ECONOMY

Stay or Move to U.K.? Hong Kong Locals Face Hard Choice as China Reshapes City

They’ll miss their parents, their favorite hiking spots and the chatter of their mother tongue on the streets. Some don’t want to go, even if it means the risk of detention. There are no easy decisions for Hong Kong residents who are weighing their futures as life in their city is gradually reshaped by China.

For many locals, Beijing’s move to impose a national security law on the Asian financial hub has been a catalyst to consider leaving, potentially for good. A year after it was announced, the law has already tightened China’s grip on Hong Kong, alongside changes to electoral rules and a new patriotic curriculum for schools. Expats are also increasingly thinking of relocating.

Officials in Beijing and Hong Kong say the law, which prohibits acts of secession, terrorism and subversion and foreign collusion, was necessary for stability after protests swamped the city from March 2019 to mid-2020.

While multiple Western nations have criticized the law, the U.K. has gone further. It is offering a pathway to citizenship to 2.9 million holders of a British National (Overseas) passport — introduced before the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 — and their 2.3 million dependents. They account for about 70 percent of the city’s population of 7.5 million. Thousands have already arrived in the U.K.,  with more on their way.

Even so, at least some eligible locals are now wavering on whether to go, including those who were involved in pro-democracy protests. Some cite money concerns. Others say it’s too hard to decide, because it would mean potentially leaving Hong Kong forever.

We spoke to eight holders of the BN(O) passport — from bankers to teachers and businessmen — about their decisions, some of whom asked not to be identified by their full or real name. Here’s what they said.

Tak, who gave only part of his full name, had thrown himself into antigovernment protests in November 2019, helping rip up bricks from the pavement to use in clashes with riot police and fighting through tear gas in his goggles. One night that month, he narrowly escaped getting ringfenced by police in an alleyway in the dense district of Kowloon, sprinting to his nearby apartment. After composing himself, he went back out, offering supplies to demonstrators who were erecting a street barricade and hurling Molotov cocktails.

As the protest movement dwindled in 2020, though, he wondered what Beijing would do to punish Hong Kong’s rebellious residents. The answer: a national security law. “When we finally saw the draft that night, that final version, we saw there was so many ambiguities, but at the same time really harsh penalties for those very ambiguous crimes,” he said. Tak said he feared curbs on the city’s freedoms would come gradually: “When you do it bit by bit, you don’t realize the danger of it.”

Tak sought a way out, but his employer was not offering an international transfer. The pandemic had hammered the global economy and made it difficult to find a job. Then in July, the U.K. announced it would open the door to eligible Hong Kongers. 

Tak got a job at the London branch of a global bank in December. He used a route that gives British immigration officers discretion to allow entry at the border for up to six months. Tak filed a request on the day the U.K. opened applications for longer-term visas for Hong Kongers on January 31. Under that permit, BN(O) passport holders can stay either 30 months or five years; the U.K. can issue permanent residency after five years.

He converted a portion of his savings into U.S. dollars, euros and British pounds, depositing them in a Swiss bank, and put the rest in  cryptocurrencies. He lives in a central London apartment, rented to him at a discount. Tak’s parents hope to follow, but aren’t in a rush to offload their flat while Hong Kong housing prices are depressed.

Tak is relieved to be in London. But he misses Hong Kong, especially beachside spots like Lamma Island, a short ferry ride from the central business district. He also misses the sound of his native Cantonese. “It always feels better to speak your mother tongue,” he said. “There’s an unexplainable nostalgia.”

Ada (not her real name) said her profession turned into a minefield after the government instructed schools to adopt a pro-China curriculum, geared at instilling patriotism among children as young as kindergarten age. “It hurts to compare how much I’ve had to change my classes and lessons since the national security law was enacted,” she said.

Stay or Move to U.K.? Hong Kong Locals Face Hard Choice as China Reshapes City

Hong Kong’s Education Bureau in February ordered schools to adopt a national security education program to “develop in students a sense of belonging to the country, an affection for the Chinese people, a sense of national identity, as well as an awareness of and a sense of responsibility for safeguarding national security.” China also designated April 15 as National Security Education Day; this year’s featured activities from anti-terror drills to weapons displays for students.

After the national security law was enacted, Ada said she had to review her teaching materials to remove any references from “sensitive newspapers” such as Apple Daily. The publication is owned by Next Digital founder Jimmy Lai, a prominent pro-democracy advocate, who was sentenced to prison for his role in unauthorized protests. Ada’s school also issued a reminder to vet any speakers invited to talk to the students.

Ada shelved plans to head to the U.K. last year, opting to first build up around $40,000 in savings. She now hopes to leave in May and wants to become a special-education teacher in Britain.

“Wong,” 34, education administrator

Though he describes himself as apolitical, Wong (not his real name), said every passing year made him think harder about migrating. The security law was the final straw. “What if I am arrested for saying something against the government while teaching, or even for something I say during a chat with colleagues?”

Wong planned to move in May but has now wavered, considering an offer to extend his employment contract so he could save more for an expensive move to the U.K.  (Some protest front-liners with limited funds have found themselves stuck in a “devastating” U.K. limbo.) Wong hired an immigration agency to help him — and is also considering going to Canada.

He is weighing this decision carefully because it means leaving behind family and friends. “I don’t know when I can see them again,” he says. “So I need to be mentally prepared before I really can leave. Once I leave, I will leave forever, so it’s a very big decision.”

“Francesca,” 40, corporate employee

Stay or Move to U.K.? Hong Kong Locals Face Hard Choice as China Reshapes City

Francesca (not her real name) said she has no desire to wrench herself from family and a well-paying corporate job — at least not now. “I don’t have any guarantees of finding a good job in the U.K. or of making a good income there,” she said. The U.K. is showing signs of rebounding from the deepest economic slump in three centuries as social distancing restrictions are gradually lifted. But millions of jobs are still at risk as businesses struggle to return to normalcy.

Francesca spent her childhood in various Southeast Asian countries, returning home for university. She said she has grown to love Hong Kong’s vast outdoors, swimming in the ocean and rock climbing. Before the pandemic, she liked to travel and used her BN(O) passport on several trips. (Many Hongkongers hold multiple passports, though Chinese law does not recognize dual citizenship.)

She said many of her friends without children, mostly professionals in their 30s and 40s, were also taking a wait-and-see approach.

But one thing might change her mind. “Because of the changes to the education curriculum, if I had kids, I would not want them to go through the local education system as it’s being changed so much right now,” she said. “So if I do have kids, I think I would most likely plan to move soon.”

Leo Tang, 32, labor activist

Tang was sentenced to four months in prison for protest-related offenses, having been arrested during a 2019 demonstration in Kowloon.  He pleaded guilty, and only had to serve about 80 days. While incarcerated, he kept a routine: exercising daily as well as reading books on Buddhism and Asian politics. Upon release, he went back to work for his workers’ union.

Stay or Move to U.K.? Hong Kong Locals Face Hard Choice as China Reshapes City

Undaunted by restrictions on public gatherings during the pandemic, Tang and fellow activists have been setting up street booths to campaign for labor rights. They recently called for a boycott of Xinjiang cotton over allegations of forced labor in the Chinese region. (The controversy over labor rights prompted a U.S. import ban on Xinjiang cotton and tomatoes in January, although Beijing denies Uyghur Muslims are being exploited.)  Tang said he was unsure if he would be punished again for his activism, but said his future is rooted in the city.

While friends and family are contemplating a move to the U.K., Tang said he couldn’t afford it. He scrapes by with a meager salary, much of which goes to renting a 100-square-foot room for $580 a month, in a flat which he shares with two roommates and three cats.

He also doesn’t want to abandon his pro-democracy work. “Leaving is not the real way out for the democratic movement in Hong Kong,” he said. “But it’s an emergency exit for people who want a breath of fresh air.”

He said he has been criticized by friends for staying, considering he was jailed once before. “Hong Kong’s future is in the hands of people who are still here,” he said. “What can we do together as a community, when the regime is trying to break us apart?”

Adrian, 31, working odd jobs

Adrian, who only gave his first name, quit his job in politics shortly after Jan. 6, when dozens of opposition figures were arrested for violating Hong Kong’s national security law after they organized an unofficial primary vote ahead of Legislative Council elections. Of 53 people arrested, 47 were charged with conspiracy to commit subversion and await trial. The Legislative Council vote was rescheduled to December 2021.

Worried that he might face scrutiny for joining protests since the demonstrations known as the Umbrella Movement in 2014, Adrian made plans to move to the U.K. He transferred money to an offshore bank account and switched to encrypted app Signal for communications. He said he was wary about using the government’s contact-tracing app, LeaveHomeSafe, which keeps a record of visits to restaurants, gyms and other public places in order to help curb Covid-19.

Stay or Move to U.K.? Hong Kong Locals Face Hard Choice as China Reshapes City

Adrian is renting short-term apartments and taking part-time jobs in case he needs to go quickly. He says it is tough to leave the city, a place his grandmother and father fled to from mainland China in the 1980s, seeking more freedom and economic opportunities.

Now he wonders how much of those freedoms and opportunities are left. “I don’t even know if I want to come back to Hong Kong. The passion of people will probably fade and I might no longer be able to find someone I can talk to.”

Andrew, 32, online business owner

It was the police raid on Apple Daily in August 2020 that spurred Andrew, his English first name, to plan his exit. As the founder of a service that matched English-speaking Hong Kong protesters with translation jobs, he feared his association with the protest movement might land him in hot water. “I worried that one day the police force would come to my home to do the search and arrest me as well,” he said.

His fears were validated when he spotted an item in a Beijing-backed newspaper, quoting legal experts saying the service’s donors and clients could be in danger of violating the national security law. By then, Andrew was gone from the city. He entered the U.K. in August using the “Leave Outside the Immigration Rules” route. He convinced his parents, in their 60s, to sell all their assets including their apartment, car and stocks so that they could also relocate to the U.K. on short-term visas.

By December, the family had settled in a flat in northern England with what Andrew described as enough money to “stay in the U.K. for a very long time” without having to access public funds.

They applied for the longer-term BN(O) visa in January and received approval for a five-year permit in April. “We feel good,” he said. “We never thought that we would come to the U.K. for a long stay. But we think that we are the lucky ones.”

Ferris, 40, former business owner

Stay or Move to U.K.? Hong Kong Locals Face Hard Choice as China Reshapes City

Ferris, who only gave his first name, said he grew up in a pro-China family. They rejoiced when Hong Kong was handed back to Chinese rule. As a boy, he joined the youth group of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, the city’s largest pro-Beijing labor group, where his relatives remain active. “We even got a Mao Zedong statue at home,” he said.

When hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets on July 1, 2003 — the anniversary of the city’s handover — to oppose the legislature’s first attempt to replace a colonial-era security law, Ferris looked on with displeasure. “I thought, ‘Why are these people making trouble? Are they fake protesters or what?’”

He wrote an online post criticizing the protesters and ended up in heated debates with other internet users. By reading more about the issues, he said he came to understand why Hongkongers were so opposed to the security law proposal in 2003. “I took the chance to read what people wrote and realized I was really naïve,” he said. “I realized not everything my parents said to me is right.”

That spirit of debate and the “freedom to speak freely” has faded in recent years, he said. “The legal system, administration and legislature used to check and balance each other. The police used to be nice,” he added. Ferris said he realized one day that he did not want to live in the city anymore.

He said he wanted to have children, but Hong Kong was no longer appealing “given the stress, living costs and the political environment.” Over the years, he flirted with living in Japan, where he ran hospitality businesses, or Taiwan, where he said life was more easygoing. But those plans never solidified. Then the the U.K. opened up its visa scheme.

After months of working on his immigration papers, and many sleepless nights, he and his wife received their U.K. visas in March.  “It was the best day ever in my life. Even better than the day I got married,” he said. They booked one-way tickets to London.

Stay or Move to U.K.? Hong Kong Locals Face Hard Choice as China Reshapes City

Ferris had been reluctant to show his face on camera while being interviewed through his BN(O) application process. He worried his criticisms of the government would get him in trouble in Hong Kong. But after getting his visa, he agreed to be photographed and filmed. One of his final moments in Hong Kong was spent getting a haircut from a hairdresser friend, saying it “symbolized a fresh start.”

He said his family didn’t understand his decision to move, however. “They think, ‘China is so good. Why are you going to some other countries to be their second-class citizens?’” he said. His relatives sent him videos of pro-China influencers claiming the BN(O) policy is a scam and that he would face discrimination in Britain — but this failed to dissuade him.

He quit the family messenger groups and stuck to his rule of avoiding discussing politics with relatives. “I can’t convince them anyway. Their values are rooted for decades and it’s not that easy to change.” 

—Reporting by Josie Wong, Kari Soo Lindberg, Iain Marlow and Shawna Kwan

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