In December, facing multiple charges under a new national security law imposed by Beijing, Ted Hui, a former Hong Kong legislator, fled to Europe with his family. Last month, he arrived in Australia, where he will live in exile until it is safe for him to return. Along with other pro-democracy lawmakers, Hui resigned from the Legislative Council in November, after Beijing passed a resolution allowing authorities to disqualify four democrats. The move left the legislature without an opposition camp for the first time since the city’s handover from Britain to China in 1997.
Alongside a growing number of overseas activists, Hui, 38, is now advocating for Hong Kong democracy from abroad and calling for stronger international responses to Beijing’s crackdown on dissent. China is already pushing back against countries taking in Hong Kong activists. On April 8, Beijing condemned Britain for granting political asylum to Nathan Law, a leading democracy advocate and former lawmaker. The following day the Hong Kong government criticized nations for harboring fugitives and turning “a blind eye to the offences committed by the criminals.”
I interviewed Hui about Hong Kong activism in several interviews that have been edited and condensed for clarity.
At the time I left, I was followed by strangers on a daily basis. As I was driving, I used to joke with people that I looked at the rearview mirror more than I looked at the front. I felt personally my family’s safety was threatened, which is also one of the reasons why I left Hong Kong.
SL: You’re planning to continue advocating for Hong Kong democracy from abroad. What are you hoping to achieve?
TH: There are two main objectives, the first being direct lobbying. It’s my job to talk to parliamentarians and government officials, and also international professional bodies. The first is for the Australian government to pass legislation on the Magnitsky Act [laws allowing governments to place punitive measures on human rights abusers], so that the government has tools to impose different kinds of sanctions over Hong Kong and Beijing officials.
The second is lifeboat plans. There are already different visa schemes here and in the UK for Hong Kongers to stay for a longer term. But some of them are lacking in certainty, and some of them have a limited audience. That’s why we need to persuade the government to push forward different visa schemes, and to do it before the Hong Kong government puts on restrictions [such as] banning different people from traveling overseas.
Aside from lobbying, the other main goal would be to get other Hong Kongers overseas organized so that we know each other. We have to join hands and do projects together to make the Hong Kong diaspora grow, to become major stakeholders in our respective countries, so our voices can be heard.
SL: Lately, some have criticized this approach of advocating for sanctions, arguing that they do little to influence Beijing’s decisions. How would you respond to this? Also, along with other activists, you wrote a letter to the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyden last month calling for the EU not to ratify an investment deal with China. Tell us about why you think countries should question trade relations with China, and what that looks like practically.
TH: [Sanctions] are a recognition itself. If the government puts up sanctions and provides lifeboat plans, it’s a recognition for Hong Kongers and the efforts and sacrifices they’ve made. We believe in the long term they will have an effect on changing the behavior of Beijing in terms of the economy. It’s an important gesture. So, I would say the effect [of sanctions] can be enormous.
With regard to the economic side of the lobbying, we advocate for a less reliant approach on trade with Beijing. It’s our stance that it shouldn’t be business as usual, after all those human rights violations and abuses in Hong Kong and different parts of China. [We aren’t advocating] to cut ties and close down businesses immediately, and make a total boycott—but a less reliant approach will be needed by a nation like Australia.
SL: Before arriving in Australia, you passed through the UK. What do you make of the UK government’s response to the ongoing crackdowns in Hong Kong?
TH: The BNO [British National Overseas Passport] visa scheme is quite generous, honestly. Many family units especially in the middle class can’t stand what’s happening in Hong Kong. [They feel] putting their children in the education system is brainwashing and that facing political persecutions every day is really hard. So many will migrate to the UK, including some very young protesters. The UK will be one of their first priorities. Now, the existing system is allowing them to arrive safely, so I’m grateful for that.
For those who are coming to the UK independently from their parents, many of them are without BNO status—and aren’t even eligible to apply for one. For that age group, about 18 to 23, the only choice for them will be to seek asylum. We have yet to see whether that will be easy for them, but traditionally it’s not an easy route. That’s why people like me, and other exiles, are asking the UK government to be more lenient, to give them more privileges.
SL: Do you foresee more people moving to the UK?
TH: I think a lot of family and individuals, those involved in the freedom movement in the past two years will be coming to the UK. My forecast is that places like London and Manchester could possibly exceed Vancouver or Toronto and become the second largest overseas Hong Konger communities. That’s highly possible.
There are people who sold their only properties in Hong Kong and invested in property and migrated to the UK. Of course, not all of them are wealthy. But I would say generally it will be the relatively wealthy class who will be migrating to the UK. For those who are from the lower classes, it will be tougher, and they will think twice for sure. People in Hong Kong are pretty aware of the situation, and they know they have to rely on themselves.
Hong Kong people speak the language and are used to British culture. Many of them from the older generations actually lived in a British colony. But, of course, for the younger generation, there can be problems of cultural assimilation and getting jobs. In general, I think Hong Kong people will be OK, and will become a thriving power in the UK.
SL: Now, there are a growing number of overseas Hong Kong advocates like yourself. With seven other activists, you recently launched the 2021 Hong Kong Charter solidarity movement. Tell us about this initiative, and how you see the role of the emerging Hong Kong diaspora?
TH: For the Hong Kong charter, the main objective is a solidarity gesture, both among Hong Kongers and [people] internationally. Because it’s not an organization itself, it’s a joining point for Hong Kongers and the diaspora, making it known that we are still fighting and we have not given up, and to lay out our main objectives and common beliefs.
If you look at the initiators, we represent a wide political spectrum, from moderate to localists [political activists focusing on the preservation of local Hong Kong identity and autonomy] to the more radicals and traditional pan-democrats. But now there’s no difference between us. Because there is only one camp: a camp to revive Hong Kong. And that, I believe, is the point. Also, we regard it as a historical document. We hope that this goes down [as a record of] what we [believe] in, and what it is we are after.
SL: Earlier this month, Beijing overhauled Hong Kong’s electoral system to ensure that only “patriots” hold positions of power. Many say these reforms spell the end of fair or meaningful elections and effectively close one of the last official avenues of political resistance. What is your take? And in retrospect, do you think activists effectively utilized official channels for dialogue—when they were still available—in their struggle for democracy?
TH: The change to the electoral system marks the death of Hong Kong’s democracy. It brings the level of democracy in Hong Kong to an all-time low, even worse than our colonial age.
Hong Kongers have fought for democracy since the ’80s, when we were still a British colony. We were negotiating with Beijing after the handover. We tried every means, every peaceful way: demonstrations with tens of thousands and millions of people marching on the streets. We tried deliberations, we tried walking into the Liaison Office to talk to Beijing officials. We tried everything to no avail. I believe that the regime we are facing is one that we cannot trust at all, so we have to maximize pressure and fight against it.
SL: Do you miss Hong Kong, and do you think you’ll ever be able to return? How do you see the future of political resistance?
TH: I do miss Hong Kong. I miss the people. I miss the crowds, where we stood together against the riot police. I miss the time that I could speak up for Hong Kong people in parliament, even though we were having a hard time [given] the unfair rules of the game. But at least we were able to speak up internationally, in front of the media. Now, those days are gone. Nobody can speak anything against the regime at all.
It’s my determination to fight and go back. It’s my home, and those are intruders in my eyes. So I need to kick them out and get my home back. But then realistically, I don’t know how long it will take. It can take years, decades. When I’m old and retired, what will happen to my kids? Will they have the momentum to fight on? I just don’t know. Things change very rapidly in Hong Kong, so it’s hard to forecast what’s going to happen.