Press "Enter" to skip to content

Hong Kong Exodus As Beijing Barges In

New Security Law Strips Rights, Reshapes Society

By Patrick McShane

In the 12 months since China enacted the national security law in Hong Kong, Beijing has used the draconian decree to transform the city into its own image.

Much of Hong Kong’s once independent society — from its police and civil service system to its education sector and legal system — have been forced to follow “the mainland way.”

This means such things as “sign or resign” loyalty oaths, strict censoring of libraries, police bans on public assemblies or protests, and the eventual end of genuine freedom of the press.

 Only ‘Patriots’ Allowed

The most crippling blow has been Beijing’s decision to completely “overhaul” Hong Kong’s political system so the city is run by “patriots,” meaning members of the Chinese Communist Party or its supporters. Politicians with pro-democracy leanings will not be permitted to seek elected office.

In recent weeks, close to 50 pro-democracy activists and politicians, from lawmakers to district  councillors have been arrested under the new national security law (NSL). A dozen others resigned from their parties, after three colleagues were disqualified for their political views. Several pro-democracy advocates, including Nathan Law and Ted Hui, have fled Hong Kong to seek political asylum abroad.

A newly formed police unit dedicated to enforcing the NSL has even been given the task of carefully vetting the eligibility of future political candidates  to ensure that they meet the criteria of “patriots.” The new NSL enforcement unit will have the support of Beijing’s Ministry of Public Security.

‘Why Not a Police State?’

During a June 25 press conference about the promotion of two police officers to executive level government posts, reporters asked pro-Beijing lawmaker Alice Mak if Hong Kong was turning into a police state? She replied: “If it’s a police state, why not? I don’t think there’s any problem with a police state.”

In the city’s last district elections in 2019, the pro-democracy camp won 17 out of 18 districts, which came as a complete shock to Beijing. Now, it is a virtual certainty that pro-Beijing parties will sweep all the city’s future elections, including district council contests in September. 

Hong Kong’s government has even hinted that residents who left their ballots blank as a sign of protest, or encouraged others to do so, could be subject to arrest.

Hongkongers’ Dissent

The result of recent events is that many Hongkongers, especially those with children, are now beginning to vote in the only way that they can — with their feet.

According to Andrew Lo, the managing director of Anlex Services, a Hong Kong-based emigration consultant with over 30 years of experience, interest in leaving Hong Kong is the highest since 1997. Lo told Nikkei Asia, “This is the biggest emigration boom in Hong Kong’s history. People from different levels of the society, aged 18 to 80, are all talking about emigration.”

The big destinations of choice include Taiwan, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. There are now nearly 90,000 Hongkongers living in Taiwan, having migrated to the island since Hong Kong’s 1997 return to China. More are migrating there every month. 

Taiwanese Welcome

In 2020, the Taiwan government issued over 10,000 residence permits, twice the amount of the previous year. A poll in Foreign Policy magazine, found that half of all respondents who were considering leaving Hong Kong viewed Taiwan as their ideal destination, citing its cultural similarities and proximity – just 90 minutes away by commercial flights. Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, has referred to Hong Kong protesters as “freedom fighters.” 

Canada has also long been a popular choice for Hongkongers. There are believed to be some 350,000 city residents holding Canadian passports — many of whom were wealthy or middle class and could afford to leave Hong Kong in 1997. Many became citizens of Canada — but returned for better job opportunities. 

A new problem is that China refuses to allow dual citizenship and is pressuring these naturalised Canadians to make a decision about their citizenship. Such pressures, combined with the growing fears about the new security law, may convince many former Hong Kong residents to permanently return to liberal Canada with their extended families.

The U.K. Lifeboat

There’s also a clear money trail that suggests many of these Hong Kong residents are calling it quits. According to electronic fund transfers recorded by Fintrac, Canada’s anti-money laundering agency, about $34.8 billion was moved from Hong Kong banks to Canada last year, the highest level on record.

Beijing considers all such foreign offers of resettlement as “interference in China’s internal affairs,” probably no offer has upset China more than the U.K. and its British National (Overseas) passport, or BNO.

In January, the British government officially offered a route to settlement and citizenship for holders of the BNO — many of which were issued to Hong Kong residents when the territory was under British rule.

The BNO was once merely a convenient travel document allowing Hongkongers to visit the U.K. without visas. Under the new arrangement, a projected 2.9 million BNO status holders and 2.3 million dependents are eligible to live, work and study in Britain. After five years, they can apply for permanent settlement. After an additional year, they can become British citizens.

Between early February, when applications for the new plan began, and late March, some 35,000 Hongkongers accepted the BNO scheme with the intention of moving to Britain. The British government estimates that within the next few years, 320,000 BNO holders will relocate there.

Depressing Polls

A recent poll conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong reported that 43% of respondents wished to emigrate if possible. A survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Project found that 21% of those polled were actively planning to go. 

Evidence of this trend could be found in the 13% increase in the number of applications for Certificates of No Criminal Conviction, which are required by destination countries, in the first quarter of 2021.

The survey attracting the most attention was by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, which reported that a full 40% of members were planning to leave within the next few years, or were seriously considering doing so.

This is especially startling because most members are wealthy or upper middle-class Hongkongers — the best and the brightest of the city’s business community.

Will Close in August?

The current fear among those Hongkongers who feel compelled to depart by the breathtaking speed and brutality with which China has taken over Hong Kong society, is that they may not be allowed to leave.

Two months ago, the Hong Kong government passed a new immigration law that includes the power to stop people from boarding planes to leave the city. Such “exit bans” have long existed on the mainland, where they are used against activists who defy authorities or powerful executives who criticise Beijing. 

The police require no court order to apply these bans, and there is no recourse to appeal. The decree is set to go into effect next month.