Hong Kong is using its national security law to arrest and prosecute critics residing in the United States. The Hong Kong police recently announced cash bounties of HK$1 million ($128,000) for information leading to the arrest of five young activists.

The targets—Frances Hui, Joey Siu, Simon Cheng, Johnny Fok, and Tony Choi—have all lawfully left Hong Kong and reside in countries that celebrate and guarantee their right to speak freely. There are now 13 overseas activists wanted by the region’s police.

They are all accused of violating Hong Kong’s national security law, which was enacted in 2020 and has since been used to clamp down on political dissent. According to Amnesty International, the law has been “abused from day one” to curb legitimate and peaceful expression. The maximum sentence is life in prison.

The bounty list underscores the importance of safeguarding freedom of thought and expression in the face of long-arm authoritarianism which, if left unchecked, can have a limitless reach.

“The entirety of the charge was based on my advocacy activities taking place out of Hong Kong,” explains Hui, one of the targets on the bounty list and the first Hong Kong activist to receive political asylum in the U.S. following the enactment of the national security law. “Among the 13 overseas activists who currently have bounties placed on them by the Hong Kong authorities, three of them are citizens of the U.S., Canada, and Australia, all for their activities abroad.”

The two rounds of bounties from this month and July “reflect the extraterritorial nature of the national security law,” Hui continues. “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, what you are doing. As long as you are considered a threat to the government, you are a threat to national security.”

According to Hui, her personal safety is at risk, given the Chinese government’s “outposts and overseas agents spread all around the world to spy [on] and harass activists abroad. She adds that “family members of wanted individuals are expected to be questioned, and some were threatened to make public statements slamming their loved ones remotely.”

Now is the time for Americans to stand alongside those facing political persecution and push back on this foreign attempt at globalized censorship.

Hong Kong is emblematic of the fragility of democracy. The region was introduced to democratic and free market ideals through British rule. For over two decades, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, ranked it the world’s freest economy. But this prosperity reached a swift end. “The loss of political freedom and autonomy” has had dire consequences, wrote former Heritage President Edwin J. Feulner, especially as ties to “English common law, freedom of speech, and democracy” have been severed entirely.

As Hong Kong changes, the West cannot follow suit. It should ensure that when people fleeing authoritarianism seek refuge within a liberal democracy, they enjoy the protections that come with it.

If Hong Kong police arrest the activists, the penalties could be severe, if not life-threatening—as seen in the case of Jimmy Lai. Uncoincidentally, the December bounty list was released at the same time that Lai, a 76-year-old British citizen, began to stand trial for his pro-democracy advocacy and publishing. He has been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses, a “crime” that has landed him in solitary confinement for the past three years. According to his son, Lai is being subjected to a fixed-outcome “show” trial with three government-appointed judges and no jury.

Lai’s ongoing trial and the bounty list highlight the need for Western countries to safeguard free speech. These are foreign attempts to chill dissent regardless of where an activist is from or where he resides. If the Hong Kong police succeed in that mission, they may well go after all criticism, targeting major news outlets covering Lai’s trial and social media users who reshare posts that say #FreeHongKong.

Our protections for free speech cannot be so shallow that they yield to foreign governments that try to criminalize conduct on our soil. The U.S. and other Western countries must protect these activists against long-arm authoritarianism and secure their ability to live and speak freely without fear for their safety.