong Kong would remain unchanged for 50 years,” Ha added, referring to the agreement made by China prior to the British handover of Hong Kong in 1997.
He said he supports those young Hong Kongers who are now risking their lives to flee into exile. And he regrets not moving from the city to another place out of the reach of Communist China when he had the chance.
“I didn’t expect life would change that quickly here,” he says.
CNN’s Sandi Sidhu, Eric Cheung, and Jadyn Sham contributed to the reports.