Early last week, Michael Mo nervously set off with just two suitcases to Hong Kong's airport.
Fearing imminent arrest for his pro-democracy political views under Beijing's sweeping National Security Law , the 35-year-old local politician had taken a snap decision to leave home forever and flee to London.
He had altered his hairstyle and removed his glasses to disguise his regular appearance, but he was still on alert for plainclothes police officers right up until his flight took off.
When he landed in Heathrow, Mr Mo claimed political asylum.
The catalyst was a loyalty pledge deadline later this month that aims to weed out office holders with "unpatriotic" views. Those judged not loyal enough to the government could be ousted and forced to repay months of salary.
Whether he took it or not, he was worried that, as with so many other people in the city's fast-disappearing opposition movement, his past protest activities or his political beliefs would be used against him – and could land him in jail.
More than 200 pro-democracy councillors elected following the 2019 protests have resigned ahead of an expected purge.
"The most frightening fact is that they can get you in national security law-related investigations at all times," he told The Telegraph from the London hotel where he is currently self-isolating.
"They might go after me at any point … for something I did in the past long before the law. They could just make an excuse to arrest me and bar me from leaving."
- Mass arrests. Newspaper raids. Banned protests. Exiled activists. The Telegraph’s new podcast, Hong Kong Silenced, documents how life in the city has been turned upside down in the past year. Listen to all episodes now on wherever you get your podcasts. telegraph.co.uk/hksilenced
Mr Mo is among thousands of Hong Kongers fleeing into exile as Beijing's crackdown on the city's once vibrant pro-democracy movement expands beyond its ringleaders to include ordinary people, including via terrorism charges.
In 2019, the city had politicians who challenged the government, elections that could throw up surprises, a newspaper that criticised Beijing , and regular mass protests demanding reforms and accountability.
But since China foisted its draconian national security law on the city on June 30, 2020, sweeping provisions outlawing subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion have permeated every level of society with the fear of crossing its vaguely defined red lines.
Lawyers have warned a new immigration law set to come in on Aug. 1 could allow authorities to bar anyone from leaving the city . Despite government denials, people are voting with their feet.
Net outflows from the city exceeded 1,000 people per day for most of this month, according to government figures compiled by activist investor David Webb.
It is not clear how many of those are permanent emigrants and there is no public data available.
But as a snapshot, more than 34,000 Hong Kongers applied for UK visas in the first three months of this year, after a new British National (Overseas) citizenship pathway was opened up to help those being persecuted.
They range from students and pastors to families and politicians, all of whom no longer feel safe in the former British colony.
With dozens of high-profile pro-democracy figures already facing jail time or in exile (see box below), there are growing fears that the all-encompassing charge of terrorism may be wielded against lower-level activists and used to delegitimise any opposition.
It's a tactic Beijing has repeatedly used to crush opposition in the Muslim Uyghur homeland of Xinjiang or the independence movement in Tibet. Now the same strategy appears to be being deployed in Hong Kong.
There is no evidence that cases have been embellished, but charges that were once rare seem to be occurring with growing frequency.
On July 1, a man knifed and injured a police officer before taking his own life .
Authorities labelled it “domestic terrorism”. But some saw it as a political act because it targeted the police – seen as enabling the crackdown – and took place on the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China and the 100th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party.
After student leaders at a top university paid tribute to the attacker, police raided their building on suspicion of "advocating terrorism". No arrests have been made so far.
In a separate investigation, police arrested nine people, including six teenage students, on charges of planning a terrorist plot . The suspects allegedly belonged to a pro-independence group.
Next week will also see the conclusion of the closely watched trial of Tong Ying-kit . The 24-year-old is the first person arrested under the national security law and the first to be tried under it.
Mr Tong has been accused of terrorism for colliding with police officers on a motorcycle, plus incitement to commit secession for carrying a flag with a banned protest slogan. He also faces separate charges of dangerous driving.
If found guilty, he could face life imprisonment. He denies all charges. In a first for Hong Kong, he was not allowed a jury, only three government-appointed judges, due to "security" concerns.
The city's terrorism threat is currently at level two of three, meaning there is a possibility of attack but no specific intelligence.
Now, officials are ramping up their language around the issue.
"There are signals showing that home-grown terrorism is breeding in Hong Kong," John Lee, Hong Kong chief secretary and head of a new committee to vet political candidates, said recently.
"The public should face up to the problem, and … not allow terrorism to plant it roots and grow in the [city]."
"If you find excuses for terrorism … you are encouraging extremists to engage in such acts," he added.
More than 100 people were arrested under the national security law during its first year. Around 60 were formally charged.
That might not seem like a lot in a city of over 7 million. But it has been enough to scare those who can't leave into submission.
Some are turning instead to small acts of resistance.
Christine, a civil servant whose name has been changed, said she and colleagues visit formerly pro-democracy restaurants or "buy snacks from shops that we know criticised the government before".
Hong Kongers simply want to protect their "freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of media," Leticia Wong, another local politician, told the Telegraph in May.
"I do believe that in future years, people will face very tough times. But it is what we should face to fight for our freedom."
She has since resigned from her position and did not respond to requests for further comment.
Back in London, Mr Mo is settling in for the long haul. He plans to stay until Hong Kong's situation improves. "I don't think that will be during my lifetime."
He said it was "traumatic" leaving behind his family and entire life, but that it was worth it.
"In Hong Kong I got up at 5 or 6am in the morning, trying to see if there were any police cars at my window to arrest me. In London I can sleep much better."
Additional reporting by Jasmine Leung
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