HONG KONG — Facing charges related to his activism, Ted Hui, a former Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmaker, flew to Denmark last week ostensibly to discuss climate and sustainability issues — topics innocuous enough for a court to release his passport and allow his departure.

The climate talks were a ruse. Last Thursday, three days after landing in Copenhagen, Hui announced he would not return and would instead go into exile.

“I am unable to put this pain into words,” he said.

Coming alongside daily arrests of democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, Hui’s flight demonstrated the stark choice now confronting those who have fought for freedoms here: Go abroad or go to jail.

As China targets those who resist its crackdown on the city, stalwarts who have dedicated their lives to Hong Kong’s democracy struggle are increasingly opting to leave, along with numerous others.

Hong Kong police have arrested thousands over the course of months of pro-democracy demonstrations with many protesters facing years in prison. (Megumi Lim/The Washington Post)

Even overseas, continued harassment and persecution are a testament to the reach of China’s new national security law for Hong Kong, which criminalizes vague acts such as “collusion with foreign forces” and which Beijing asserts applies to everyone, everywhere.

“It is a grave situation, with what seems to be only two ways out: Either leave Hong Kong or stay here and wait to be arrested,” said Sam Yip, vice convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, a group that has organized massive pro-democracy marches. Its convener, Figo Chan, was among eight people arrested Tuesday who police said organized an unlawful assembly and incited others to protest on July 1 this year.

The Chinese and Hong Kong governments “are on turbo drive, trying to root out all the activists and politicians” associated with anti-government protests, said Ho-fung Hung, an expert on Hong Kong politics at Johns Hopkins University. “They are trying to instill as much fear and desperation in activists as they can.”

The United States imposed sanctions this week on 14 Chinese officials who helped enact the security law, adding to sanctions against Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and others. The House also passed a bill to protect Hong Kongers in the United States who fled political persecution.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration will no longer use different trade or political rules for Hong Kong. “This is no longer anything but another Chinese Communist-run city,” Pompeo said in an interview at the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council summit.

Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser to President-elect Joe Biden, tweeted Wednesday that he is “deeply concerned about the continuing arrests and imprisonment of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.”

“We stand united with our allies and partners against China’s assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms — and to help those persecuted find safe haven,” Sullivan wrote.

Frozen accounts

Hui, 38, is a veteran of Hong Kong’s battle for democracy. He was drawn to politics after attending one of the annual vigils held in the former British colony for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. There, he met members of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party and joined them, winning a legislative seat in 2016.

When protests erupted in June 2019 over plans to allow extraditions to mainland China, Hui became a fixture at demonstrations, mediating between the police and protesters. At a rally on New Year’s Day, a police officer grabbed Hui’s goggles from his face and pepper-sprayed him at close range.

Hui also pursued a private prosecution against an officer who shot an unarmed protester in the stomach, after government prosecutors declined to take up the case.

He is facing at least nine charges in Hong Kong, some connected to a protest in July 2019. Hui was out on bail, but his travel documents were seized by police.

Anders Storgaard, a Danish politician who helped organize Hui’s exit, wrote on Facebook that he and others invented a fake meeting program related to climate change to convince the Hong Kong courts that Hui had official business in the Scandinavian country. Having reached Denmark, Hui then traveled to Britain, where he has now settled with his wife and two children.

At the same time, HSBC, the London-headquartered multinational bank, moved to freeze, unfreeze and again freeze accounts held by Hui and his relatives after a request from Hong Kong police, who had opened a national security investigation into Hui. Police have accused him of misappropriating funds from a crowdfunding drive, which Hui denies.

In a Facebook post, Hui slammed the freezing of his bank accounts as an act of “political revenge.”

Meanwhile, a Hong Kong church that supported last year’s pro-democracy protests and protected younger demonstrators said that it, too, found its HSBC accounts frozen, along with those of pastor Roy Chan and his wife. Police, including officers from the financial crimes unit, raided the church on Tuesday.

“This is no doubt an act of politician retaliation,” the Good Neighbor North District Church said in a Facebook post.

HSBC did not respond to requests for comment. In earlier remarks to Bloomberg News, a spokesperson said the bank had to “abide by the laws of the jurisdiction in which we operate.”

Chan, in a video message posted on Facebook and a message sent to The Washington Post, said he and his family will stay in Britain, where they were on vacation, and will not return to Hong Kong.

Responding to questions from reporters on Tuesday, Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, referred to Hui as an “absconder,” and pushed back against suggestions that HSBC’s actions damaged the city’s reputation as a financial center.

Hui is “somebody that lied to the courts of Hong Kong in order to seek a way to leave Hong Kong while under bail,” she said. “Is this individual a trustworthy individual?”

Difficult to see results

Hui joins dozens of high-profile activists who have fled Hong Kong recently, including Nathan Law, Honcques Laus and Ray Wong. Chinese state media said in July that authorities were seeking their arrest, along with three other activists who have left the city.

Western countries have helped facilitate the exodus, most notably Britain, which has created a pathway to citizenship for some 3 million Hong Kong residents who are applying for these documents at record pace.

Laus, a teenager and former member of a student group advocating for Hong Kong independence, watched from Britain as Tony Chung, the group’s founder, was detained near the United States consulate in October while trying to seek asylum. Chung has been charged with secession under the national security law, punishable by life in prison, and was denied bail.

Law, 27, filled his social media accounts last week with photos taken with his friends Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam. The trio, who rose to prominence as student activists leading the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong, were sentenced to between seven and 13½ months in prison last week in connection with a protest outside the Hong Kong police headquarters.

Law has continued his activism from Britain, but admits it is hard to see tangible results — adding to the burden and complex emotions around his freedom.

“There is a sense of guilt,” Law said in an interview. “There’s always a question of why all these people are in jail, and not me, and why I am unable to bring concrete changes [to Hong Kong] even though you know objectively it is not a task that can be accomplished by one person.”

Hui, too, has promised to continue his activism abroad, but said in a Facebook post that he does not deserve recognition “compared to brothers who stay and fight in difficult times.” He has said he is not seeking asylum or officially immigrating, preferring to “wander from place to place and wait for the day to go home.”

In a recent interview, Eddie Chu, who served in Hong Kong’s legislature alongside Hui until he left in protest in September, said it has been hard for detained protesters to watch a “demoralized society,” where many are choosing to leave. He expressed hope that the Hong Kong diaspora can become the “center for political thought” for the democracy movement.

“I think they can be better than just lobbyists; they should be the leaders of the movement themselves,” Chu said. “While we are facing our terms in prison, they have their responsibilities.”

Chu was arrested on Tuesday, for the second time in two months, along with seven others. It is his fifth charge this year.

Theodora Yu contributed to this report.