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Ex-Hong Kong lawmaker Baggio Leung flees city for Washington

Leung to ask US to grant asylum to 200 Hongkongers without BN(O) passports

Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang, a Hong Kong activist and former lawmaker, tells Nikkei Asia he has fled the city and is in the U.S. He says he hopes Washington will grant asylum to 200 young Hongkongers.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang, a Hong Kong activist and former lawmaker, has fled the city and is in the U.S. to press Washington to allow asylum for young Hongkongers.

Leung told Nikkei Asia in a telephone interview that he had been "meeting with some congressmen and also some officers from the government" since flying to the U.S. capital via Los Angeles on Nov. 30.

He is the latest in a series of former lawmakers and activists to leave the territory to continue to speak out for Hongkongers' rights since Beijing imposed its national security law on the city in June. Former opposition lawmaker Ted Hui arrived in the U.K. last week, and activist Nathan Law held his first meeting with a British minister on Wednesday since fleeing to the country in July.

On Friday, Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai was charged with collusion with foreign forces under the new law and could face life imprisonment if convicted.

Leung, 34, said his objective in Washington was to ask for asylum for Hongkongers who were born after the British handover in 1997 -- those ineligible for British National (Overseas) passports. London has granted BN(O) passport holders five years of limited stay to work or study as a pathway to British citizenship.

Leung, who has a BN(O) and entered the U.S. on a travel visa, said: "I just feel like I need to do something. I'm lucky that I can leave and safely arrive to a safer country, but a lot of Hongkongers, my fellows, are still suffering now in Hong Kong and so I need to do something to make sure they have a choice."

He said his target was 200 places of asylum for young Hongkongers without a BN(O), "not a big figure for the U.S."

"Of course, if the U.K. or U.S. government can do more this would be great news to Hongkongers. But in the short term I think 200 is enough for the current situation."

On Monday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to give Hong Kong residents "Temporary Protected Status," which would allow them to live and work in the U.S. for five years and is usually only issued to protect people from war-ravaged nations, such as Somalia, Syria and Yemen. The move still needs approval from the Senate.

Leung's escape to the U.S. comes amid an intensifying crackdown on opposition and dissent in Hong Kong. This week has seen the arrests of more than a dozen pro-democracy activists, including former lawmakers and serving district councillors. Last week, three young activists, Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam, received prison sentences of up to 13.5 months for charges related to a demonstration outside police headquarters last year.

Leung won election to Hong Kong's Legislative Council in 2016 but was soon disqualified after insulting China during his oath-taking. He and another newly elected pro-independence lawmaker altered their oaths to insert a derogatory term for China. Leung also wrapped himself in a banner that read "Hong Kong is not China."

He served four weeks in prison earlier this year after being convicted of participating in an unlawful assembly in relation to an attempt to push his way into the legislature in 2016.

He faces bankruptcy proceedings as authorities are demanding he pay back around 930,000 HKD ($120,000) in salary and funds he received after his election as a lawmaker. As he is not facing criminal charges, he was not barred from leaving the city.

Despite that, Leung said he was worried he could be arrested at the airport. Andy Chan Ho-tin, founder of a now banned pro-independence party, was detained last year on his way to speak at a conference in Tokyo.

Leung said he was aware of "strange men" sitting around in the airport whom he suspected were agents. When heading through immigration, an automatic passport reader failed to let him through, so he had to hand his passport to an immigration officer.

"He looked at my passport for quite a long time, I would say two to three minutes, but finally he let me pass through the security," Leung said. "But even when you get past all the security to the departure gates, you can still see those strange people all around the airport. They are sitting around and pretending to be a normal guy, they don't look like it, they don't even have luggage."

"They can arrest me in the airport, they can stop me from leaving, I don't know why (they let me leave)," he said.

Leung said he decided to escape from Hong Kong after finding himself under surveillance on his release from prison. As he walked out to freedom on Sept. 29, he said there were 10 plainclothes police covertly waiting for him outside. On several occasions in the weeks that followed, he was aware of being followed by men with police-style cross-cropped hairstyles and ear sets _ he said he didn't know if they were from the police, national security or pro-Beijing media.

"Agnes Chow was followed by national security agents for a few days and then she was arrested so it's usually a bad sign," Leung said.

His attempts to advocate for asylum for young Hongkongers comes as U.S. President Donald Trump's administration is ramping up pressure on Beijing during its final weeks.

This week, Washington slapped new sanctions on some Chinese officials in response to Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong, freezing U.S. assets and barring travel to the country of 14 members of the National People's Congress's Standing Committee.

Beijing responded by announcing Thursday "reciprocal sanctions on U.S. officials of executive branch, people of Congress and NGOs who act egregiously and bear major responsibilities on Hong Kong-related issues and their immediate family members." It also said it would end visa-free access for U.S. diplomats visiting Hong Kong and Macau.

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