HONG KONG — For Ha Sze-yuen, the sea surrounding Hong Kong is more than just a backdrop for sunsets and beaches.
The 73-year old views the ocean as his route to freedom – a means of escape from the oppression and poverty of communist China.
On the night of April 16, 1975, Ha and a friend slipped past Chinese border guards and plunged their homemade, inflatable rubber dinghy into the dark water of Shenzhen Bay.
They then started paddling toward the bright lights of Hong Kong, which at the time was still a British colony.
Ha said he had already been caught and jailed three times during previous failed attempts to swim across the water. After the third attempt, he said, guards beat him so badly his mother cried when she saw his wounds.
“I was fighting for my freedom,” Ha said. “I was afraid, but compared to life in China the fear was nothing.”
Ha said he and his mother, a school teacher, were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, a period of political chaos and violence unleashed by Mao Zedong, due in part to the fact his father had been a Kuomintang military officer who fled Communist rule after his side lost the Chinese civil war.
During the worst decades of Mao’s rule, thousands of Chinese fled south into Hong Kong.
In photos taken after Ha’s final, successful attempt to make it to the city, the beaming 28-year-old stands looking over Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor, dressed in bell-bottom trousers and a fashionable striped shirt.
But 45 years later, Ha no longer sees this historic port city as a sanctuary.
“Now I feel like freedom is being taken away gradually,” he said, referring to an ongoing crackdown on political opposition in the city by the government and Chinese authorities, who recently imposed a national security law on Hong Kong, which has further limited space for dissent and left many activists fearing arrest.
The arrests of close to 10,000 anti-government protesters over the past year and the increasing targeting of opposition politicians and activists have created a phenomenon that would have been considered unimaginable to many just a few years ago.
Some Hong Kongers are now taking great risks to flee the city, even choosing to try to smuggle themselves out by sea to Taiwan.
Some Hong Kong activists are starting to see parallels between the current situation and the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when hundreds of mainland Chinese protesters were smuggled by land and sea to Hong Kong via an organized pipeline called Operation Yellowbird. At the time, Hong Kong authorities did not return dissidents to mainland China.
“This time, the territory we need to escape from (includes) Hong Kong, and Taiwan becomes the destiny of people, the hope of Hong Kong people,” said Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy lawmaker.
Chu plans to resign his position in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, after the city’s government recently postponed elections by at least a year on public health grounds.
As authorities crack down on dissent in Hong Kong, a cottage industry of small businesses and organizations supporting the city’s protest movement is springing up in Taipei.
Aegis is a coffee shop decorated with giant murals depicting helmeted, goggled protesters as manga-style superheroes. Patrons are welcomed by a so-called Lennon Wall of Post-it notes with handwritten messages like “Stand with HK” and “Free HK,” a once-ubiquitous sight in Hong Kong at the height of last year’s protest movement.
The business employs activists who have fled Hong Kong.
According to the Taiwanese government, the number of Hong Kong residents settling in Taiwan more than doubled during the first six months of 2020, compared to the previous year.
One of the most famous recent emigres is Lam Wing-kee. For years, he ran Causeway Bay Books, a small store in the heart of Hong Kong specializing in sensational works critical of the Chinese leadership.
But in 2015, he and four of his colleagues disappeared from Hong Kong for months — only to reappear on Chinese state TV in a televised confession admitting to “illegal book trading.”
In a 2016 interview with CNN, Lam accused Chinese security forces of kidnapping him to the Chinese mainland and forcing the confession.
Three years later, Lam left Hong Kong for good, and started a new Causeway Bay Books in Taipei.
“Taiwan is a lot safer than Hong Kong,” Lam said. “I left a place where I may lose my freedom to a place where I have freedom.”
He spoke to CNN sitting beside the cash register in his shop, where he also sleeps at night to save rent. His desk is draped with a flag bearing the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Time.”
The term has since been declared “subversive” by Hong Kong authorities, and those who use it could be prosecuted.
CNN has spoken to several frontline protesters who recently fled to Taipei to escape criminal charges in Hong Kong.
One 19-year-old man, who asked not to be identified, said he boarded a commercial flight to Taiwan in January, before the coronavirus pandemic triggered a lockdown.
“It’s hard for me,” said the teenage exile, adding he felt homesick and wanted to return. “I still want to (take part in) the political movement … (but) there’s no room for that in Hong Kong right now.”
Other exiles in Taiwan said they had heard of fellow activists trying to escape by sea.
“Right now everyone somehow is trapped in Hong Kong,” said an older activist, who flew to Taiwan in July 2019 after participating in the storming and vandalizing of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.
“I can’t think of how we should keep fighting, or what young protesters should be doing now,” he added. “If we have a chance, we should escape.”