Chinese maritime authorities hailed the “successful interception” of a speedboat carrying ten residents from Hong Kong believed to be headed for Taiwan.
Among those aboard the ship was Andy Li, a pro-democracy campaigner who was arrested earlier this month along with Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai and student protester Agnes Chow under Hong Kong’s controversial new national security law.
In a statement released on the Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo, China’s coast guard confirmed that it had intercepted the boat around 9 a.m. local time on Sunday, August 23, in waters between the southern Chinese coastal province of Guangdong and Hong Kong.
“Chinese maritime officers were alerted to the presence of a boat in our jurisdiction and seized a speedboat suspected of illegally crossing the borders. More than 10 people were arrested, including two with the surnames Li and Tang,” the Chinese coast guard said, adding that the case was “under further investigation”.
Attempts by people in Hong Kong fleeing by boat are rare. Local media reports suggested that those on board were bound for Taiwan to claim political asylum.
Hong Kong police chief Chris Tang Ping-kueng confirmed that Li was among the 10 people who were arrested.
“We are actively seeking relevant information,” Tang said at a press conference earlier this week, adding that if a Hong Kong resident was to be arrested by mainland Chinese authorities for illegally crossing the border, they would be dealt with and handled under mainland law under an “established mechanism”.
“If these suspects are also wanted in Hong Kong, then we will follow the mechanism to see how they can be handed over to us,” he said.
Arrests have spiked in Hong Kong following the July implementation of the controversial national security law, which bans all forms of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries. It carries a harsh maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
News of the event at sea made its way to mainland Chinese social media, where it became a top talking point on the Sina Weibo microblog.
Congratulating the coast guard, some netizens called for authorities to “catch more people” fleeing Hong Kong and to impose harsh punishments.
“Now is an especially crucial time to clampdown on these sorts of people who threaten to disrupt the peace in Hong Kong,” said one Weibo user.
Others questioned if the Taiwanese government would really accept political asylum seekers from Hong Kong. “President Tsai Ing-wen has had a history of turning away Chinese dissidents and deporting them. Do they really believe that Taiwan is as safe a refuge as they think?”
The news was met with anger from pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
Prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong aired his concerns about the situation on Twitter, highlighting possible outcomes in a detailed series of tweets.
“With a more stringent national security law in China, as well as other draconian criminal laws Hong Kong doesn’t have, it is worrying that they could be sent to China’s secret courts and black prisons with restricted access to lawyers and the high risk of forced confession under torture,” Wong wrote.
“Since their situation is extremely critical given China’s highly controversial criminal justice system, we hope the world can keep watch on these developments and hope they can be back safe.”