From Hong Kong with love: the threatening letters being delivered to UK mailboxes

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

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“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.” Thus read a letter sent to Benedict Rogers and his neighbours in London this summer. The letter was postmarked from Hong Kong. It contained screenshots of Rogers, who runs human rights NGO and website Hong Kong Watch, at a recent Hong Kong Watch event. And it was the second such letter he and his neighbours had received in recent months. A separate letter went to his mother, who lives in Dorset, south-west England.

As part of an investigation for the autumn issue of Index on Censorship magazine, it has been revealed that Rogers is not the only person being targeted with threatening letters turning up in the UK from Hong Kong. Evan Fowler, a pro-democracy advocate and journalist (who has received letters to his home in Hong Kong), also spoke about the presence of these letters and said he is aware of several people beyond Rogers who have received them here. 

“The interesting thing about these letters is that, to 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,” Fowler said.

Rogers remarked: “The ones [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.”

Another person who Index spoke to was Tom Grundy, editor-in-chief of Hong Kong Free Press, who is currently based in the Chinese city. His mother, who lives in the UK, received a letter late last year. In this instance the language was more foreboding.

“I am slightly concerned that Tom has taken to a path that has become unsavoury and unhelpful to the some of the people of Hong Kong (sic),” 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.”

Right now the threats appear confined to the pages of the letters.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that they would try any physical harm in London, so I don’t feel scared,” said Rogers. But he added that it was “not a pleasant feeling”. It’s uncomfortable “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.” Likewise, Grundy, who he hasn’t received any further letters since he reported the incident to police in Hong Kong, expressed concern about how they found the addresses of family members. 

No one knows exactly who’s behind the letters, just that “they” have enough resources and power to be able to track down some very personal details and their targets are always those fighting for human rights in Hong Kong, whether from inside the city or from afar. 

It’s an incredibly worrying new development in terms of the long reach of China. The days when distance provided immunity seem to be fast coming to an end. And it's even more worrying when put into a broader context; there have been several incidents in recent years of those who criticise China and the government from outside the country being physically attacked. Hong Kong publisher Gui Minhai, for example, was kidnapped in Thailand in 2015, after reportedly preparing a book on the love life of Chinese President Xi Jinping. He was taken to China and held in custody for months. Meanwhile, Guo Wengui, a Chinese businessman who has spoken out about corruption in the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party, said he has been pursued on several occasions by Chinese security officers in the US.

Then there’s University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady. While not physically attacked, she recently linked a number of burglaries at her home and office to the work she does on China. Brady said she received a warning letter, and that laptops and phones were stolen from her home, but no other valuables.

The scare tactics behind the letters might not have the intended silencing effect though. “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,” said Rogers.

His view is echoed by Catherine West, a British MP who is a patron of Hong Kong Watch and has frequently raised the issue of freedoms there in the UK parliament. 

“This sort of intimidation is very unpleasant,” she said. West is aware of the incidences connected to Rogers and encouraged him to go to the UK police, which he did (Index spoke to London’s Metropolitan Police, who said they had received a report of malicious communications). West has raised the issue of the letters with the UK Foreign Secretary in writing and will raise it again now that parliamentarians have returned from the summer if a debate on China is scheduled.

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

Let’s hope others share her commitment and that no new letters appear in the UK postal system.  

Jemimah Steinfeld is deputy editor of the quarterly magazine Index on Censorship. The latest issue, The Age of Unreason, looks at whether we are turning away from facts in favour of emotion.