Albert Ho crawls through the dining room of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club in a suit jacket and black scarf and collapses in his seat. The 69-year-old lawyer, democracy activist and opposition politician has just arrived from visiting two friends in prison.
One of them is Jimmy Lai, the media mogul and pro-democracy activist whose Apple Daily The newspaper applauded the city’s protest movement before Beijing quelled the unrest with a draconian national security law that it used to accuse it of “foreign collusion.” Lai has been he was denied bail while awaiting trial. Another was politician Wu Chi-wai, a former leader of the city’s main opposition Democratic Party and one of 55 activists and former lawmakers arrested in early January. John Clancey, an American attorney at Ho’s law firm, was also Arrested that day, the first foreigner caught by the radical new security law, whose loosely defined crimes include subversion and secession. “I have so many friends who are in jail now,” Ho says over lunch. “I’ll probably be next.” He might well be right: Ho chaired the Democratic Party and his law firm has defended hundreds of protesters. Chinese state media have labeled him a member of a new “Gang of Four” responsible for the city’s riots.
China’s relentless repression may have succeeded in crushing the Hong Kong protests and neutralizing political opposition. But he’s also doing something else: making many here consider fleeing abroad. Recently released figures from the National Taiwan Immigration Agency show that more than 10,800 Hong Kong residents received residence permits in 2020, almost double the total from the previous year. Since the security law went into effect, several nations, including Australia and Canada, have opened new immigration routes for Hong Kong residents. And in the United States, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on February 1 that the country should offer a refuge to Hong Kong, “victims of repression by the Chinese authorities.”
The United Kingdom, the former colonial lord of the territory, has extended the broadest welcome, inviting passport holders of British nationality (abroad) (BN (O)) to apply for a new type of visa that sets out a path to citizenship. Roughly 5.2 million Hong Kong residents, or two-thirds of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents, are eligible to accept the UK offer. According to a British government forecast, up to a million will leave in the next five years.
Over time, the exodus could remake Hong Kong’s political and financial landscape, with a study forecasting $ 36 billion in capital outflows this year alone. The flight will only speed up the territory’s integration with mainland China, which has shown its willingness to pump people and money across the border, even encouraging more Chinese companies to go public in Hong Kong.
Of course, Hong Kong’s history has been shaped by migration, inbound and outbound, often triggered by political turmoil. Inhabitants of the mainland fled here after Mao Zedong’s communists conquered China in 1949 and in the decades after young “freedom swimmers” braved the sea to escape the Cultural Revolution.
The wealthy have left the city in uncertain times, including after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and before the handover in 1997, when the UK transferred sovereignty to China. They went to London, Singapore, Sydney, Toronto, and other cosmopolitan places. Many returned once they realized that the tanks of the People’s Liberation Army were not going to roll down Queen’s Road Central, which is why today’s Hong Kong is home to more than 300,000 Canadian citizens with dual citizenship.
The best escape route these days leads to the UK. After China imposed the security law without a local debate on June 30, the Boris Johnson government called the move a “clear and serious” violation of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, to which China pledged. not alter the Hong Kong way of life for 50 years after delivery. London retaliated with the new visa for BN (O) passport holders, created before the city’s return to the Chinese government in 1997, which would allow them to stay in the UK and obtain citizenship if they stayed at least 180 days at the year for five years.
At least 7,000 Hong Kongers had already arrived in the UK before the window for visa applications opened on January 31. The only probable reason they have not followed any further is the atrocious handling of Covid-19 in the UK, with a daily case count of around 20,000. (Hong Kong’s total throughout the entire pandemic is less than 11,000 infected). With the UK now making rapid progress on vaccines, the number of arrivals is set to rise: an impact assessment by the British government suggests anywhere from a midpoint of 320,000 to over 1 million Hong Kongers will accept its offer for five years. .
For Tak, a newcomer to London who asked to have his full name withheld out of concern for his family, there is now no turning back. Born and raised in Hong Kong, he worked at one of the city’s global banks and, during the protests, spent lunch breaks and weekends attending rallies and marches. He says previous émigrés returned home after the handover, when the city was prospering and China was not overtly threatening.
Now it’s different, he says. The harsh way in which China’s leadership has grappled with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement shows that it doesn’t mind jeopardizing the city’s status as one of the world’s financial centers. Worried about the worsening political climate, his family opened accounts abroad and took out their cash. He hopes his parents will join him in the UK.
For Tak, the national security law was the “turning point.” His nightmare is that Beijing will one day subjugate Hong Kongers as if it had the Uighurs, members of an ethnic minority in western China who have been forced into detention camps. “Once Hong Kong loses its importance as a financial center, the people of Hong Kong will suffer the same fate,” he says.
An opposition lawmaker, who faces possible criminal charges as part of the recent government crackdown and did not want to be named, says earlier generations of Hong Kongers were eager to profit from China’s economic liberalization. For them, a foreign passport was simply an endorsement. “It is different now. Do people think Hong Kong is a place to earn money, have a career, and have a family? I don’t think so, ”he says. The Tiananmen crackdown had a chilling effect, but it seemed a long way off, he explains. Now Hong Kong people are seeing democracy stifled right on their doorstep. “For this generation, it happened to their neighbors, to their friends. It happened to the legislators they voted for ”.
China has plans to integrate Hong Kong into a Greater Bay Area of technology and export-focused cities that include Shenzhen in neighboring Guangdong province, and the departure of discouraged Hong Kong residents could be a blessing. Since the transfer, approximately 1 million mainland Chinese have settled in Hong Kong, and tens of millions more have visited it each year, boosting the hospitality and retail sectors. That is until the protests escalated in 2019, nearly paralyzing tourism.
Bernard Chan, a financier and senior adviser to Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam, predicts that the number of Hong Kong people who will emigrate to the UK will be “Much, much smaller” than anticipated. And unlike in previous decades, anyone who leaves today will be replaced by the inhabitants of the continent. “The difference between the 1990s and today is that there are hundreds of thousands of highly educated mainland Chinese,” says Chan, adding that most foreign companies with offices in Hong Kong have their sights set on the growing middle class. from China. Who are your customers? They are continental. “
David Ley, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia who wrote a book in 2010 titled Millionaire Migrants: Trans-Pacific Lifelines, also believes that, compared to previous waves, the exodus to the United Kingdom will be “more permanent”. Beijing’s efforts to prevent citizens from having two passports will end the trans-Pacific lifestyles enjoyed by previous generations of migrants and help China strengthen its grip on the city. “As people, especially in leadership positions, leave, they will be replaced by those from the mainland,” Ley says. “The People’s Republic of China would do well to see them go.”