Two Hong Kong activists have been granted refugee status by Germany in what is believed to be the first time dissenters from the territory have been given the status by a foreign country.
The move underlines growing international concerns over erosions of rule of law and freedom of speech in Hong Kong, despite guarantees these liberties would be respected when the territory was handed over to China in 1997.
Such concerns have been exacerbated by a plan by the Hong Kong government to fast-track a legal amendment enabling the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China.
“No one likes to leave the place where you grow up, it is a big price for me to pay,” said one of the activists, Ray Wong Toi-yeung, in an interview with the FT. He said he wept one day while on the street in Germany because he missed his own culture and home so much.
Mr Wong, 25, and his fellow activist Alan Li Tung-sing, 27, are leading members of Hong Kong Indigenous, a radical group that fought for Hong Kong independence. The two were charged with rioting offences for their part in civil unrest in 2016 in the main shopping district of the former British colony.
They fled Hong Kong for Germany in November 2017 while on bail and were listed as wanted in the territory. A co-activist from the same group, Edward Leung, who stayed in Hong Kong, was last year sentenced to six years in jail on similar charges.
Documentation provided by the activists show they were granted the right to stay in Germany a year ago. The German consulate in Hong Kong said it was ‘“aware of the fact that the two Hong Kong residents are currently staying in Germany” but said it could not provide any information on individual cases.
“It is obvious that, Hong Kong has already lost the special international status,” Mr Li told the FT. “We may be the first two refugees from Hong Kong who gained protection in Europe but what could be very sad is, we may not be the last.”
The Hong Kong government forwarded inquiries about the activists’ asylum bid to the Hong Kong police, which declined to comment on the specific case, saying legal proceedings were under way. “In general, the police will, according to the circumstances of the case, track down the whereabouts of the suspects and arrest them by all possible means,” said a police spokesman.
Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, said the Hong Kong government should try to extradite the activists from Germany “in accordance with our bilateral rendition agreement”.
Mr Wong and Mr Li have stayed in three different refugee camps in Germany while awaiting the approval of their application for asylum. They were given refugee status one year ago but only chose to reveal this now to raise awareness of Hong Kong’s extradition amendment and the 30th anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4.
“It is important have someone outside [out of prison] to tell the world what’s happening in Hong Kong,” Mr Wong said.
“I will never be able to come back if Hong Kong can extradite me back to China once I return,” he said. “It is important for me to speak up as one of the first political refugees of Hong Kong.”
Mr Wong said he chose to go to Germany because he believed “Germany has a much stronger stance towards China, especially in terms of human rights”.
Patrick Poon, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty International, said the granting of asylum to the pair was “a very clear message” that the human rights situation in Hong Kong was deteriorating.
Eleven international parliamentarians from countries including Germany, Canada, Malaysia, the UK, Myanmar and The Philippines, including those from Germany’s Greens and Christian Democratic Union parties, said in a statement that Mr Leung had “been a victim of” the Hong Kong government’s “abuse of the judicial system to imprison political opponents”.
Another Hong Konger, Lee Sin-yi, who is facing a similar rioting charge, is on the run in Taiwan. “More Hong Kongers will go into exile,” she said in a recording broadcast earlier this month by a pro-Taiwan independence group.
The two men said they expected to speak at a seminar in the German parliament to mark the June 4 massacre.