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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Halfway House No More

Mainland dissidents are losing a safe haven

By Sangwon Suh and
Anastasia Stanmeyer / Hong Kong


HER DARK EYES CURIOUSLY scan the disheveled room, briefly halting on the slogan-filled pro-democracy posters on the walls. Sitting in the office of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic and Democratic Movement in China, Angel hesitantly recounts her experiences in the mainland penal system. She is one of many lesser-known comrades of the celebrated -- and imprisoned -- dissidents whose photographs grace the walls.

Angel (not her real name) first became involved in China's democratic movement at 16. In 1989, she was part of a group that shuttled information about the Tiananmen protests to her hometown of Guiyang in southern China. Caught and charged as a counterrevolutionary and a spy, she served six years in a prison labor camp. When she was not picking tea leaves on a farm, she was kept in solitary confinement. At times, her mind was in such hungry delirium that she imagined her pillow to be bread.

Following her release, she slipped into Hong Kong three years ago with her infant daughter -- becoming one of between 500 and 1,000 people who fled to the territory after the Tiananmen crackdown. Dissident friends helped her settle, and the Hong Kong government issued her a temporary visa to remain in the territory indefinitely. Now 33, she has become accustomed to life in the hyper-capitalist metropolis, establishing a career as a newspaper editor and recently marrying. While she keeps her past a closely guarded secret, even from her employer, she remains true to her activist roots: she regularly writes for magazines critical of Beijing and joins pro-democracy demonstrations.

For now, her safety is secure. China has been looking the other way as long as Hong Kong is discreet about letting mainland dissidents stay or resettling them elsewhere. But with the July handover approaching, the fear that compelled Angel to flee the mainland is gripping her again. She places no faith in Beijing's promise of "one country, two systems" and predicts renewed persecution if she remains after the handover.

Of the dissidents who have not departed Hong Kong for a third country, an unknown number have quietly integrated into the society. No longer politically active, they feel no compulsion to leave before the handover; some even travel to China regularly to do business or visit relatives. But more than 40 dissidents and their families are still seeking to be resettled, like Angel.

For these asylum-seekers, the writing is on the wall. Beijing, which considers dissidents criminals, has warned Hong Kong not to become "a place that offers convenience to these people who try to escape punishments under China's legal system." It also reiterated the perennial warning for Hong Kong not to be used as a base for subverting China's government. Also a cause for concern was the recent controversial proposal by a subgroup of the Beijing-backed Preparatory Committee overseeing the transition to dilute or repeal some laws safeguarding civil liberties.

Angel already feels the pressure. Mainland authorities questioned old classmates and family members shortly after she telephoned them, demanding to see her letters. Police have also warned her mother that Angel should not be so active in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Angel's request for asylum in 1995 was passed from the Hong Kong government to the U.S. consulate, which responded last year that there should be no problem. But she has heard nothing since. "I'm worried that I will still be here on July 1," she says. "I will lose my chance to go to a third country if that happens."

She probably need not worry. According to a Western diplomat, the U.S., Canada, France, Austria, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Japan have quietly agreed to help with the remaining asylum requests. Each country would accept three to five dissidents, with Britain taking the rest. But, says the diplomat, "it's not a fast process."

These 11 countries are continuing a process started eight years ago, with a heightened urgency to resolve the matter before the changeover. They want to avoid public attention; they do not want China to lose face and get upset, making the job of resettlement more difficult for Hong Kong. Without fanfare, the dissidents are to be granted asylum and flown out.

But at least one won't be going. Well-known labor activist Han Dongfang, 33, plans to continue publishing in Hong Kong his underground monthly newsletter, which is distributed to mainland factory workers. An electrician by training, Han organized the first union in China since 1949. He also took part in the Tiananmen demonstrations. "I didn't know anything about independent trade unions, but I felt that there was injustice for the poor working class," he says.

Imprisoned for 22 months, he was released due to ill health. In 1992 he went to the U.S. where doctors removed his right lung. But when he tried to go home, the Beijing government barred his entry. Two other return attempts failed, leaving him marooned in Hong Kong. Han welcomes the changeover as a sort of homecoming, although he would not be surprised if the future government asks him to leave when his work permit expires on Aug. 22, 1998. But until that happens, he plans to continue his human-rights activities and speak at international labor events.

Whether leaving or staying, the dissidents rue the coming end of Hong Kong's days as a haven. Su, a 33-year-old factory worker who was jailed four times, laments that activists in China will no longer have an escape route. "They don't have anywhere else to go," he says. With their own concerns about the handover, many in Hong Kong know the feeling well.


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