‘Underneath, Everything Has Changed’
Three prodemocracy activists on the run from Beijing, three wild and bizarre journeys to—and through—America
To avoid drawing unwanted attention, Tommy and the four others dressed as if they were heading out for a leisurely day. It was July 2020, and the weather was perfect for some time on the water. The young men acted as though they knew one another well, and were excited to reconnect. But inside, Tommy felt panicked and desperate. He was about to attempt an escape from Hong Kong, where he faced a near-certain jail sentence for his role in the prodemocracy protests there. He feared that he, or one of these strangers, might have been tailed by police to the docks.
In the scenario that kept replaying in his head, officers closed in on the men as they stood next to their boat, a roughly 20-foot rigid speedboat laden with jugs of extra fuel and fishing equipment. Tommy—who asked to be identified by a nickname—didn’t allow himself to relax until the boat sped away from land, the coastline shrinking behind them and the blue sky stretching out in front.
As the boat’s hull slapped against the rolling swells, the life vests the men carried flew overboard, but they didn’t bother to turn back. One leaned over the edge and peeled identifying numbers off the boat’s bow, hoping for an extra layer of anonymity. They took turns driving—the young men had learned their elementary boating skills from watching videos on YouTube and had practiced a handful of times. No matter who was behind the wheel, they kept the engine throttle wide open and scanned the horizon for trouble. The whipping wind and the din of the motors made communication nearly impossible. The sun set. The lights of fishing boats and enormous shipping vessels bobbed up and down.
Tommy lost track of how long they’d been driving the boat—at least 10 hours. When the GPS unit showed the vessel leaving Hong Kong waters, they finally eased off on the throttle. “We knew we were safe,” Tommy later told me. They passed around snacks and water, then introduced themselves to one another, sharing their real names for the first time and explaining their reasons for undertaking such a perilous journey: All were prodemocracy activists looking for safety on the island of Taiwan. Their bid for freedom, however, would soon draw in the United States.
Hours earlier, one of Tommy’s green Vans sneakers had sailed over the side of the boat and into the water. No one had considered stopping to retrieve it. Now, in spontaneous, rowdy celebration of their nearly completed escape, the group peed on the remaining shoe, then kicked it overboard—a memory that Tommy would laugh about later.
Their plan had been fairly simple: If they made it this far, they would turn off their engines, and call a contact in Taiwan who would alert the coast guard to their presence. When the authorities arrived, they would claim they had run out of fuel on a fishing trip and needed to be towed to shore. Only once on land would they divulge their true stories. Tommy gazed upward as they waited for the coast guard to arrive. The light pollution radiating from Hong Kong normally obscured his view of the stars. But here, in the open water, he could see the whole sky.
When the Taiwanese coast guard appeared, the five men waved flashlights to attract attention. Their plan fell apart almost as soon as the authorities reached their boat. The coast guard had extra fuel on hand, and initially offered to simply transfer it over, then send the wayward boat on its way. As the coast guard crew spoke to the young men, however, they grew suspicious. What were the five doing in the area? Why were they carrying so few supplies and traveling in an unmarked boat? “They knew that we weren’t just out fishing,” Tommy told me.
The young men fessed up, telling the sailors their real intentions. They had been among huge crowds of people who since the spring of 2019 had taken to the streets to call for democracy in Hong Kong. Now they feared for their safety as Beijing not only stamped out the protests, but moved to decimate all dissent in the city. The Taiwanese coast guard brought the group ashore where they were questioned by military officials. The next day, they were moved again by ship. Tommy slept on and off. He wasn’t sure where they were heading.
Eventually, he and the others were deposited in rooms that reminded him of the dorms at his university back in Hong Kong. They had no computers and no internet access. Government officials—Tommy isn’t sure who they were—came and went, asking more questions. Eventually, the five men were allowed to watch TV and read articles from Apple Daily, the now-defunct prodemocracy newspaper. As their confinement stretched into months, Tommy, who had been an arts student before he abandoned his studies, sketched to pass the time.
Some of the young men wanted to stay in Taiwan, but others hoped to resettle elsewhere. They were given English lessons by a tutor. The materials, for reasons none of them understood, covered the history and geography of Boston, and how to navigate the city on public transportation. To mark New Year’s Eve, Tommy shaved off his long hair. He wanted a symbolic new start. Two weeks later—about six months after he’d fled Hong Kong—the journey to freedom that started on a small boat would end on a commercial flight that touched down in the United States.
Hong Kong was long a magnet for people seeking opportunity and running from persecution. Residents of mainland China fleeing the violence and political purges of the Cultural Revolution swam toward the city’s lights—Tommy’s grandmother among them. In the late 1970s, thousands packed into ships, many of which were cramped wooden fishing boats, to escape to Hong Kong from Vietnam as that country’s war ended. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, student activists from China snuck into Hong Kong.
Now the fleeing has reversed, as Beijing’s crusade to strip Hong Kong of its defining freedoms has created a wave of exiles. “It is still beautiful,” Kwok Ka-ki, a former prodemocracy lawmaker, told me of the city, “but underneath, everything has changed.” Soon after we spoke, he was arrested, and now faces charges under a draconian national-security law imposed in 2020, an effort to extinguish any form of political opposition wholesale.
At Hong Kong’s airport—even as it is crippled by stringent COVID regulations—crowds gather nightly to board flights abroad, aiming to join the tens of thousands who have already left. Among them are parents worried about the city’s more nationalistic curriculum, activists escaping the ever-shrinking space for dissent, and former prodemocracy legislators who have seen their colleagues locked up.
Over the course of several years living in and covering Hong Kong, I have met countless such exiles. Some want nothing more than anonymity in their new countries, hoping to put the movement behind them. Others remain deeply involved in activism from abroad, setting up organizations and creating online initiatives. They share an acute feeling of isolation and sadness, unmoored from a place they once believed they could help save.
Three in particular are fleeing almost certain jail time after joining in prodemocracy demonstrations and agitation, their stories highlighting the gulf between Hong Kong’s promise and its reality today. They either escaped aboard a tiny boat, ultimately crossing a vast distance, or tested U.S. border policy by illegally slipping into America on land. One later spent months walking from New York to Florida on foot to raise awareness of Hong Kong’s plight. “You think this is crazy?” Tommy said to me when I marveled at the riskiness of his trip. “Imagine how I feel.”
The exiles—all of whom, like Tommy, asked to be identified by nicknames to avoid retribution from Beijing and pro-China groups—are each grappling with their newfound freedom in different ways, at times clashing with other members of the Hong Kong diaspora over how best to help their home city, and wrestling with guilt for those left behind. They have put their fate in the hands of the U.S., a country they still see as a beacon in their fight against China.
Almost as soon as Tommy and his fellow travelers were escorted ashore in Taiwan, officials there began working to resolve the geopolitical dilemma the group had inadvertently set off. Beijing had baselessly accused the U.S. and Taiwan of fomenting the Hong Kong protests, so a public announcement about the five could further inflame tensions. Taiwan—which lives under Beijing’s constant threat of forceful reunification with mainland China—sought American help. The State Department worked with a Hong Kong lobbyist in Washington, D.C., to begin planning the group’s transfer to U.S. soil.
In January 2021, the men boarded a flight from Taipei to New York City. Through all those months in limbo in Taiwan, Tommy had been unable to directly contact his family. He had rehearsed cracking a joke to tell them he was fine, but when he landed in the U.S. and finally spoke to them on the phone, he broke down crying.
On the surface, Tommy and Ray have a lot in common. Both have family members who fled mainland China for the relative safety of Hong Kong (albeit decades apart), and both grew up on tales of Chinese Communist Party abuse. And though the men’s paths did not cross in Hong Kong, they were both active participants in the city’s protest movement. Tommy had been among those who broke into the Legislative Council building; Ray was one of the students who occupied a university campus in a days-long siege.
But the two are also very different. Tommy is a wiry, bespectacled 24-year-old, whereas Ray, 20, is stocky and gregarious, a bit of a smartass. Tommy was riven with fear and uncertainty during the months it took him to plan his escape from Hong Kong; Ray seemed to me to be totally unbothered by the risks he had taken.
Ray fled Hong Kong aboard a plane bound for London in August 2020. After arriving and looking up Britain’s asylum-acceptance rates, he turned his sights to the United States. But the Trump administration had banned flights from Europe as part of efforts to curtail the coronavirus pandemic, so after a few months in Britain, and some scheming with an eccentric Chinese activist and immigration lawyer he connected with on Twitter, he boarded another flight, this one bound for Mexico. He would cross into the U.S. on foot.
Ray first attempted the crossing soon after arriving, in January 2021. He walked for hours after being dropped near a crossing point by a smuggler. It was frigid and windy. To avoid detection, he trekked in complete darkness. But no one stopped him, and eventually he arrived at a gas station in Southern California, where a contact met him. He fell asleep during the car ride north and awoke only when the driver announced, “Welcome to L.A.”
From there, he initiated an asylum claim, which likely would have inched through the bureaucracy were it not for Ray’s own impatience. Holed up in an Airbnb east of Los Angeles, he killed time watching cable news. He was particularly infatuated with debates over immigration. On one show, liberal-leaning politicians claimed the American system was so dysfunctional that migrants detained after attempting to enter the U.S. would likely be granted asylum faster than those who arrived without incident. Hearing this, Ray devised a new plan.
In early February, he headed back to the border, walked into Mexico, and then, after a few days, tried crossing into the U.S. again. This time, he hiked across a stretch of hills outside Mexicali and used a flashlight to catch the attention of a group of border guards. When they got ahold of him, he explained his situation in English, hoping to find a compassionate audience. Instead, the oldest-looking of the three turned him around, menacingly warned him not to try crossing again, and watched as Ray trudged into Mexico. Again.
Undeterred, Ray waited a few days and revised his tactics. He took a new route and this time, after flagging down some border guards, pretended not to understand English, speaking to them in Cantonese, the dominant language of Hong Kong. Carrying only his mobile phone and a few other possessions, he feigned ignorance—and had to stifle a laugh—when one of the agents said, “I caught a ninja!” The border guards finally resorted to using a translation app to pepper him with questions.
Authorities took him to a detention center where he was held for eight days with about 20 other men. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in San Diego where he was soon transferred was far better. After interviews with U.S. officials, he walked out of Otay Mesa Detention Center in mid-April 2021. The asylum process typically takes from six months up to several years, according to the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group. It took Ray just 63 days.
Since the start of the 2019 protests, the U.S. has consistently called for China to preserve Hong Kong’s independent press, judiciary, and rule of law. Time and again, American officials and politicians have criticized Beijing for its crackdown. Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in 2019, which put the city’s special trading privileges with the U.S. under greater scrutiny, and compelled the U.S. to level sanctions against Hong Kong officials responsible for human-rights abuses. If these measures were designed to curtail China’s actions, however, they failed. Beijing has brushed them off as little more than a nuisance.
Stories such as Tommy’s and Ray’s suggest the U.S. is fulfilling its obligation to Hong Kong’s prodemocracy movement. The means they took to get to the U.S., though, were drastic and almost impossible to replicate. A truer test of American mettle is the countless others like them who remain in limbo, victims of a broken and deeply politicized American immigration system. These people stood up to Beijing’s authoritarian might and, knowing they would likely lose, fought for their freedoms anyway. Yet U.S. lawmakers from both parties who once cheered them seem to have largely moved on.
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed the House of Representatives by a 417–1 vote in November 2019, but the bipartisanship was fleeting. At the time, few were more eager to bash China than Senator Ted Cruz, who flew to Hong Kong at the height of the protests and dressed in all black out of “solidarity” with the demonstrators. The marches were “inspiring,” Cruz said then. About a year after he proclaimed Hong Kong to be the “new Berlin,” however, he showed the limits of his support. In December 2020, he killed a bill that included provisions for temporary protected status for Hong Kongers and expedited certain refugee and asylum applications. It had previously passed in the House.
A few months before Cruz shot down the bill, saying it was a ploy by Democrats who support “open borders” to make “all immigration legal,” a group of Hong Kongers, among them an American citizen, sought protection in the city’s U.S. consulate but were turned away. One was arrested by the Hong Kong authorities and sentenced to three years and seven months in jail.
Last August, the Biden administration made a small concession, blocking the enforced removal of many Hong Kong residents from the U.S. for a period of 18 months. The White House said in a memo that “offering safe haven for Hong Kong residents who have been deprived of their guaranteed freedoms in Hong Kong furthers United States interests in the region.” Getting in, however, remains a challenge.
Kenny, a 27-year-old former civil engineer, took the same route as Tommy to flee Hong Kong; he was on the same boat. But while Tommy soon decided that he liked New York, Kenny felt restless.
Kenny had stayed fervently involved in the Hong Kong prodemocracy movement when he was resettled, initially in Arlington, Virginia. He joined protests and tried to spread his message on social media. But he wanted to do more, and staying planted in Arlington while trying to sound the alarm seemed ineffective. So he settled on the most American of pastimes, a road trip—but without that most American of possessions, a car. His first walk was a 10-day trek from the White House to New York City. He hoped that by speaking to ordinary Americans, he could raise awareness of the crackdown under way in his home city. A few months later, Kenny set off on an even more ambitious route, from the Pentagon all the way to Miami. In all, he estimated, he would walk more than 1,000 miles.
Kenny documented his movements on Instagram, posting videos and photos of the people he encountered and the places he passed through. He snapped pictures fit for a tourism ad for rural America: rolling cornfields, Amish families standing near their horse-drawn buggies, red-painted barns. He embarked on his walk with his face completely covered by a reflective sunglass shield that looked like it was borrowed from the prop closet on a cyberpunk film set, and a thin flag pole jutting from his backpack adorned with two black banners that read Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times, one in Chinese and another in English.
His unusual appearance attracted attention, not all of it welcoming. In Maryland, someone called the police on him as he knocked on doors looking for bandages. On the eighth day of his walk to Miami, a stranger pulled a gun on him as he tried to hide near the man’s garage during a rainstorm.
As he moved farther south, Kenny found people to be more accommodating, which he’d expected, and more informed about the prodemocracy movement, which he hadn’t. Often, though, he was downbeat, discovering that many Americans had the luxury of not knowing or caring what was happening on the other side of the world.
He felt more optimistic when a worker at a sports bar in Moncure, North Carolina, told him he had followed the news about Hong Kong, and gave Kenny slices of pizza and an orange soda. In Glynn County, in southeastern Georgia, Kenny spent the night with firefighters who let him sleep in the firehouse. In Florida in mid-October, a woman invited him to sleep at her house. He stayed for three days, met her family, and joined them on a trip to a park where he spotted a manatee in the water. He documented the sighting with an Instagram post punctuated by a string of exclamation points. In all, the walk lasted 66 days.
As he navigated America’s roadways, a court case about him in Hong Kong carried on. Kenny had been among a group of demonstrators who, rallying against a government decision to ban face masks at marches, had assaulted a police officer after the officer grabbed a protester. Video of the skirmish, filmed by a passenger on a nearby bus, was picked up by international news outlets. Kenny was arrested but released on bail, which is when he began trying to escape Hong Kong by boat, eventually succeeding on his fifth or sixth try. (Earlier failed efforts cost him a small fortune.)
Days after his outing to the park in Florida, sentences were handed down against two of Kenny’s co-defendants. One was given seven years in jail, the other sent to a rehabilitation center. Kenny told me he had no regrets about fleeing, that he wanted to look forward. “This is why I decided to walk—because I don’t want to think back or live in a constant state of regret,” he said. He later admitted that he did at times feel guilt about leaving, but he tried to bury it, preferring to focus on forward action. “I’m thinking: What can I do on their behalf?” he said. “This is my purpose.”
In some—extremely limited—respects, he has succeeded, telling individual Americans about a fight for freedom half a world away that many of them are unaware of. I spoke with one of the people who met Kenny on his walking tour, Nicholas Kiernan, who said he had initially driven past Kenny in Northern Virginia in late August while on his way to work. Kenny’s peculiar appearance caught Kiernan’s attention. He resembled “a Google mapping device,” Kiernan told me. “He looked wild.” About a half hour later, Kiernan, a land surveyor, was still thinking about the odd character from his morning commute when Kenny stumbled onto Kiernan’s worksite. Intrigued, Kiernan hopped out of his truck to ask Kenny what he was up to.
Kenny showed him photos of the Hong Kong protests, explaining to Kiernan, who knew nothing about what was happening there, about how police had cracked down on demonstrators. “It was thought-provoking stuff,” Kiernan recounted. But perhaps more than anything, Kiernan said he was impressed by Kenny’s courage—sleeping in a tent and carrying a heavy backpack for miles at a time, speaking to total strangers in a foreign language in a new country. “It takes heart to be able to do something like that.”
Additional reporting by Karina Tsui.