MAGAZINE
Chinese threats sent to UK homes
18 Oct 2018
BY JEMIMAH STEINFELD
Postbox / Pic By Chris Downer Wikimedia Commons

Anonymous, threatening letters are being sent to UK homes to try to stop activities that the Chinese government disapproves of. Jemimah Steinfeld investigates

Benedict Rogers was surprised when he received a letter at his London home addressed simply to “resident”. The letter was postmarked and stamped from Hong Kong. He opened it and was promptly greeted by a photograph of himself next to the words “watch him”. It had been sent to everyone on his street, telling them to keep an eye on Rogers.

Rogers was just one UK resident who has spoken to Index about receiving threats after doing work that the Chinese government would rather did not happen.

While no one is 100% sure who is behind the letters, or if they are connected to the Chinese government, the senders certainly have enough power to be able to access personal information, including home addresses. The recipients are always Hong Kong’s leading advocates of free expression.

Rogers, who founded human rights NGO and website Hong Kong Watch in 2017, described what it was like to receive the letter and to realise that people nearby had received it, too.

“It obviously is an uncomfortable feeling knowing that, basically, they know where I live. They’ve done the research and I don’t quite know what is going to happen next,” he said.

“The [neighbours] I spoke to were very, very sympathetic. And they were actually not neighbours who knew me personally, so I was initially concerned about what on earth they were going to make of this. But they saw immediately that it was something very bizarre… they’d never experienced anything quite like it before.

“And then [in June] my mother received a letter sent to her own address. It specifically said to my mother to get me to take down Hong Kong Watch.”

This was the first tranche of letters to arrive. A month later, more were sent to Rogers and his neighbours. They had all the hallmarks of coming from the same sender and included screenshots of Rogers at a recent Hong Kong Watch event.

“I am writing to give you a quick update about your neighbour, the Sanctimonious Benedict Rogers and his futile attempt to destabilise Hong Kong/China with his hatred of the Chinese people and our political system,” the letters read.

Rogers, who lived in Hong Kong between 1997 and 2002, has already encountered problems arising from his promotion of democracy there. In November last year, he was refused entry to the city on arrival at the airport and put on a flight out. The latest letters referenced this November incident, saying that being “barred from entering the Chinese territory” has not “deterred or humbled him to realise the consequences of interfering in the internal politics and nature” of another society.

It obviously is an uncomfortable feeling knowing that, basically, they know where I live

The abduction of booksellers, the assault on newspaper editors, the imprisonment of pro-democracy activists  all show the dangers of challenging Beijing’s line in Hong Kong. It appears that China is now extending its reach further overseas, sending a message that you are not safe outside the country. Hong Kong publisher Gui Minhai was kidnapped in Thailand in 2015, after reportedly preparing a book on the love life of Chinese President Xi Jinping. These letters to UK residents are further proof of the limits some will go to in order to silence those who want to promote autonomy and basic freedoms in Hong Kong.

Evan Fowler is a resident of Hong Kong who is moving to the UK because his life, he says, has become impossible in his home town. We are sitting in a cafe in central London while he recounts intimidation tactics that have been used to try to silence him. It’s a tough conversation.

Fowler wrote for a very popular Cantonese news site, House News, which was forced to close down in 2014. Its main founder was abducted and tortured, and Fowler says he has suffered periods of severe depression since. He, too, recently received letters to his home in Hong Kong, and is aware of several people who have received them in the UK.

“The interesting thing about these letters is that, in my understanding, the letters all contain similar phrases – no direct threats are made, but [there is] an identification of you as an enemy of the Chinese people,” he said.

Fowler speaks of how “the threat level has been increasing in Hong Kong” and says that “Hong Kong pre-2014 is different from Hong Kong after”.

“It’s a city that is being ripped apart,” he said.

Another recipient of the letters, Tom Grundy, is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hong Kong Free Press, based in the city. His mother, who lives in the UK, also received a letter late last year.

“I am slightly concerned that Tom has taken to a path that has become unsavoury and unhelpful to the some (sic) of the people of Hong Kong,” the letter read. “However, in politics, when one does not know one’s enemies clearly, one could get hurt.”

It added: “I and many people would really regret if something happened to Tom in the next few years.”

When Index spoke to Grundy, he said he was concerned about how they found the addresses of family members, and that the incident had upset his mother.

But, having reported it to the Hong Kong police, he is hopeful that it has been dealt with – the letters stopped immediately upon doing so.

“Journalists aren’t walking around Hong Kong fearing that they are going to be plucked from the streets,” he said.

“Hong Kong has had the promise of press freedom and it’s been a bastion of press freedom for Asia for decades, and NGOs like you and us are concerned and we raise the alarms because we want the civil liberties and freedom to be maintained.”

This does not mean that Grundy doesn’t have his concerns about press freedoms in Hong Kong. It’s just that, for now, the letters aren’t as much of a concern compared with other things happening in the city, such as the as yet unresolved kidnapping of the booksellers, for example.

But for others, these letters have been hard to shake off. Will they have their desired silencing effect? The picture is complicated.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that they would try any physical harm in London, so I don’t feel scared,” said Rogers, adding that it is, however, “not a pleasant feeling”. At the same time, he is keen to stress that he won’t be silenced.

“It’s actually, if anything, made me more determined to carry on doing what I’m doing because I don’t think one should give in to tactics like this.”

His view is echoed by Catherine West, a British MP who is on the board of Hong Kong Watch.

“This sort of intimidation is very unpleasant,” she told Index. West is aware of the two incidences connected to Rogers and encouraged him to go to the UK police.

“Whoever is doing this should realise this will only embolden us to promote human rights,” she added.

Speaking of Hong Kong specifically, West said: “We would like to be sure that freedom of expression is not curtailed and that young people in particular can express it without being curtailed.

“We feel it’s important for parliamentarians around the world to be involved, to be standing in solidarity with one another.”

Jemimah Steinfeld is deputy editor of Index on Censorship

Jemimah Steinfeld is deputy editor of Index on Censorship. This article is part of the latest edition of Index on Censorship magazine, with its special report on The Age Of Unreason.

Index on Censorship’s autumn 2018 issue, The Age Of Unreason, asks are facts under attack? Can you still have a debate? We explore these questions in the issue, with science to back it up.

Look out for the new edition in bookshops, and don’t miss our Index on Censorship podcast, with special guests, on Soundcloud.

The Age Of Unreason

The autumn 2018 issue of Index on Censorship magazine explores the age of unreason. Are facts under attack? Can you still have a debate? We explore these questions in the issue, with science to back it up.

With: Timandra Harkness, Ian Rankin, Sheng Keyi

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Jemimah Steinfeld

Jemimah Steinfeld

Deputy Editor, Index on Censorship magazine

Jemimah Steinfeld has lived and worked in both Shanghai and Beijing where she has written on a wide range of topics, with a particular focus on youth culture, gender and censorship. She is the author of the book Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China, which was described by the FT as "meticulously researched and highly readable". Jemimah has freelanced for a variety of publications, including The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Vice, CNN, Time Out and the Huffington Post. She has a degree in history from Bristol University and went on to study an MA in Chinese Studies at SOAS.
Jemimah Steinfeld

3 responses to “Chinese threats sent to UK homes”

  1. Free Minds says:

    These are Chinese triad cowards using fear tactics to smother, anti-communist wise people. The Free-minded Democratic World’s GOD minded people should be fearless to retaliate these barbaric communists tactical swine. Otherwise, we free-minded democratic people would be held at Ransome by these godless commies till life eternal.

    https://m.facebook.com/boycottdictators/

    https://www.facebook.com/ChinaCreepingAuthoritarianism/

  2. Worrisome story!
    Your readers should know that the Chinese govt is doing the same elsewhere, including in Sweden, where its embassy harasses individuals who support the Swedish writer and publisher Gui Minhai, who as you mentioned was kidnapped by Chinese agents in October 2015, and has been imprisoned in China since.
    The Chinese embassy in Stockholm, since last summer, has contacted many individual Swedish citizens to try to smear Gui, to make it seem he isn’t worthy of their support and that China is somehow justified in imprisoning our citizen.
    They also write to newspapers and others who speak publicly about Gui Minhai, and try to ask them to “correct” and withdraw their criticism.
    This ridiculous and repugnant campaign is both making a mockery of the undiplomatic embassy, and creating creating an atmosphere of apprehension, over how it is the Chinese regime can do this to us in our country.
    The full story: https://www.expressen.se/kultur/ide/-gui-minhai-imprisoned-humiliated-and-discredited/

    • Ian says:

      The report about Gui Minhai raise serious questions about the trustworthiness of agreements made by the Chinese government.
      If the Chinese government is happy to make agreements like “one country, two systems” with the intention of violating them in this way, then we know that we cannot make other agreements with them.
      The breaking of international law by the kidnap of a foreign national (for instance) also raises the question as to whether China, like Russia, wants to abandon the rules based order.

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