For a long time, Hong Kong was a place to which millions fled from the Chinese Communist Party’s political campaigns. Now, people are instead escaping from what was once the epicentrum for East Asian civil society, away from Beijing’s increasing influence and a new sweeping national security law.
The city’s population has increased just about every year since 1960 and more than doubled in size, from 3 million to 7.5 million in 2019. But since then Hong Kong has experienced a net outflow, that is expected to be bigger this year than any year since World War II.
Sweden just became the first EU country to give political asylum to one of the city’s activists due to the new security law. Last month Narayan Liu, the founder of ”Bauhinias for Freedom”, was granted refugee status in Sweden.
”If returning to Hong Kong you risk being arrested as the activities you have carried out would be considered to breach the National Security Law”, the Swedish Migration Board Stated in its decision. It is noted how the law according to its text is also valid outside of Hong Kong, thereby including activities in Sweden.
The Hong Kong National Security Law, implemented by decree from Beijing in the summer of 2020, is the most ambitious effort to date to criminalise global activism against the Chinese regime.
Narayan Liu grew up in Hong Kong but moved to Sweden together with his two sisters when their mother got married to a Belgian national residing here. The family was then given a permit to reside in Sweden, which could no longer be renewed in 2019 following a divorce.
Meanwhile, Narayan Liu was contemplating moving back to Hong Kong, a place he had always been missing in the back of his head. He last visited the city in 2018, and at the time discussed with some friends the idea to get together and share an apartment.
Then suddenly, Hong Kong changed forever. A peaceful sit-in protest outside of the government headquarters in March 2019 soon turned into protest marches with close to two million participants, and then developed into an unfortunate spiral of violence where Beijing in the background instructed the city government to ignore the protesters’ demands to cancel a shady extradition treatment with China.
”On a distance [from Sweden] I followed the development, observed how the police became increasingly violent, and could not just sit on the sidelines and watch”, Narayan Liu remembers.
He started to contact people that was willing to act to spread awareness of the situation in Hong Kong. When he first co-founded the organisation ”Befria Hongkong” (Free Hong Kong) in 2019, Narayan Liu could not imagine that his activism, which then was fully in line with the constitutional law of Hong Kong, would make a safe return to the city impossible.
The content of the sweeping security law was made public only after it was implemented on June 30, 2020. When Narayan Liu handed in his application for asylum last summer, he was worried that the Migration Board would fail to grasp the magnitude of the situation in Hongkong.
Prior to his application, the Migration Board decided to send back a Uyghur family to the Xinjiang region, despite an ongoing genocide. At around the same time, an activist from Inner Mongolia was also about to be deported back to China.
But both these rulings were changed at a later point. And in the Migration Board’s decision for Narayan Liu’s case, it is accurately stated how merely encouraging foreign sanctions against Hong Kong now might be enough to risk a long jail sentence.
”United Kingdom was our back-up plan, and in case that didn’t work out I was also thinking about the US”, Narayan Liu says with great relief and adds that the family would most likely have been separated would the asylum application to Sweden have been denied.
Since the summer of 2020 more than 100,000 Hong Kong citizens has moved or started the process of moving to the United Kingdom, due to a new visa scheme following National Security Law that makes it easier for Hong Kongers to immigrate.
Tens of thousands have also been moving to Australia or Canada following similar amendments there, and hundreds of Hong Kong citizens also applied for asylum in a handful of Western countries. A Hong Kong activist was granted refugee status in Germany in the fall of 2020, but started the application before the National Security Law was implemented.
The case of Narayan Liu is the first in all of the EU where political asylum was granted due to the new security law. Hence, it could serve as a precedent not only for Sweden but also for large parts of Europe.
All of this has not gone unnoticed at the Chinese embassy in Stockholm. Narayan Liu recounts how a few days ago, he got a call from the embassy to his private cellphone. As soon as the caller introduced himself and Narayan Liu understood it was from the embassy, he hung up.
This is a translation of an article written by me for the Swedish daily Expressen June 16, 2022.