Although the protests have calmed down after the overwhelming victory of the pro-Democrats in the recent elections, citizens are still afraid of falling into the hands of the Chinese authorities
From a habitual crossing to a risky step: the fear of being arrested by the Chinese authorities has begun to penetrate many Hong Kong residents after the protests in the financial center, and there are those who choose to avoid a displacement that was almost daily.
For example, the artist Samu Chan. He crossed to Shenzhen – in southeastern China – at the end of August and remained locked for six hours, during which he was interrogated by up to a dozen Chinese customs agents seeking information on their participation in the protests of the former British colony.
A Customs agent stopped him and squeezed his shoulder and elbow for a moment, after which he felt his strength lose in his limbs. While the agent remained calm and a faint smile, the Hong Kong artist realized that he had a martial arts expert in front of him.
Chan was locked in a cabin of four square meters in which the agent and his colleagues questioned him before releasing him.
“They made me sit in an uncomfortable chair for hours, and they gave me neither water nor food,” says the artist, an active participant in the Hong Kong pro-democratic protest movement, which began in early June and has caused anger from Beijing.
According to his story, the interrogation dealt with issues such as the presence of a huge protest banner that Chan created in the hands of protesters who broke into the headquarters of the Hong Kong Parliament and caused damage to the building on July 1: “I have no idea how they found out about the banner, “says Chan.
Your advice after the experience? “Do not go (to mainland China) if you fear being arrested. It is not worth the risk. Freedom is valuable.”
“Now I refuse to go”
Many Hong Kong people have taken note of the message, since the protests began numerous cases similar to Chan’s have emerged. In almost all, China’s border agents searched travellers’ mobile phones – some were protesters and others were not – in search of images or messages related to the movement, and forced them to erase them immediately.
In cases like Chan’s, the victims were arrested and interrogated for hours.
“Sometimes I have to go to work, but now I refuse. I have received too many disturbing stories of people who register, interrogate and stop. I have only been to a demonstration since June, but I am worried. I have a small child.”, explains Jo Wong, 36, an analyst at a French bank in Hong Kong.
Fear not only affects Hong Kong people but also many expatriates living in the British ex-colony. A European journalist covering sensitive issues about China – such as human rights violations against Muslim minorities in the northwestern province of Xinjiang – tells EFE that he was nervous when he went to Shenzhen recently to cover an event.
“I left a draft message on WhatsApp for my wife that said ‘I have been arrested at the border. If you do not hear from me again, contact the consulate.’ When I crossed the border, I took out my cell phone and put the finger on the ‘Send’ button. I was very nervous,” says this self-employed worker, who preferred to remain anonymous.
“Right now, my country has a very tense relationship with China,” he adds. “You never know what will happen.”
Against the opaque judicial system
The precedent of these fears is the one that was extended in June by the controversial extradition bill, already withdrawn but that was the spark of the protests because it would have allowed the Hong Kong people to be extradited to mainland China, fueling the fear of being judged in the opaque Chinese judicial system, which does not offer guarantees of independence.
Although the protests have calmed down lately after the overwhelming victory of the pro-Democrats in the recent elections to district councillors, citizens are still afraid of falling into the hands of the Chinese authorities.
According to the pro-Democratic deputy Au Nok-hin, the Chinese border authorities have started to help themselves with high technology to investigate travelers: “It has come to me from various sources that his latest strategy is to get you into a room, use facial recognition equipment and show you photos of demonstrations in Hong Kong to ask if the person who appears is you.”
For now, it is unknown how many Hong Kong people have been through experiences like that or have been detained by Chinese authorities since June, but the story of a former British consulate employee in the city, Simon Cheng, who was detained and allegedly tortured for 15 days put highlight the risk that the citizens of the excolonia run when they cross the border.
According to the story of the former consular worker – who was accused of being a client of prostitution by the Chinese authorities, the agents forced him to confess that both he and the British Government were involved in organizing the protests.
Cheng also claimed to have seen at least a dozen Hong Kong people being interrogated at the detention centre, fueling rumours that detained protesters have been mass-driven to mainland China.
Beijing seeks “useful information”
Bruce Lui, who was in charge of the news about China on the Hong Kong cable TV network, believes it cannot be ruled out that Hong Kong protesters are being held in mainland China, as Beijing “has its own way” of secretly trapping citizens hongkoneses and take them away.
The examples he puts include the so-called kidnapping of a Hong Kong businessman in 2013 and several booksellers in 2015.
“I don’t think it’s likely that large groups of Hong Kong protesters have been taken to China, it would be difficult to cover up and it’s not the style of Chinese government, but Beijing could target specific individuals that they believe have useful information,” said Lui, now a professor of Journalism at Baptist University in Hong Kong.
“For Beijing, the Hong Kong protest movement is not only an internal matter but it sees interference from alleged foreign forces. They have no scruples about haggling the rules to fight this high-level battle and thus defend the regime and national security.”, consider the expert.
For Lui, “the concerns of Hong Kong people are legitimate. They should avoid going to mainland China if they can. You never know how far Beijing can go.“