Two years ago, Ray Wong and Alan Li, political activists in Hong Kong, were facing rioting charges over an all-night street clash with the police. They jumped bail and disappeared.
Now they have come forward to say that they are under refugee protection in Germany, making them likely to be the first individuals from the semiautonomous Chinese city to have obtained such sanctuary. The move could be a turning point in shifting global views of Hong Kong, where individual freedoms have eroded as Beijing tightens its hold, threatening the city’s reputation as an oasis of rule of law in Asia.
Disclosure of Germany’s decision, made last year, is likely to inflame an already heated debate in Hong Kong over a proposal to let the territory’s government send criminal suspects to jurisdictions with which it does not have extradition agreements, including mainland China.
Critics are worried that those whose work or political views run afoul of the ruling Communist Party in Beijing could be ensnared. The government has said people accused of political crimes will not be extradited and that the changes will prevent Hong Kong from becoming a haven for criminals.
Mr. Wong, 25, and Mr. Li, 27, are wanted on charges of rioting related to a 2016 clash between protesters and police officers. They also advocate Hong Kong independence, a view that Beijing finds threatening.
The two men fled Hong Kong for Germany in 2017 and applied for protection, which the German government approved last May, they both said.
Germany’s federal office for migration and refugees confirmed in an email Friday that it awarded two applicants from Hong Kong refugee protection last year, but did not name them.
“If the German government thinks that the Hong Kong judiciary is independent, they would not grant me refugee status,” Mr. Wong said in an interview last year in Frankfurt. “It’s because they think that Hong Kong uses the judiciary to persecute Hong Kong people.”
Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese control in 1997 under a governing model called “one country, two systems,” with more robust protections for individual rights than in the mainland. While it is common for Western countries to provide political asylum to Chinese dissidents, it is rare for this practice to apply to individuals from Hong Kong, a city that has long benefited from its reputation for independent courts and strong rule of law.
“Hong Kong lost its special place in the international world” after Germany approved his application for refugee protection, Mr. Wong added.
He and Mr. Li fled Hong Kong at a time when activists and rights groups say the city’s protections for free speech and assembly and fair trials have diminished under the rule of China’s president, Xi Jinping. Last month, a Hong Kong court sentenced several democracy activists to prison terms of up to 16 months.
Human rights advocates said they were surprised to hear that Germany had granted protection to people from Hong Kong.
“It makes Hong Kong’s human rights situation comparable with the worst part of the world,” said Patrick Poon, China researcher with Amnesty International. “It shows how serious the international community sees Hong Kong right now.”
Mr. Poon and two human rights lawyers said they did not know any other examples of individuals from Hong Kong obtaining protection from a foreign government because of persecution in Hong Kong.
The justice department and police force in Hong Kong declined to comment.
Support for independence is limited in Hong Kong. But after protesters occupied major roads in 2014 in an unsuccessful push for democracy known as the Umbrella Movement, a few activists like Mr. Wong began to call for the city to separate from China.
Mr. Wong led Hong Kong Indigenous, a group that sought to protect the city’s local identity and traditions in the face of growing influence from mainland China. Mr. Li was a member.
In 2015, Mr. Wong organized protests against Chinese tourists who crowded local districts in search of baby formula and household goods to bring back to the mainland. The campaign prompted the mainland government to limit residents of the border city of Shenzhen to one Hong Kong visit per week.
“His tactic was quite successful,” Leung Kwok-hung, a former opposition lawmaker, said of Mr. Wong. “He tried to make people visually witness the confrontation.”
The 2016 unrest began in the district of Mong Kok as people were visiting food stalls for Lunar New Year, a holiday tradition. When health officers arrived, apparently to shut down unlicensed vendors, Mr. Wong and members of Indigenous led a crowd to confront them. It exploded into an all-night brawl, with protesters setting fires and throwing bottles and bricks.
More than 100 people were injured and dozens were arrested, including Mr. Wong and Mr. Li. Among those sentenced to prison was Edward Leung, a spokesman for Indigenous, who is serving a six-year term. Lawyers and rights groups said his lengthy sentence was intended to intimidate activists and squelch political protest.
“One of us needs to be out, to continue the work of independence,” Mr. Wong said in an interview in 2017 before he left Hong Kong, referring to Mr. Leung. “I don’t see any good in going to jail.”
Mr. Wong did not publicly reveal his whereabouts after he fled Hong Kong, fearing that the government would pursue him. But last month, he decided to open up about obtaining protection from Germany.
“I just feel like I couldn’t hide anymore,” he wrote in a text message. “I would eventually be recognized.”
Mr. Wong and Mr. Li have declined further comment. Mr. Wong said he would speak in greater detail at a later date.
Germany’s decision reflects poorly on Hong Kong, said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor in China studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“It shows that the breathing space for political activism is getting squeezed,” he said.
In fall 2017, while Mr. Wong and Mr. Li were free on bail, a court granted them permission to travel to Germany. Though they had been ordered to surrender their passports after the trip, they held onto them. On Nov. 4, they left Hong Kong again, flying first to Taiwan, then Berlin. This time, they did not return.
After requesting asylum, they bunked in an old British army barracks, then a housing block in central Germany, where they roomed with people from the Middle East and Africa. The two Cantonese speakers spent their time studying German.
In May 2018, the government notified Mr. Wong and Mr. Li that their applications had been approved.
Germany offers refugee protection if applicants can show persecution because of nationality, religion, political opinion or for belonging to a certain social group. The designation enables them to live, work and attend school in Germany for three years.
Mr. Wong said he believed he was allowed to retain his passport because the Hong Kong government wanted him to leave and become irrelevant.
“The strategy of success in China is for all activists to leave,” he said before he left Hong Kong for good. “To China, they become useless. They cannot threaten the central authority.”