China Snatched 'Hong Kong 12' Off Speedboat, Giving Protest Movement New Life

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HONG KONG—A small group of dissidents climbed into a speedboat and set off from a tiny Hong Kong fishing village just after 7 a.m. on Aug. 23, in a daring attempt to rush 400 miles across major global shipping lanes to safety in Taiwan.

All but one of the 12 people on the boat faced charges related to Hong Kong’s protests, ranging from the widely applied accusation of rioting to far more serious weapons offenses, including charges of making explosives.

They didn’t get far. They were intercepted by China’s coast guard at around 9 a.m.—just 26 miles outside Hong Kong’s territorial waters—according to the city’s police.

The group, which has been held incommunicado in a jail on the mainland since then, has become known as the “Hong Kong 12.” Their situation is fueling fears in Hong Kong about the stark differences between the city’s British-styled courts and the mainland’s opaque legal system. These fears underpinned last year’s protests as well as opposition to a new national security law that was imposed on the city this summer by Beijing.

Their families say they didn’t learn until five days after their capture that they were being held in a detention facility in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, just over the border from Hong Kong. Ignoring calls for their return to Hong Kong, Chinese authorities last week made their arrest official and are preparing for prosecution on the mainland.

A Failed Sea Escape

China’s coast guard intercepted a speedboat within its territorial waters and captured 12 Hong Kongers on board who planned to seek refuge in Taiwan.

100 miles

100 km

TAIWAN

MAinland

China

Hong Kong

South China Sea

Po Toi O

Hong Kong

waters

Speedboat intercepted

100 miles

100 km

TAIWAN

MAinland

China

Hong Kong

South China Sea

Po Toi O

Hong Kong

waters

Speedboat intercepted

100 miles

100 km

TAIWAN

MAinland

China

Hong Kong

South China Sea

Po Toi O

Hong Kong

waters

Speedboat intercepted

Hong Kong waters

MAinland

China

TAIWAN

Hong Kong

Po Toi O

South China Sea

Speedboat

intercepted

100 miles

100 km

Source: China Coast Guard (intercept location)

The case has helped breathe some life into a protest movement crippled by the coronavirus outbreak and the new national security law. A smattering of protesters took to the streets on Oct. 1, China’s National Day, and risked arrest to chant for their release. Over the weekend, others climbed a mountain overlooking Hong Kong and beamed “SAVE 12” in lights to the city below. The U.S. State Department has weighed in as well, calling on China to make sure they receive fair treatment and trials.

“People in Hong Kong are worried that they’ll be tortured and kept in incommunicado detention indefinitely,” said Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy politician. “It’s a test case.”

The people who attempted to flee to Taiwan range in age from 17 to 33 and come from a diverse range of backgrounds—one is a cat-loving surveyor and another is a college student who performed in stage dramas. Most have been charged by China with illegal border crossing, which carries a one-year sentence. Two are accused of organizing the trip and could be imprisoned for much longer.

Families of the detained people have complained that the group should be returned to Hong Kong immediately. But China has shown no sign that it is considering backing down and the atmosphere is politically charged.

“Law-breakers have to be punished,” China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong said on Sept. 29.

Accused by Two Systems

All but one of the 12 people detained in Shenzhen for alleged illegal border crossing also faced charges in Hong Kong related to recent protests, ranging from the widely applied accusation of participating in riots to far more serious weapons offenses, including charges of manufacturing explosives.

Hong Kong fugitives, with age, occupation and accusations

Cheung Chun-fu

23, Student

Linked to a raid that found a gun and bullets

Cheung Ming-yu

21, Unemployed

Linked to a raid that found a gun and bullets

Yim Man-him

22, Student

Linked to a raid that found a gun and bullets

Liu Tsz-man

18, Student

Possessing materials for Molotov cocktails

Cheng Tsz-ho

18, Technician

Possessing materials for Molotov cocktails

Tang Kai-yin

31, Salesperson

Possessing materials for Molotov cocktails

Li Tsz-yin

30,

Construction surveyor

Rioting

Kok Tsz-lun

19, Student

Rioting

Andy Li

30, Programmer

Foreign collusion under the new national security law

Wong Wai-yin

30, Engineer

Manufacturing explosives

Hoang Lam Phuc

17, Student

Arson

Quinn Moon

33, Job unknown

Not charged

Cheung Chun-fu

23, Student

Linked to a raid that found a gun and bullets

Cheung Ming-yu

21, Unemployed

Linked to a raid that found a gun and bullets

Yim Man-him

22, Student

Linked to a raid that found a gun and bullets

Cheng Tsz-ho

18, Technician

Possessing materials for Molotov cocktails

Tang Kai-yin

31, Salesperson

Possessing materials for Molotov cocktails

Liu Tsz-man

18, Student

Possessing materials for Molotov cocktails

Li Tsz-yin

30, Construction surveyor

Rioting

Kok Tsz-lun

19, Student

Rioting

Andy Li

30, Programmer

Foreign collusion under the new national security law

Wong Wai-yin

30, Engineer

Manufacturing explosives

Hoang Lam Phuc

17, Student

Arson

Quinn Moon

33, Job unknown

Not charged

Cheung Chun-fu

23, Student

Linked to a raid that found a gun and bullets

Cheung Ming-yu

21, Unemployed

Linked to a raid that found a gun and bullets

Yim Man-him

22, Student

Linked to a raid that found a gun and bullets

Cheng Tsz-ho

18, Technician

Possessing materials for Molotov cocktails

Tang Kai-yin

31, Salesperson

Possessing materials for Molotov cocktails

Liu Tsz-man

18, Student

Possessing materials for Molotov cocktails

Li Tsz-yin

30, Construction surveyor

Rioting

Kok Tsz-lun

19, Student

Rioting

Andy Li

30, Programmer

Foreign collusion under the new national security law

Wong Wai-yin

30, Engineer

Manufacturing explosives

Hoang Lam Phuc

17, Student

Arson

Quinn Moon

33, Job unknown

Not charged

Cheung Chun-fu

23, Student

Linked to a raid that found a gun and bullets

Cheung Ming-yu

21, Unemployed

Linked to a raid that found a gun and bullets

Yim Man-him

22, Student

Linked to a raid that found a gun and bullets

Liu Tsz-man

18, Student

Possessing materials for Molotov cocktails

Tang Kai-yin

31, Salesperson

Possessing materials for Molotov cocktails

Cheng Tsz-ho

18, Technician

Possessing materials for Molotov cocktails

Kok Tsz-lun

19, Student

Rioting

Li Tsz-yin

30, Construction surveyor

Rioting

Andy Li

30, Programmer

Foreign collusion under the new national security law

Wong Wai-yin

30, Engineer

Manufacturing explosives

Hoang Lam Phuc

17, Student

Arson

Quinn Moon

33, Job unknown

Not charged

Source: staff and news reports

Since last year, a growing number of Hong Kongers have fled to Taiwan, an island democracy whose president has promised to provide support for protesters seeking sanctuary. Most have traveled by plane, though other groups are believed to have made the harrowing trip across the water.

Mainland authorities say the “Hong Kong 12” set out from Po Toi O, a weekend destination tucked against a steep hill in a remote cove on Hong Kong’s rural northeastern coast.

There were no experienced mariners aboard the speedboat. Hong Kong police said they paid smugglers for the boat before attempting their escape.

The risk of capture was high. China’s military has conducted exercises around Hong Kong, including holding practice runs for catching seaborne fugitives on the day the new national security law was imposed, according to a vivid video posted on a social media account of the People’s Liberation Army’s garrison in Hong Kong.

Flight-tracking data from flightaware.com shows a Hong Kong government surveillance-and-rescue plane equipped to detect smugglers circled over their departure area and route for hours that morning. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam wouldn’t comment on the plane at a briefing Tuesday after a local publication suggested it may have helped in the arrests, but she said the city’s police force wasn’t involved in the operation.

The group reached the limits of the city’s maritime jurisdiction in less than 30 minutes, Hong Kong police said, citing radar data and findings by mainland authorities. An hour and a half later, they were intercepted by China’s coast guard within the mainland’s jurisdiction.

Family members of the ‘Hong Kong 12’ at a news conference in Hong Kong on Sept. 12. Families of the detained people have said the group should be returned to Hong Kong right away.



Photo:

tyrone siu/Reuters

Mr. Chu, the pro-democracy politician, hired a boat in late September to retrace part of the journey in the hope that he might discover a fishing boat that saw the arrest or any other clues on what happened. Setting out in the same low tides and slow winds that prevailed the morning of the escape, he had a choppy journey even though he traveled at a slower speed.

“At one point my boatman said to me, less than 30 minutes was very fast and dangerous for someone new to boats,” Mr. Chu said.

Parents of the fugitives say their children gave scant hints of their plans. A week before Li Tsz-yin boarded the boat, he asked to take a picture with his mother, Chan Lok-yin. It struck her as unusual because he was shy and only took photos with her when she suggested it.

Related Video

China passed a national security law for Hong Kong that aims to quell anti-government protests following a year of unrest. WSJ’s Josh Chin explains why some countries have criticized the law and why critics say it could threaten the city’s status as a global financial hub. Photo: May James/Zuma Press (Originally Published June 30, 2020)

The photo was taken with an instant camera and is framed with a Star Wars theme. Mr. Li, in round glasses, looks stiffly into the camera while his mom rests her chin on his shoulder with a smile. She carries it in her wallet.

A 29-year-old surveyor and trained medic, Mr. Li regularly joined last year’s demonstrations and provided aid to protesters injured in clashes with police. He was arrested for rioting. In May, prosecutors added a charge of assaulting a police officer.

“He said he could spend as many as six years in prison,” his mother said. “He said he had no confidence in the judges.”

Another passenger on the boat, Wong Wai-yin, a 30-year-old mechanical engineer, worked at one of Hong Kong’s ports and lived in the city’s rural outskirts with his wife and mother. The family had never paid much attention to politics, but Mr. Wong’s mother, who asked not to be named, said they were galvanized in support of the demonstrations by images of police using force that they viewed as excessive.

Riot police detain people during a protest urging the release of the ‘Hong Kong 12’ on Oct. 1.



Photo:

tyrone siu/Reuters

In January, dozens of police raided the Wongs’ home and surrounding fields and discovered a hidden stash of homemade explosives. The raid came amid a string of homemade bomb incidents that appeared to suggest a violent evolution in tactics employed by the most radical protesters. After the raid, police arrested Mr. Wong, his wife, his mother and their domestic helper. His mother declined to comment on the explosives charges.

When Mr. Wong didn’t come home the day of the escape attempt, his mother feared he had committed suicide. He had long suffered from depression and both his father and uncle had died by suicide, Mrs. Wong said. He had tucked a letter laying out his will and an apology to his family for any stress he had caused into a book for learning the computer coding language Python.

After learning of his arrest, Mrs. Wong lined up a Beijing-based human rights lawyer to defend her son. As the lawyer traveled by high-speed train from central China to visit the jailed protester, plainclothes security agents tailed him and tried to convince him to drop the case, she said. When he arrived at the detention facility in Shenzhen, he was told his services wouldn’t be needed—two lawyers had already been appointed—and Mrs. Wong’s son didn’t want additional help.

It is a story she doesn’t buy.

“I don’t believe my son would not want my help,” Mrs. Wong said in a recent interview. “How would he pick a lawyer if he isn’t allowed on the phone?”

The lawyer hired by Mr. Wong’s mother, human rights advocate Ren Quanniu, declined to comment.

Li Ka-ki, the father of the arrested surveyor and medic, is also waiting for news.

“So far they’ve told us nothing,” the senior Mr. Li said. “The lawyers they appointed for my son have never contacted us. They wouldn’t even tell us the lawyers’ names.”

Write to Wenxin Fan at Wenxin.Fan@wsj.com and John Lyons at john.lyons@wsj.com

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