TAIPEI — As five men sailed through the vast waters of the South China Sea aboard an inflatable speedboat, they watched closely above and behind them for signs of pursuit.
They had left Hong Kong that morning under blue skies, with only iPhones and a compass to guide them through hundreds of miles of open sea to Taiwan. As they sailed in deeper water, waves rocked the ship, sending life jackets overboard and knocking some of them down.
Months after reaching Taiwan, all five finally arrived in the United States to seek asylum, after the intervention of the United States Department of State.
This account of the only group confirmed to have traveled to freedom by boat is based on interviews with three of the men. The three were on the run from Hong Kong authorities at the time of their escape, two of them being indicted and facing prison terms of several years. The circumstances of the two remaining men on the boat could not be determined.
The three men who spoke to the Wall Street Journal asked to be identified by their English first names. The Journal verified their identities and corroborated their stories to the extent possible through interviews with people familiar with the matter, official documents and comparisons with local media reports.
People have been leaving Hong Kong in the thousands since Chinese authorities imposed a national security law last year and used it to quell dissent. Many have taken advantage of a UK residency rule that opens doors for millions of people in Hong Kong, or have flown to other places including Canada, Australia or Taiwan.
Some defendants linked to the protests see clandestine escape attempts as their only way out. More than 10,000 protesters have been arrested and prosecutors are calling for extended prison terms. A group of dissidents awaiting trial unsuccessfully sought refuge at the US diplomatic mission in the city.
Getting caught at sea can also have consequences. In August 2020, a month after the five men fled, the Chinese Coast Guard intercepted a dozen other pro-democracy protesters making a similar attempt, disembarking them in a mainland prison before most were returned to Hong Kong. to be judged there.
A spokesperson for the Hong Kong government said that depending on the circumstances, the police would track down the fugitives and prosecute them according to the law.
The five men on the boat became involved in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in 2019, after it was sparked by a now-abandoned bill that would have allowed people to be extradited to the mainland.
Ray, 25, a warehouse clerk, participated in multi-day clashes between protesters and police at two universities in Hong Kong in November of the same year. Police besieged one of the campuses and eventually arrested over a thousand people.
He escaped by crawling along a railroad track in the dark, he said. Authorities searched his parents’ apartment several times, he said, but he was already in hiding.
Tommy, 22, was an art student, bartender and part-time barista. He spent three days in jail on an illegal assembly charge before being released on bail. Authorities confiscated his passport, he said, preventing him from leaving Hong Kong legally. Other charges followed, including riots.
Kenny, 26, was a civil engineer. He was arrested in October 2019 after confronting police during a demonstration and charged with several counts, including assaulting a law enforcement officer.
He said that while he was detained, police beat him on the back of the head until he lost consciousness. A spokesperson for the Hong Kong government said authorities take these allegations of ill-treatment seriously, although complainants must provide evidence for a full investigation.
The three men decided to leave at different times. Tommy and Kenny had each sunk the equivalent of thousands of US dollars in multiple escape attempts separately. Both said they believed some of the arrangements were scams.
For the last trip, the three men each spent about $ 1,300 to purchase the two-motor pneumatic outboard. They declined to disclose who organized the trip, fearing reprisals from Hong Kong authorities.
During Tommy’s last meal with his family before he went into hiding, he said, his grandmother recounted an illegal crossing she had made decades earlier from the mainland to Hong Kong. Tommy had heard the story before, but he was silent, unwilling to give any indication of his plan.
One morning in mid-July, the five gathered on a remote jetty. All dressed discreetly in T-shirts and shorts. One brought a fishing rod, another his savings. Fearing that there might be a spy among them, they exchanged a few words.
The men took turns at the bar while the others stood guard. Some of them had prepared by watching YouTube videos on how to maneuver a boat in rough water. For more than five hours, their phones’ GPS showed they were still in Chinese waters.
“We were scared to death,” Ray said, recalling the times they saw ships they couldn’t identify. “We didn’t know what they were doing.
Once they reached international waters, they slowed down the engines and looted their potato chip, candy and canned corn stores. After more than 10 hours on the water, they shut down the engines. Kenny intentionally overheated one of the motors by entangling a rope in his propeller. The men believed that whoever found them would be forced to bring them ashore with only one engine running and their fuel reserves low.
They signaled SOS with flashlights in the dark. After an hour, a white light appeared in the distance. It was the Taiwanese Coast Guard.
They were first taken to Dongsha, a trio of Taiwanese-held islands in the South China Sea about two-thirds of the way from Hong Kong to the main island of Taiwan, and from there to a secret location. in Kaohsiung, a port city in southwestern Taiwan. . Confined to a government facility, the men were given clothes, cigarettes and local newspapers.
Some of the men had hoped to stay in Taiwan, but they were all told they had to leave, they said. Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of Chinese territory, has stepped up military activities in the region, raising concerns that it is attempting to invade Dongsha. Taiwanese national security officials feared that being seen as actively helping Hong Kong fugitives could be used as a pretext by Beijing to justify an invasion, according to a person familiar with the matter.
A spokeswoman for Taiwan’s presidential office declined to comment on the situation, citing security and privacy concerns. She said the government would continue to provide humanitarian aid to Hong Kong people according to the law.
Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Bureau did not respond to a request for comment. Responding to the situation last year, a spokesperson for the office said it had no specific information about the incident, but berated the ruling Taiwan party for intervening in Hong Kong affairs. and accused the government of having political motives for doing so.
Unbeknownst to the men at the time, efforts were underway to get them to the United States. Samuel Chu, a Hong Kong-born activist who lives in Washington, DC, said the State Department contacted him after learning of their escape and asked for his help. bring them in through a process called humanitarian parole.
The State Department declined to comment. In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States should open its doors to people fleeing political repression in China. If they stand up for their rights and “if they are victims of repression from the Chinese authorities, we should do something to provide them with refuge,” Blinken told MSNBC.
China’s Foreign Ministry has repeatedly stated that the United States should not interfere in Hong Kong affairs.
The task of bringing the five men to the United States resembled Operation Yellowbird, a clandestine operation carried out three decades earlier by a group of people including Mr. Chu’s father, Rev. Chu Yiu-ming, who had done so. smuggling hundreds of young people Protesters from Tiananmen Square to shelters in Hong Kong, where they waited for papers to enter the United States, France and other Western countries.
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“Taiwan is now playing in a way the role that Hong Kong played in ’89,” said young Mr. Chu.
While Mr. Chu was working in Washington, US officials based in Taiwan visited Kaohsiung’s men to reassure them.
It took six months for the United States and Taiwan to find a way for the men to leave safely, according to another person familiar with the matter. On January 13, the five men boarded a commercial flight to Zurich and then New York.
After their arrival, the men were able to contact their families by video for the first time since their flight. Tommy’s parents, brother and sister collapsed sobbing. Ray’s mother told him that she was surprised to learn that he was still alive.
Kenny has moved to Washington, DC, where he lives in an apartment with other refugees from Hong Kong. He co-founded an organization to help protesters in Hong Kong.
Ray and Tommy stayed in New York and rented a basement apartment together. Both want to go to college and join the US military.
On June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when protesters were killed as Chinese troops quelled pro-democracy protests, they joined a rally in New York’s Washington Square Park. They held up a black flag calling for Hong Kong freedom, lit commemorative candles and took photos of themselves with others from Hong Kong.
Referring to the student protesters in Tiananmen, Tommy said, “We are just the same group of people suppressed by the Communist Party.
Read more articles on the political situation in Hong Kong, selected by the editors.
Write to Chao Deng à [email protected] and Joyu Wang at [email protected]
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