'In my dreams I'm there': the exodus from Hong Kong

By Verna Yu in Hong Kong

Joe Kwong* loves Hong Kong. But he knows he has to leave.

A university-educated construction worker in his 30s, he is just one of many Hongkongers who have uprooted their lives in recent months – or are now planning to – because of fears over the rapid demise of the rule of law and civil liberties. Hong Kong’s descent into effective Chinese control has been swift, and was cemented in June by the introduction of the national security law, which prohibits acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces.

“Hong Kong is China now. There are secret police around,” he said, just days before his departure. “They can lock up whoever they want to lock up.”

“I just can’t stay here any longer, I must go while there is still a chance to leave.”

In the three months since the launch of the law, 25 people have been arrested on national security charges, including inciting secession, and collusion with foreign powers. The law is Beijing’s response to a wave of pro-democracy protests that swept the city last year, in which more than 10,000 people were arrested.

Family members of the Hong Kong residents detained in China protest outside the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government on 30 September.
Family members of the Hong Kong residents detained in China protest outside the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government on 30 September. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

As a participant of the protests who has been detained by police once, Kwong fears he too would be implicated under the new law at some point. Fearing arrest, he is seizing the opportunity to travel to Britain on his British national overseas (BNO) passport – a document issued to those born before Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to Chinese rule. He hopes he will be granted permission to stay before the official date in January when the UK has said, in the light of the national security law, that it will allow BNO passports holders to live and work there as a path to citizenship.

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The national security law China imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020 has wrought profound changes on the region of more than 7 million people.

From who really runs Hong Kong now to the fate of the pro-democracy movement and how major global companies are grappling with the implications of the new law, our reporters in China, Hong Kong, London, the US and Australia have investigated how the unprecedented crackdown affects not only Hong Kong, but the world. 

As well as charting the new restrictions on freedoms and civil liberties, the series seeks out voices of hope and acts of resistance - and asks what next for Hong Kong, as it stands at a crossroads in its history.

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Kwong is not alone. Statistics of recent arrivals from Hong Kong to the UK are not available but dozens of Facebook pages dedicated to emigration have proliferated in recent months. Many have been set up by Hongkongers who have arrived in Britain and are sharing tips on settling in and buying property. Hongkongers have also renewed or applied for the BNO passports in record numbers in 2019 – nearly an eightfold increase over the year before, according to the South China Morning Post.

According to a survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong conducted in September 2019, in the midst of last year’s protest movement, found 42.3% of Hong Kong adults would emigrate if they had the chance, compared with 34% the year before. Among this group, 23% had already made plans to move, compared with 16% the year before.

Among those inclined to emigrate, three of the top four reasons for leaving were political: 27.9% said there were “too many political disputes and discord”, 21.5% blamed the lack of democracy, and 19.5% were dissatisfied with the Chinese government.

Ken Chung*, a journalist in his 30s, is also desperate to leave. He said he felt insecure after media outlets were targeted under the new law. The raid on opposition newspaper Apple Daily and the arrest of its founder, Jimmy Lai, in August was the final straw.

Under the national security law, even “inciting hatred” of the government constitutes a crime. This has particularly intimidated writers, journalists and political commentators.

“Before, I could criticise the government in my writing and need not worry, but now, I would worry about my personal safety,” says Chung, who plans to move to the UK early next year.

Exiled Hong Kong’s activist Nathan Law holds a sign reading in Chinese “Go Hong Kong” as he meets the press outside of the Italian Foreign Ministry.
Exiled Hong Kong’s activist Nathan Law holds a sign reading in Chinese “Go Hong Kong” as he meets the press outside of the Italian Foreign Ministry. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

He feels there is little prospect for him in Hong Kong as most mainstream media outlets have already been co-opted by China and independent outlets are increasingly under attack.

“Hong Kong used to be a great place where we could do what we wanted. Now I can’t see hope. I’d rather seek hope elsewhere,” he said.

As well as the young and single, many ordinary middle-class Hongkongers, particularly parents, are also making plans to emigrate.

They say the authorities’ heavy handed treatment of young people has made them nervous about how their children would survive in a society where rights and freedoms are suppressed. Official statistics show around 40% of those arrested in the anti-government protests were students.

Eva Lai* and her husband, both IT professionals, are moving to the UK with their three-year-old on their BNO passports in a few weeks.

Lai says she has lost faith in the political system and worries her child will become indoctrinated in the education system officials have vowed to overhaul under the national security law.

She is also worried about the police’s attitude towards young people and children. In September, the footage of police tackling a 12-year-old girl to the ground sent shockwaves throughout the community.

“I don’t want my child to grow up in this environment,” she said. “Hong Kong isn’t what it used to be. People say I’m brave, but I don’t know whether it’s those who are leaving or those who are staying who are brave.”

Lai admitted that she may find it hard to find a job and settle in in the UK, but her priority was living in a country with a rule of law.

“The weather in the UK might not be great but at least you don’t get arrested for unknown reasons,” she said.

Even those who do not have BNO passports or the money to leave permanently say they plan to send their children abroad to study. Marie Tsang*, a former accountant in her late 30s, said her husband was reluctant to give up his career to start afresh in a new country but they will send their six-year-old son overseas when he is older.

Lau Chi-keung*, a driver in his 50s, said since his teenage son had been detained by the police in a protest once, even though he cannot afford to emigrate, he hopes to send him to study abroad.

Responding to the Guardian’s request for comments, a Hong Kong government spokesman said in a statement that while a number of people may have decided to move because of last year’s protests, the introduction of the national security law has restored order and security to Hong Kong and should not be a cause for concern.

Jimmy Lai arrives at the West Kowloon magistrates court, 18 September.
Jimmy Lai arrives at the West Kowloon magistrates court, 18 September. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“Activities advocating Hong Kong independence and threatening national security have reduced,” the statement said. “Almost all countries have their own national security laws ... the international community should not adopt a double standard.”

‘I feel like a deserter’

For those who have already left Hong Kong, the upheaval has been painful.

Peter Tang*, who moved to Britain in recent months, says being away has made his heart ache for Hong Kong. Having seen many of his friends arrested for taking part in protests, he worried he might be next and left without telling his friends and family.

Constantly tortured by his sense of guilt of leaving his friends behind, he has struggled to feel at home in the UK.

“I think about Hong Kong every waking moment, I simply cannot forget that many of my friends are in prison,” he said. “But if you get arrested, you can’t do anything. We can only fight when we have a life.”

“Last year, we all swore to protect Hong Kong, and now, I feel like a deserter.”

“In my dreams, I’m still in Hong Kong. Some are nightmares of course,” he said. “I felt suicidal when I first arrived. I didn’t want to hear about Hong Kong, but then I didn’t know what to think and I didn’t know what the future holds.”

He now hopes to help raise the awareness of Hong Kong’s crisis while he is abroad but his acute homesickness endures.

Tang said: “I am now so far from everything I’ve been familiar with: the Star Ferry, Victoria harbour, beef noodles, ‘Char Siu’ (roast pork).

“Under the national security law, you can be arrested for shouting slogans, protesting and other speech crimes – I cannot accept living like this.”

All interviewees declined to give their real names, saying they fear they might be barred from leaving if their plans became known to the authorities.

Some hold out hope that they can keep up the resistance by preserving Hong Kong’s values and culture and the Cantonese language – all of which are under threat under the tightening fist of China – while living abroad.

Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at the Baptist University of Hong Kong, says “people vote with their feet” during a crisis of confidence but “we are far from seeing the death of the opposition in Hong Kong”.

He said no matter how many times the regimes have declared “the death of the opposition” in movements such as the 1956 Hungarian revolution, the 1968 Prague Spring and the 1981 Solidarity movement in Poland, “we witness a seemingly endless cycle of opposition-oppression-restoration of order over and over”.

“New generations of protesters come to the fore and the resistance refuses to go,” said Chan.

*Names have been changed to protect interviewees’ identities