LEILA FADEL, HOST:
When the United Kingdom ceded Hong Kong to China this week in 1997, the city was supposed to continue to have strong protections for civil liberties. It hasn't worked out that way. Beijing has been tightening its grip and last year passed a law making protest essentially impossible and punishable. That's driving some Hong Kongers to make desperate bids for freedom. NPR's Emily Feng has the story of one of them called Ray (ph).
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Growing up, the now 25-year-old Ray always wanted to be a Hong Kong police officer.
RAY: (Through interpreter) I used to march and play saxophone in the police youth band. And I loved it. The Hong Kong police have one of the best uniformed marching bands in the world.
FENG: His dreams changed in 2019 when massive anti-government protests broke out.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Speaking Chinese).
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Speaking Chinese).
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Speaking Chinese).
FENG: Ray marched with 1 million fellow Hong Kongers in June 2019 to overturn a proposed extradition agreement with mainland China. But his faith in the region's institutions changed forever about two weeks later, when men burst into a metro station and viciously beat protesters. The police took nearly 40 minutes to arrive despite thousands of calls for help.
RAY: (Through interpreter) What happened that night exposed for me not just the brutal violence of the police, but also just how deeply injustice permeated the entire government.
FENG: We're not using Ray's full name to protect his family in Hong Kong because after that night, Ray became a front-line protester, battling police each night with bricks and homemade firebombs. And the police started to pay attention to him, too.
RAY: (Through interpreter) Police came to my house and told my parents and family they were looking for me.
FENG: Ray stopped sleeping at home after that. He couch-surfed, and he was staying with protesters at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University when police surrounded the campus. A siege ensued.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)
FENG: Protesters hid on campus for more than a week, subsisting on rotting cafeteria food. Others lobbed firebombs at the police who shot back tear gas.
RAY: (Through interpreter) I escaped through a tunnel. There were rubber bullets flying past me as I ran. There were ordinary people waiting on the other side. As soon as they saw dirty, unwashed protesters, they grabbed us and sheltered us.
FENG: For rioting and vandalism, more than 10,000 protesters like Ray have since been arrested and face a 10-year sentence. And the situation became even more dire last summer when Beijing implemented a national security law with a maximum life sentence. So Ray began thinking about emigrating. He got in touch with people who offered to help him escape to Taiwan, an island about 450 miles away.
RAY: (Through interpreter) If I stayed in Hong Kong, I knew the police, and thus Beijing, would eventually find me. So I was willing to risk everything for a chance at freedom.
FENG: One day in July last year, Ray received a text from the escape organizers. It was go time. Ray had only hours to meet them at a Hong Kong pier.
RAY: (Through interpreter) I didn't tell my family that I was leaving, but I brought my wallet with their pictures inside.
FENG: The next morning, five young Hong Kong men including Ray showed up at the pier. They didn't know each other, and Ray said no one said much. They were too nervous of spies. Between them, they had a compass, a couple life vests and some fishing gear so they could pretend they had gotten lost if they were caught.
RAY: (Through interpreter) It was a beautiful, sunny morning. It was a lovely day to be leaving Hong Kong.
FENG: Everyone climbed in, and then they set off, clutching the sides of the speedboat.
RAY: (Through interpreter) I thought I had a 50-50 chance I could escape, or I might die trying. If China did catch us, I was going to jump off the boat and swim away. I resolved not to say a word.
FENG: But no one stopped them.
RAY: (Through interpreter) I started to hallucinate that I could see land on the horizon.
FENG: And late that very night, they actually did see land, the shores of Taiwan. Confused Taiwanese officials offered them temporary refuge, but Taiwan was flummoxed about what to do.
RAY: (Through interpreter) I like Taiwan because its culture and language are familiar to me. But Taiwan has no law to offer political asylum.
FENG: Taiwan's relations with China were getting worse as well. China claims Taiwan. Taiwan says it's an independent democracy. And taking Ray and the others in could have exacerbated tensions, so Taiwan began approaching other countries that offer asylum, including the U.S. In January 2020, Ray got good news. He could move to the U.S. A D.C.-based organization, the Hong Kong Democracy Council, would sponsor something called humanitarian parole.
RAY: (Through interpreter) I was really excited. It was bizarre to think my very first plane ride would take me all the way to the U.S.
FENG: And on the plane, Ray was finally able to contact his family for the first time in nearly six months to tell them, I'm safe. A few hours later, he landed in a wintry New York City.
RAY: (Through interpreter) I remember we were told that it was going to be very, very cold in the U.S., so I wore all the clothes I had. And then we got off the plane, and it was so hot. That's my first memory of the U.S. Why is it so warm? And why are we wearing so many clothes?
FENG: In New York, he moved into an apartment with a fellow Hong Kong escapee. They began to learn English. They saw snow for the first time.
RAY: (Through interpreter) The snow was so foreign, so new, but it only took about five minutes of playing in it before I realized New York snow is really dirty and gross.
FENG: And Ray and the four others have continued their activism in the U.S., attending rallies protesting Beijing's control over Hong Kong. Joining them each time are hundreds of other Hong Kongers who have left the region through work or study. Ray is hoping to get asylum status so he can work. He's also hoping to serve in uniform. He wants to join the U.S. military one day. He hears they have a great marching band. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.