The exiles and the inmates: The heart-wrenching hand dealt to Hong Kong's democracy activists

Updated 0451 GMT (1251 HKT) December 21, 2020

Hong Kong and London (CNN)In the dark small hours, two recurring nightmares terrorize the sleep of Eddie Chu. In the first, he is lost overseas and cannot get home to Hong Kong. In the second, the former lawmaker is day tripping with his nine-year-old daughter.

The latter scenario might not sound nightmarish, but democracy activist Chu, 43, knows what it symbolizes: his dread of being separated from his daughter if he eventually goes to jail. The first embodies his other major fear: being exiled from Hong Kong.
As a global pandemic brought life in many cities to a halt this year, the ground beneath Hong Kong shifted at an astonishing speed, courtesy of sweeping legislation imposed by Beijing in June that outlawed opposing China in any form, on any platform, anywhere in the world.
Pro-democracy activists Eddie Chu, Joshua Wong, Owen Chow and Lester Shum distribute leaflets in support of 12 activists who tried to flee to Taiwan.
Overnight, the previously unthinkable became reality: traditionally peaceful rallies were banned, some Facebook posts were criminalized, uttering certain phrases became illegal, the legislature lost almost all its democratic figures, and dramatic scenes unfolded of Hong Kongers trying to flee by boat and seeking asylum.
The stakes in agitating for democracy exploded. Activists have been dealt a brutal hand: stay in Hong Kong to risk being jailed alongside icons Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Jimmy Lai, as well as hundreds of others lacking name recognition, or flee to a democratic safe haven to exist in self-imposed exile far from the people and places that have been the physical and spiritual touchstones of their lives.
Chu faces 11 charges for various bursts of democracy activism over the past 13 months, and believes he's looking at two to three years in jail. Chu says he will stay to serve any sentence he is handed: "You can't play the first half of the match and not stay for the second."
But others are choosing to flee -- and Chu supports them, too. The fight for Hong Kong's democratic freedoms is so hamstrung at home, he says, that most activists agree it must also happen from abroad. Local media estimates that more than 350 Hong Kong democracy activists have claimed asylum globally since 2018, while others have fled to safe havens such as Taiwan, which doesn't have an asylum law but can offer shelter.
A two-pronged movement is now in full swing. Within the exiled group there are myriad beliefs, strategies and even opposing personalities. And while they have avoided jail, interviews with seven exiles for this piece show their lives are not simple: even abroad, they watch over their shoulders, communicate on secure apps, and fear the slightest contact with people in Hong Kong could endanger those they left behind.

The contours of escape

After Baggio Leung was released from a month-long stint in a Hong Kong jail in September, during which he says he was mostly held in isolation, he believes someone began following him. "Usually, this is a bad sign. It means you are in the sights of the regime again," says Leung, 34, the former leader of Youngspiration, a political party that called for Hong Kong independence -- the idea that most riles Beijing, and one that is now illegal under the new security law.
For days on end in the weeks after, he says he avoided going to his apartment, sleeping elsewhere to try to throw them off his tail. But that wasn't the only curious hallmark of surveillance on his radar. Leung says his personal cell phone's 6 gigabyte data allowance suddenly drained in one day. "That's usually a bad sign, too," he says, explaining it can be a telltale of a tapped device.
A generation of young Hong Kongers were swept into politics by the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which saw young democracy activists occupy parts of central Hong Kong for months, and propelled student leaders such as Joshua Wong and Nathan Law to international fame.
Leung became a lawmaker on the back of that movement, but was disqualified from the city's legislature in 2016 for improper oath taking -- he wore a flag saying "Hong Kong is not China" while being sworn in, and inserted curse words into the official text. He was jailed for storming a meeting to try to retake the oath.
In late November this year, Leung decided to flee. He bought three plane tickets and headed to Hong Kong airport. "If it is last minute, usually it's more secure," he says. Leung is now in Washington D.C., where he intends to lobby US politicians to take action on Hong Kong, and to seek asylum. He claims to have severed all ties with his family and political groups at home, as do most self-exiled Hong Kongers.
Leung is not the only high-profile democracy activist who feels his past actions have irredeemably put him in the crosshairs of Beijing -- Nathan Law, once Hong Kong's youngest legislator, fled to London in July. "We need people who can communicate with international media, politicians, and can deliver Hong Kong people's voice accurately and profoundly," Law says.