During the apocalyptic chaos of Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, the bright lights of Hong Kong must have twinkled tantalizingly to many Chinese: a cool oasis within a barren desert of mass famine and societal collapse.
Almost every night, under the cover of darkness, desperate Chinese would quietly slip into the water at Shenzhen — then still a sleepy fishing village — to navigate a hazardous 4km swim to reach Hong Kong.
They became known as “freedom swimmers,” ordinary people who sought to flee the turmoil in China for a better life in capitalist Hong Kong.
According to Chen Bingan (陳秉安), author of The Great Exodus to Hong Kong, about 2 million people made it to Hong Kong, either by swimming or in makeshift dinghies, in the three decades between the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War and the end of the Cultural Revolution, but many more perished, or were caught by the Chinese authorities and repatriated.
Those who did make it enjoyed civil liberties and freedoms unheard of in China, free from the interminable “struggle sessions” and political lynch mobs of a class-obsessed Maoist nation. Many were taken in by sympathetic Hong Kongers or assisted by charitable organizations.
Now the tables have turned and it is the people of Hong Kong who are in distress.
Following Beijing’s imposition on June 30 of the stringent National Security Law, a climate of fear and self-censorship hangs over the once freewheeling and rambunctious former British colony. Its residents live in fear of reprisals for their participation in 2019’s anti-extradition law mass protests.
Since the legislation was introduced, media organizations have been smothered, books removed from libraries, and students, teachers and civil servants threatened by Hong Kong’s new Red Guard.
On Wednesday, the protest movement’s worst fears were proved correct when the Yantian District People’s Court in Shenzhen sentenced 10 members of the “Hong Kong 12” to seven months to three years in jail.
The 12 pro-democracy activists, who in August attempted a daring escape by speedboat to reach Taiwan, were intercepted by a Chinese coast guard patrol. Most of the group were facing prosecution either under the new law, or other Hong Kong laws, for taking part in protests last year and in 2019.
The other two members of the group, both minors, were returned to Hong Kong on Wednesday after pleading guilty.
As the situation in the territory deteriorates, as seems likely, greater numbers of desperate Hong Kongers can be expected to attempt to escape. In a situation not dissimilar to the building of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War, Beijing — to stem the exodus — might halt recognition of British National (Overseas) passports, which provide up to 3 million Hong Kongers an avenue out of “Asia’s Alcatraz.”
Such a move would force Hong Kongers to seek alternative escape routes. Without valid travel documents and the territory’s airport locked down, Taiwan by boat would likely be seen as the only way out.
To date, an unconfirmed number of Hong Kongers have made it to Taiwan by boat via the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) — the closest of Taiwan’s outlying islands to Hong Kong. The government is wisely staying silent on the precise numbers of such refugees, but in August, the Coast Guard Administration intercepted a craft carrying five Hong Kongers near the islands.
History has turned full circle: Hong Kong is now trapped behind the Red Curtain, and is itself in need of succor and support.
As the Chinese-speaking world’s final bastion of freedom and democracy, Taiwan must continue to extend a helping hand.
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