HONG KONG, China – Two former Hong Kong independence activists have been granted refugee status in Germany in what is one of the first cases of dissenters from the semi-autonomous Chinese city receiving such protection.
The move highlights growing fears that freedoms in Hong Kong are quickly deteriorating as an assertive Beijing flexes its muscles and stamps down on dissent.
Ray Wong and Alan Li – who took part in 2016 protests dubbed the "Fishball Revolution" which saw the city's worst violence for decades – were due to stand trial on riot charges but fled Hong Kong in November 2017.
City authorities issued arrest warrants for the pair but the high-profile trial went on without them and eventually saw Hong Kong's best-known independence activist Edward Leung jailed for six years in 2018.
Wong said he and Li escaped to Germany. The pair's whereabouts had not previously been confirmed, and Wong told AFP not even his family knew where he was until last May when his refugee status was approved.
He said he didn't dare contact them fearing authorities would monitor their communication.
Wong said he had decided to break his silence as Hong Kong pushes a highly controversial bill through the city's legislature which would allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland.
"The most important thing is to continue speaking out, and tell everyone Hong Kong people would not accept this law, that Hong Kong people would not accept this kind of ruling from China," Wong said over the phone.
The plan has sparked huge protests and mounting alarm within the city's business and legal communities – as well as foreign governments – who fear it will hammer the semi-autonomous financial hub's international appeal and tangle people up in China's court system.
Wong, 25, who was a prominent pro-independence activist alongside Edward Leung, is now living in the German town of Göttingen.
Wong and Li's refugee status allows them to live, work and attend school in Germany for an initial period of 3 years, which can be extended.
Without naming them, a spokesperson from the German ministry of interior told reporters Wednesday that "two asylum applications were accepted in 2018" from people from Hong Kong.
Wong said he was planning to study philosophy and politics if he passes German language requirements.
'Paying a big price'
While he avoided jail time, Wong said he is still paying a big price.
The activist said there is "zero chance" he could ever return to Hong Kong if the extradition bill was passed, fearing he could ultimately be brought to mainland China.
"When I was at the refugee camp, I didn't take learning German seriously, because I didn't know whether I could stay here and my emotion wasn't stable at the time. I couldn't do anything," Wong said.
"I finally felt relaxed after we knew we were granted (refugee) status. I can make future plans," he added.
Hong Kong security chief John Lee declined to comment on individual cases.
Wong and Li are wanted for riot charges relating to Lunar New Year clashes in February 2016, when protesters hurled bricks torn up from pavements and set rubbish alight in the commercial district of Mong Kok.
Police fired warning shots in the air as the unrest worsened, leaving scores of people including officers injured and dozens arrested.
The incident was later dubbed the "Fishball Revolution" after one of the city's best-loved street snacks.
The demonstrations were led by so-called "localist" activists – including Leung and Wong – seeking more freedom or even outright independence for the semi-autonomous Chinese city, infuriating Beijing.
While abroad, Wong said his political stance has softened.
"Now I won't advocate Hong Kong independence. I think the most important thing for Hong Kong is its human rights situation."
"Secondly, it's our identity. If we lost our identity, Hong Kong people will disappear in the game."
Maya Wang, Human Rights Watch's senior China researcher, said the decision reflected "foreign governments' increasing concerns over the city's rule of law and deteriorating freedoms".
Margarete Bause, spokesperson for human rights for the Green Group in Germany's parliament, said anti-democratic trends in Hong Kong were "worrying".
"The current discussion on an extradition law between Hong Kong and China shows just how much pressure the Chinese government is putting on the Hong Kong government. We reject this because there are no principles of the rule of law in China." – Rappler.com