‘Back where we were’: history repeats for Hong Kong's freedom swimmers

Thi there got here one at a time, dragging themselves from the ocean directly to the shores of Hong Kong over oyster beds, their our bodies bleeding. Some had swum for miles, braving uneven, treacherous seas, tied in combination by means of ropes. Others made the determined adventure in makeshift boats.

They had been referred to as freedom swimmers – loads of 1000’s of younger women and men who fled mainland China and risked their lives on the lookout for freedom within the British colony amid the oppressive political actions in China between 1950 and 1980, which centered “magnificence enemies”.

Those that survived to inform their stories had been the fortunate ones. Many extra by no means made it. Some had been shot lifeless by means of border guards, or arrested and despatched to labour camps. Others drowned or had been attacked by means of sharks. Some had been carried out – the act of defection was once regarded as treason.

Four ‘freedom swimmers' from China are led away by Hong Kong police for questioning at Tai Po Kau on May 31, 1971.



4 ‘freedom swimmers’ from China are led away by means of Hong Kong police for wondering at Tai Po Kau on Would possibly 31, 1971. Photograph: SCMP

Those who controlled to achieve Hong Kong, now of their 70s and 80s, have loved a long time of civil liberties unprecedented at the mainland – the precise to air their perspectives, get right of entry to uncensored information and data on-line in addition to the liberty to display.

Till now. 3 months in the past, China imposed a countrywide safety regulation (NSL) at the area in accordance with months of pro-democracy protests. The trade in Hong Kong has been swift and brutal.

Freedom swimmers map

Dozens of activists and dissenters were arrested. Police have raided an opposition newspaper place of business and arrested senior personnel. Outspoken media shops were censured. Books were pulled from public libraries. Colleges and universities were ordered to advertise “nationwide safety schooling”, brushed aside liberal-leaning personnel and textbooks were censored. Independence slogans are banned and students, newshounds and on a regular basis electorate all of sudden in finding themselves afraid to talk out about politics. A number of pro-democracy figures were compelled to escape out of the country, whilst some didn’t make it.

The implementation of the regulation has been specifically painful for the liberty swimmers, who now concern the gadget they risked the whole thing to flee is all of sudden on the door.

‘The loose global can be my rebirth’


‘We swam to Hong Kong for freedom part a century in the past. What now?’ – video

Hon Guy Po got here to Hong Kong from China in 1968, after years of attempting. In 1966, he swam for 6 hours at the hours of darkness from the mainland to Macau and stayed simply lengthy sufficient to make sufficient cash to take an unlawful boat adventure to Hong Kong. At the gruelling adventure he was once sustained by means of one idea: “The loose global can be my rebirth.”

Hon now fears the very issues that made Hong Kong a secure haven for refugees like himself – freedom of speech and expression – are briefly disappearing. The vagaries of the regulation, which prohibits acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with international forces, imply its succeed in and gear stay unknown.

“Freedom is like daylight and air,” he instructed the Parent. “When knowledge and press freedoms are suppressed, then many spaces will wither.”

“The valuable factor about Hong Kong was once its liberal atmosphere the place a wide variety of critiques might be aired,” Hon mentioned. “However now, many of us are afraid to talk out. Dwelling underneath concern is painful and humiliating.”

Hon’s most effective ambition as a tender guy was once to depart China. He frequently went hungry throughout his time at college between 1958 and 1962, when Mao Zedong introduced the Nice Soar Ahead that ended in national famine. His research were interrupted when scholars had been drafted to construct railways, make metal in yard furnaces and paintings on farms.

Hon Man Po



Hon Guy Po got here to Hong Kong from China in 1968, after swimming for 5 hours at the hours of darkness. Photograph: Yuling Chow/The Parent

After in the end graduating, he came across the suffocating environment of intensified “political struggles” insufferable. As anyone belonging to the condemned “landlord magnificence with out of the country ties”, Hon was once despatched to a far off island off the southern coast of China to be a trainer, the place he was once frequently criticised for his “bourgeois” pondering.

He attempted to flee two times earlier than 1966, the primary time he was once pushed again by means of a hurricane after swimming for 10 hours, the second one time he was once bitten by means of a guard canine and detained for months. Now he sees his uncooked desperation within the movements of Hong Kong’s formative years.

Twelve Hong Kongers, together with a tender activist charged underneath the nationwide safety regulation, had been detained by means of China’s coastguard whilst looking to flee to Taiwan in past due August. Others have fled to the United Kingdom and the United States, whilst many citizens say they plan to to migrate out of concern their kids will develop up underneath the communist birthday party’s political indoctrination.

“If I couldn’t go away, that will be the finish of my lifestyles … I had no selection however to escape,” mentioned Hon, now 82. He beloved his new-found freedom in Hong Kong, the place he labored in a textile manufacturing facility in the beginning, however in the end was a contract author, based his personal mag and authored dozens of books.

The nationwide safety regulation China imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020 has wrought profound adjustments at the area of greater than 7 million other folks.

From who in point of fact runs Hong Kong now to the destiny of the pro-democracy motion and the way main world firms are grappling with the consequences of the brand new regulation, our newshounds in China, Hong Kong, London, the United States and Australia have investigated how the unparalleled crackdown impacts now not most effective Hong Kong, however the global. 

In addition to charting the brand new restrictions on freedoms and civil liberties, the sequence seeks out voices of hope and acts of resistance – and asks what subsequent for Hong Kong, because it stands at a crossroads in its historical past.

“It was once a aid so that you can write freely. I bottled up numerous nervousness when I used to be in China so had rather a lot to get off my chest,” mentioned Hon, additionally recognized by means of his pen identify Hon San Pik. “Hong Kong was once a spot of rebirth and alternative for me. There was once freedom and tolerance, and you have to do what you favor. I sought after to be a author and it was once unattainable in China.”

Rights advocates say the nationwide safety regulation marks Beijing’s maximum competitive attack at the town’s freedoms because it was once transferred to Chinese language keep an eye on in 1997. Many imagine issues will most effective worsen.

“The nationwide safety regulation represents a whole-of-society onslaught on Hong Kong,” mentioned Victoria Hui, a political scientist on the College of Notre Dame in the United States. “In silencing all dissent, Beijing is impulsively dismantling the town’s as soon as competent, environment friendly and independent establishments.”

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong speaks to the media after being arrested for unlawful assembly related to a 2019 protest against a government ban on face masks.



Professional-democracy activist Joshua Wong speaks to the media after being arrested for illegal meeting associated with a 2019 protest in opposition to a central authority ban on face mask. Photograph: Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Pictures

“The way in which the nationwide safety regulation was once offered marked the tip of the Chinese language authorities’s constant dedication, or pretence, that it might adhere to the Elementary Regulation,” mentioned Prof Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute in London, regarding the mini-constitution installed position after the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China. “If the similar trajectory continues for the following 20 years, Hong Kong can have a brand new technology who would now not know what the present more youthful technology is aware of, and is probably not preventing for a similar. That turns out like Beijing’s long-term recreation plan.”

The Hong Kong authorities has mentioned the nationwide safety regulation is not going to undermine the town’s criminal or judicial techniques, and citizens’ civil rights assured underneath the Elementary Regulation and global treaties stay safe. It’s “essential in bringing Hong Kong again not off course and safeguarding our nation’s sovereignty, safety and building pursuits,” a remark given to the Parent mentioned.

“The lawful rights and freedoms of our law-abiding and peace-loving electorate, buyers and travellers aren’t affected,” it mentioned.

The second one handover

Many others who illegally escaped from China to Hong Kong within the 1960s and 70s percentage Hon’s sentiments, however having lived underneath communist rule, maximum really feel uncomfortable speaking at the file in regards to the nationwide safety regulation.

Chow Ming Fai*, 73, a former crimson guard within the Cultural Revolution who swam for 6 hours throughout 12km of the Dapeng Bay to achieve Hong Kong in 1973, says it breaks his center to peer the regulation destroying the rights and freedoms that made Hong Kong a secure haven for him just about 50 years in the past.

Many freedom swimmers used anything that would float to escape from the rigours of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s



Many freedom swimmers used the rest that may go with the flow to flee from the rigours of the Cultural Revolution within the 1960s Photograph: South China Morning Submit/Getty Pictures

“We’re briefly shedding our sense of freedom. Simply the truth that I don’t really feel relaxed speaking to you at the file attests to that,” he mentioned. “Hong Kong sheltered escapees like us however now it’s not loose … We struggled so exhausting to return right here and now they’re turning it into China.”

In 1968, he was once one among greater than 16 million children despatched to the geographical region throughout the Cultural Revolution. The possibility of being caught there for the remainder of his lifestyles made him flee.

In 1973, he and his female friend walked for days within the wild, hiding in hillside trees till evening and climbing at the hours of darkness. They survived on their most effective meals – balls of flour blended with oil and sugar – till they reached the seashore in what’s now the boomtown of Shenzhen. Armed with a floating ring, they tied themselves along with a work of rope and went into the ocean. Braving large waves for 6 hours, they landed in Hong Kong and had been taken in by means of a sympathetic villager.

A man is arrested during an anti-government protest in Hong Kong. Freedom swimmer Wong Hung said he could identify with the protesters.



A person is arrested throughout an anti-government protest in Hong Kong. Freedom swimmer Wong Hung mentioned he may just establish with the protesters. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty Pictures

“We would have liked to visit Hong Kong, now not simply to fill our stomachs, however for freedom,” mentioned Chow.

In Guangdong province, the place Chow grew up, few believed the federal government propaganda that portrayed Hong Kong as an “evil capitalist town”. Bored with the ever present communist propaganda, younger other folks secretly listened to Hong Kong’s radio broadcast – the inside track, radio dramas and pa songs had been their “religious meals”.

“Regardless of the propaganda mentioned, we knew that they had quite a few meals as a result of our family members despatched us meals parcels once we had been ravenous,” he mentioned.

Now Chow says he may just foresee within the thick of the protest motion that raged throughout Hong Kong in 2019 that China would hand down heavy punishments to what it sees because the “rebellious son”, however few other folks anticipated measures as harsh because the nationwide safety regulation. “China had by no means been humiliated such a lot by means of a spot underneath its rule, it might be deeply green with envy and vengeful,” he mentioned.

Nonetheless, he blamed China for failing to fulfil the promise of granting authentic common suffrage to Hong Kong for its long-drawn-out political disaster. Professional-democracy protests, sparked by means of a debatable extradition regulation that would see people despatched to mainland China for trial, began off non violent ultimate yr however became violent as frustrations fastened.

Riot police put up an warning flag during an anti-government protest on September 6, 2020 in Hong Kong, China.



Rebellion police submit an caution flag throughout an anti-government protest on September 6, 2020 in Hong Kong, China. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty Pictures

“They issued a clean cheque. The Communist birthday party isn’t devoted,” he mentioned. “Younger persons are most effective preventing for what they have got been promised.”

Wong Hung*, who escaped to Hong Kong in a picket boat in 1970, mentioned the nationwide safety regulation quantities to the second one handover and Hong Kong is successfully not dominated underneath the “one nation, two techniques” coverage. “Hong Kong would possibly have returned to China and it’s now ‘one nation, one gadget’, however other folks’s hearts have now not returned,” Wong mentioned.

He mentioned he may just establish with the younger Hong Kong activists who needed to flee. When he set foot in Hong Kong after surviving prime waves and a police boat chase, he shed tears on the idea that he would possibly by no means see his circle of relatives once more.

“Like us again then, they might by no means go back,” he says. To Wong, it was once poignant that where the place he came across freedom has develop into where that his kids are taking into account leaving. “All the ones years in the past I risked my lifestyles to return right here, and now I’m previous, we’re again to the place we had been,” he mentioned. “We’re reverting again to the Cultural Revolution.”

“That is very painful for me.”

* Names were modified to give protection to their id

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