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Chinese officials have announced a considerable cash reward for any information that could lead to the arrest of eight dissidents who fled the country — including three former lawmakers.
A bounty of 1 million Hong Kong dollars (roughly $125,000 USD) has been placed on eight pro-democracy activists who fled the city in the aftermath of a government crackdown on the Hong Kong protests of 2019-2020. The dissidents, who currently reside in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, have been accused of violating Hong Kong’s national security law, which criminalized calls for secession or subversion of the Chinese government.
“Our action is to tell everybody that endangering national security is not something we will tolerate,” Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee told the press during a weekly briefing.
Hong Kong was seized from China by the British during the First Opium War and was administered as a British colony for nearly a century and a half. During that time it became a major trading center, and for decades it was consistently ranked highly on measures of economic freedom and human development.
Hong Kong was ceded back to China in 1997 after a 99-year lease for a portion of the territory expired. Britain was technically entitled to parts of Hong Kong in perpetuity, but for political and logistical reasons, agreed to transfer control of the entire territory to the Chinese Communist Party on the condition that Hong Kong would retain some autonomy for at least 50 years.
Hong Kong continued to function as a western-style democracy within China, and was governed as a “special administrative zone,” but over the subsequent decades, the Chinese central government began exerting more and more influence in the city’s internal affairs. Interference in local elections and a bill that would allow citizens of Hong Kong to be extradited to the mainland sparked massive pro-democracy and anti-government protests in 2019.
Those protests were met with a severe government crackdown, and the bounties placed by police on the eight dissidents are larger than many active bounties placed on rapists and murderers.
Anna Kwon, one of the eight dissidents named by police, told TIME magazine that she has to be increasingly careful where and how she travels, and has limited her ability to engage with other members of the Chinese diaspora.
“The Hong Kong authorities are trying to rile up a mob mentality among pro-Beijing supporters,” she said. “It’s a usual tactic from the Chinese Communist Party to pit people against people.”
“During the 2019-20 protest movement, I was followed, struck by a car, assaulted with pepper spray and arrested on multiple charges,” Ted Hui, former member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and another of the eight dissidents with a bounty on their heads, said in an editorial in The Wall Street Journal. “260 people, as young as 15 and as old as 90, have been arrested for national-security offenses that carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.”
China has come under increasing scrutiny for its targeting of overseas dissidents — late last year, watchdog organizations exposed more than 100 secret Chinese police stations that were illegally operating in 53 countries, including the U.S.