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Hong Kong’s Million-Dollar Bounties Are About More Than Arresting 8 Activists

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Hong Kong’s leader said Tuesday that a group of exiled pro-democracy activists will be “pursued for life.” Police announced a day earlier a reward of HK$1 million (a little over $125,000) in return for any information that could lead to the arrest of any of the eight political dissidents—which includes three former lawmakers—who were accused of violating the Chinese enclave’s controversial National Security Law.

“Our action is to tell everybody that endangering national security is not something we will tolerate,” Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee told the media during his weekly briefing.

The 2020 lawwhich was implemented to criminalize secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces—has been criticized for being used to crack down on pro-democracy figures and curb almost any form of dissent that could be viewed as a challenge to the Chinese and Hong Kong governments. The bounties, which are the first to be offered for suspected violators of the law and are higher than those set for murderers, may not ultimately lead to any arrests. The eight people targeted by authorities currently reside across Australia, the U.K., and the U.S., which have each condemned Hong Kong’s efforts to silence dissidents. Still, the move will make the pro-democracy activists’ lives more difficult—and could have far-reaching consequences that go beyond the eight particular people in question.

“This is a way to create a chilling effect for the Hong Kong overseas community,” Eric Lai, visiting researcher at King’s College London School of Law, tells TIME.

“We’re absolutely not staging any show or spreading terror,” said Senior Superintendent Steve Li of the Hong Kong police’s national security department on Monday. “We’re enforcing the law.”

China has long been criticized for its extraterritorial reach. Last week, an editorial in a Chinese state-owned newspaper detailed how China may coordinate with the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to help apprehend those it considers fugitives. A 2022 investigation by Spanish civil rights group Safeguard Defenders also found that mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities are looking to use Interpol mechanisms to go after political dissidents even though the organization’s bylaws strictly prohibit any intervention of “political, military, religious, or racial” nature. China and Hong Kong have also signed extradition treaties with dozens of countries around the world, and, although all three countries where the eight targeted activists are based have suspended their extradition agreements since the implementation of the National Security Law, the arrest warrants severely restrict their movement.

Anna Kwok, one of the eight dissidents named by the Hong Kong police who is now in the U.S., tells TIME that she has to be increasingly careful of the countries she could enter since the announcement. “The same level of caution includes the route of my flights,” she says.

But for Kwok, the greater danger is the effect the bounty may have on her ability to engage with members of the Chinese and Hong Kong diaspora. “The Hong Kong authorities are trying to rile up a mob mentality among pro-Beijing supporters,” she explains. “It’s a usual tactic from the Chinese Communist Party to pit people against people.”

The Inter-Parliamentary Union on China echoed this, saying in a statement that the police arrest warrants threaten to “exacerbate community tensions.”

Malte Kaeding, a senior lecturer of international politics and director of the Hong Kong Studies Hub at the University of Surrey, adds that “overseas organizations might also be put under pressure to question their links to the activists,” which threatens the dissidents’ support system outside of the city-state.

The announcement of the bounties alone dissuades people all over the world from speaking up against diminishing freedoms in China and Hong Kong. Alfred Wu, an associate professor who researches Chinese governance at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, tells TIME. “This is the point,” he says. “In reality, whether people will be prosecuted, I mean, that’s another story.”

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