Coming: to a country near/around you! (Only there may not be an other country to which you can flee.) mrossol
Aug 13, 2021 by Guardian Reporter
Residents fearing China’s tightening grip are departing in droves, not knowing if they will be back
It was a heartbreaking scene. A family get-together on a Sunday morning, not for a leisurely lunch at a traditional Chinese restaurant, but for a tearful farewell at the airport.
Amid the Covid pandemic, Hong Kong airport is quiet except for twice a day, when long queues form at airlines desks for London-bound flights. Friends and families turn out in droves to see them off – grandparents hand out “lucky money” in red envelopes to grandchildren, aunts and uncles joke with children to lighten the otherwise melancholic mood. With tearful eyes, many stop for a final hug and pose for one last photo with their loved ones before passing through the departure gates. The waving continues long after they have disappeared from view.
Wearing a yellow face mask – the colour symbolising resistance in the city’s 2019 pro-democracy movement – one young woman, who gave her name as Charlie, was among those waving goodbye to her friends. She said she was going to the UK to study to be a psychologist, and was unlikely to return.
“With speech freedom under threat, I would have limited opportunities in Hong Kong. I might be implicated under the [national security] law,” she said.
Victor, a 28-year-old IT professional, likewise blamed the worsening political environment for his departure. “I have no faith in Hong Kong – it is going downhill. I want to be somewhere where there is democracy,” he said.
They are among the tens of thousands of people taking up the British government’s offer of a route to citizenship, after China imposed the draconian national security law on its former colony a year ago. The Home Office expects up to 153,000 people with British national (overseas) status and their dependents to arrive in the UK in the first year, and up to 322,000 over five years. According to Home Office statistics, 34,300 people applied in the first two months after applications for BNO visas opened at the end of January, with 20,600 from outside the country.
The exodus intensified in the run-up to 1 August, when an immigration law allowing the government to bar people entering or leaving the city came into effect. Net outflows of residents in July regularly exceeded 1,000 a day, according to government figures recorded by the former investment banker David Webb.
Hong Kong’s population declined by 1.2% in the past year, including nearly 90,000 more residents departing than moving to the city, government figures released on Thursday showed. The population decrease to 7,394,700 continues the largest fall since the city began keeping comparable records in 1961.
A surge in withdrawals from the city’s mandatory pension fund due to permanent departure also suggested many were leaving for good. According to official figures, in the first quarter of this year, Hong Kong residents planning to leave permanently applied to withdraw HK$1.93bn (£180m) from their MPF accounts – a surge of 49% year-on-year.
China’s intensifying control over Hong Kong in recent years had already prompted many people to contemplate leaving, but the crackdown on the 2019 pro-democracy protests, in which more than 10,200 people had been arrested, and the national security law aimed at halting the movement were the final straw. Nowadays, casual conversations between friends and families often lead to a discussion of not whether they plan to leave, but when.
A changed city
Beneath the usual hustle and bustle, Hong Kong has changed dramatically since the introduction of the law. It enabled the authorities to crack down on almost any form of opposition to China’s rule and undermined a wide range of civil freedoms previously taken for granted. Expressions of dissent can be punished with up to life in jail, with the possibility of being sent to mainland China.
Since its introduction, police have arrested at least 128 people for related alleged offences and targeted opposing politicians and activists, media outlets and employees, churches, schools, and unions.
The knock-on effect is obvious. Street protests have been categorically banned by the authorities, citing the pandemic. A man who allegedly booed the Chinese national anthem while watching an Olympic event at a shopping centre was arrested.
Dozens of civil society groups have closed while many political commentators have quietly left. Official censors have been authorised to ban movies that breach the national security law.
Patricia Chiu, a businesswoman who recently fled Hong Kong for the UK, said it was the loss of the city’s former way of life that broke her heart. Chiu, who had supported young protesters and campaigned for pro-democracy politicians – some of whom are now in custody – feared she too would be arrested if she stayed.
“No one wants to leave, but the situation is worsening all the time,” she said. “Since the passing of the national security law, I’ve been suffering from anxiety. Every day, I worried about [the police] knocking on our doors – the fear was constant.
“I miss the old Hong Kong, the good old days when we were free. We had no democracy but had the rule of law, the freedom of speech and assembly. But now, I don’t think I will ever be able to go back.
“Before I left, I looked at everything and thought that might be the last time I saw them. The Hong Kong that we knew is fast disappearing – the good life we had, the spirit, the culture of Hong Kong. It’s the city where I grew up.”
Chiu said since she might not be able to return, one of her biggest worries was that she might never see her son again.
“I dread not being able to see him again,” she said.
Carol Poon, an accountant who recently left Hong Kong with her young family, also does not anticipate being able to go back. She and her husband decided to move after the introduction of the national security law. “It’s a catch-all law that has no limits … how can we accept it?
“It’s not the same Hong Kong any more. How can we expect our kids to grow up in this environment, where you have to lie or be two-faced to survive?
“When we said goodbye to our parents the night before our departure, we thought it might be the last time we saw one another. We shed a lot of tears. Would we see them again? Can we return? If we go back, can we leave again?”
She said although she wanted her children to integrate into UK culture, it was also important for them to maintain their Hong Kong identity.
“We want to them to remember where they’re from,” she said. “The authorities will call the pro-democracy movement a riot, but we have a responsibility to preserve our memories and our Hong Kong identity. We must live to tell why we had to flee.”