The exiles and the inmates: The heart-wrenching hand dealt to Hong Kong's democracy activists

Updated 11:51 PM ET, Sun December 20, 2020

Hong Kong and London (CNN)In the dark small hours, two recurring nightmares terrorize the sleep of Eddie Chu. In the first, he is lost overseas and cannot get home to Hong Kong. In the second, the former lawmaker is day tripping with his nine-year-old daughter.

The latter scenario might not sound nightmarish, but democracy activist Chu, 43, knows what it symbolizes: his dread of being separated from his daughter if he eventually goes to jail. The first embodies his other major fear: being exiled from Hong Kong.
As a global pandemic brought life in many cities to a halt this year, the ground beneath Hong Kong shifted at an astonishing speed, courtesy of sweeping legislation imposed by Beijing in June that outlawed opposing China in any form, on any platform, anywhere in the world.
Pro-democracy activists Eddie Chu, Joshua Wong, Owen Chow and Lester Shum distribute leaflets in support of 12 activists who tried to flee to Taiwan.
Overnight, the previously unthinkable became reality: traditionally peaceful rallies were banned, some Facebook posts were criminalized, uttering certain phrases became illegal, the legislature lost almost all its democratic figures, and dramatic scenes unfolded of Hong Kongers trying to flee by boat and seeking asylum.
The stakes in agitating for democracy exploded. Activists have been dealt a brutal hand: stay in Hong Kong to risk being jailed alongside icons Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Jimmy Lai, as well as hundreds of others lacking name recognition, or flee to a democratic safe haven to exist in self-imposed exile far from the people and places that have been the physical and spiritual touchstones of their lives.
Chu faces 11 charges for various bursts of democracy activism over the past 13 months, and believes he's looking at two to three years in jail. Chu says he will stay to serve any sentence he is handed: "You can't play the first half of the match and not stay for the second."
But others are choosing to flee -- and Chu supports them, too. The fight for Hong Kong's democratic freedoms is so hamstrung at home, he says, that most activists agree it must also happen from abroad. Local media estimates that more than 350 Hong Kong democracy activists have claimed asylum globally since 2018, while others have fled to safe havens such as Taiwan, which doesn't have an asylum law but can offer shelter.
A two-pronged movement is now in full swing. Within the exiled group there are myriad beliefs, strategies and even opposing personalities. And while they have avoided jail, interviews with seven exiles for this piece show their lives are not simple: even abroad, they watch over their shoulders, communicate on secure apps, and fear the slightest contact with people in Hong Kong could endanger those they left behind.

The contours of escape

After Baggio Leung was released from a month-long stint in a Hong Kong jail in September, during which he says he was mostly held in isolation, he believes someone began following him. "Usually, this is a bad sign. It means you are in the sights of the regime again," says Leung, 34, the former leader of Youngspiration, a political party that called for Hong Kong independence -- the idea that most riles Beijing, and one that is now illegal under the new security law.
For days on end in the weeks after, he says he avoided going to his apartment, sleeping elsewhere to try to throw them off his tail. But that wasn't the only curious hallmark of surveillance on his radar. Leung says his personal cell phone's 6 gigabyte data allowance suddenly drained in one day. "That's usually a bad sign, too," he says, explaining it can be a telltale of a tapped device.
A generation of young Hong Kongers were swept into politics by the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which saw young democracy activists occupy parts of central Hong Kong for months, and propelled student leaders such as Joshua Wong and Nathan Law to international fame.
Leung became a lawmaker on the back of that movement, but was disqualified from the city's legislature in 2016 for improper oath taking -- he wore a flag saying "Hong Kong is not China" while being sworn in, and inserted curse words into the official text. He was jailed for storming a meeting to try to retake the oath.
In late November this year, Leung decided to flee. He bought three plane tickets and headed to Hong Kong airport. "If it is last minute, usually it's more secure," he says. Leung is now in Washington D.C., where he intends to lobby US politicians to take action on Hong Kong, and to seek asylum. He claims to have severed all ties with his family and political groups at home, as do most self-exiled Hong Kongers.
Leung is not the only high-profile democracy activist who feels his past actions have irredeemably put him in the crosshairs of Beijing -- Nathan Law, once Hong Kong's youngest legislator, fled to London in July. "We need people who can communicate with international media, politicians, and can deliver Hong Kong people's voice accurately and profoundly," Law says.

Hong Kongers in exile

May 2018

Former leaders of pro-independence group Hong Kong Indigenous, Ray Wong and Alan Li, are granted refugee protection in Germany. They are some of the first Hong Kongers to be granted asylum overseas.

July 2019

Following the storming of Hong Kong's legislature, many young protesters flee to Taiwan. With no way to stay permanently, most are forced back, but activists estimate around 200 protesters remain on the island.

August 2019

Davin Wong, former president of Hong Kong University's student union, resigns from his post and boards a flight to Canada hours after allegedly being attacked by a man wielding a cane.

March 2020

Australian government data shows Hong Kong protesters are applying for permanent protection visas in higher numbers than ever before.

June 2020

Ahead of the introduction of a sweeping new National Security Law, activist Nathan Law says he has fled Hong Kong for an undisclosed location, later revealed to be London.

July 2020

Simon Cheng, a former staffer at the British consulate who was allegedly detained and tortured in mainland China, is granted asylum in the UK.

August 2020

China's coast guard intercepts a speedboat carrying 12 fugitives from Hong Kong to Taiwan. Among the group is Andy Li, who was previously arrested under the National Security Law; others faced protest-related charges.

September 2020

US Department of State says refugees from Hong Kong will be given "specific allocations" in the coming fiscal year, alongside those from El Salvador, Guatemala and Venezuela.

October 2020

A 22-year-old Hong Konger is granted refugee status for three years in Germany, the first instance of a protester receiving asylum for activities related to the 2019 unrest.

Four Hong Kong activists -- including founder of former opposition group Studentlocalism, Tony Chung -- entered the US consulate to seek asylum, but were turned away by consulate staff.

December 2020

Former opposition lawmaker Ted Hui, facing numerous charges in Hong Kong, arrives in London and announces a self-imposed exile.

Another former lawmaker, pro-independence activist Baggio Leung says says he's seeking asylum in the US.

Former British consulate worker Simon Cheng, 30, was a nobody on the democracy circuit until he hit headlines for his 15-day detention in mainland China in 2019, during the height of the often-violent anti-government protests, which were a catalyst for this year's national security law. Cheng says he was tortured in detention and interrogated about his frontline activism that summer. At the time, China's Foreign Minister spokesman, Geng Shuang, said the Chinese public security department "guaranteed all of his rights and interests according to law."
After deeming Hong Kong unsafe upon his release, Cheng laid low in Taiwan before seeking asylum in the UK.
Another former legislator, Ted Hui, 38, slipped out of Hong Kong last month while on bail, on the pretense of attending a climate change conference in Denmark. Instead he went into exile in Europe to dodge charges of perverting the course of justice, access to a computer with dishonest intent, and vandalism -- charges he says are politically motivated.
The age of some of the exiles is stunning. Independence activist Honcques Laus was just 18 when he claimed asylum at London's Heathrow Airport in June, anticipating being jailed under the then-impending national security law.