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Beijing tightens its political grip on Hong Kong

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A Hong Kong activist said this week that she is studying in Canada and has no intention of going back to Hong Kong, despite pressure from the Chinese government to do so. And as NPR's Emily Feng reports, the story of how she left reveals the extent of Beijing's control in Hong Kong.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Now 27 years old, Agnes Chow was just a teenager when she became a leading student activist against Beijing's policies in Hong Kong. Here she is in 2019 on Sky News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AGNES CHOW: I have the responsibility as part of Hong Kongers to correctly tell the situation in Hong Kong to the international world but not the Chinese Communist Party's version.

FENG: She spent half a year in prison for protesting. And after she was released in 2021, she surrendered her passport and was questioned frequently by police. Once a public figure, she went quiet until this week, when she wrote on Instagram to say she'd been given her passport back under certain conditions.

CHOW: I was being forced to write a letter of repentance. And I was being forced to go to mainland China.

FENG: The police had organized a tour for her to mainland China to see its economic development. And she was to return to Hong Kong and check in with them every few months. It resembled a less intense version of the patriotic education Chinese authorities do with some dissidents in the mainland and with ethnic Uyghurs in detention camps in the region of Xinjiang.

KRIS CHENG: It wasn't as surprising as such.

FENG: This is Kris Cheng, an independent Hong Kong journalist. He left after Beijing implemented a National Security Law outlawing dissent in the region in 2020 and now lives in London. He's done reporting on patriotic education and how it's being rolled out in Hong Kong, too.

CHENG: So young prisoners had to go through so-called education programs, which includes, some of them says, watching patriotic programs, some programs about the advancement of technology in mainland China.

FENG: Another example is a documentary the Hong Kong Police released just this week featuring Tsang Chi-kin, a 22-year-old protester who had been shot by police during anti-government protests in 2019. He is serving a nearly four-year prison stint for rioting.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED DOCUMENTARY)

TSANG CHI-KIN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: In the documentary, Tsang says he was goaded on to protest by an atmosphere of lawlessness. Critics of the documentary say Tsang could have been coerced into saying this, reminiscent of the forced confessions China has taped from political prisoners, including that of a Hong Kong book publisher named Gui Minhai, taken from his home in Thailand and later imprisoned in China on national security charges.

MAGNUS FISKESJO: They all have this uncanny flavor of total control.

FENG: This is Magnus Fiskesjo, an anthropology professor at Cornell University and a friend of Gui, the publisher.

FISKESJO: It's instilling fear in people. That, I think, is their goal.

FENG: And it's working. Hong Kongers now fear a respected Hong Kong journalist missing in Beijing could be detained. Colleagues and friends raised the alarm this month, saying that Minnie Chan with the English-language South China Morning Post has been unreachable since October after attending a Beijing defense conference. The paper said this week Chan was on personal leave in Beijing to handle a private matter. But given Beijing's history of disappearing and silencing mainland critics, the fear is that may be happening at scale in Hong Kong, as well. Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.