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

Beijing’s national security law has prompted the exit of people from all walks of life in fear they or their children are at risk

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.

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

Guardian reporter in Hong Kong

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The new centre of dissent: Britain becomes hub for Hong Kong activists
Longstanding cultural ties and a newly welcoming government have led to prominent exiles choosing London as their base

Emma Graham-Harrison

29, Sep, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
After Hong Kong: China sets sights on solving 'the Taiwan problem'
An invasion may not be imminent but experts say armed forces could have capacity to mount one by 2028

Emma Graham-Harrison and Helen Davidson

02, Oct, 2020 @4:00 AM

Article image
Who runs Hong Kong: party faithful shipped in to carry out Beijing's will
Hardliners and allies of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, are remaking the semi-autonomous territory

Lily Kuo in Beijing and Helen Davidson

28, Sep, 2020 @12:30 AM

Article image
Families plead for Hong Kong activists accused of trying to flee by speedboat
The ‘Hong Kong 12’ - arrested for allegedly trying to flee to Taiwan - have become the latest flashpoint for protesters

Helen Davidson

30, Sep, 2020 @2:23 PM

Article image
Oxford moves to protect students from China's Hong Kong security law
Students will submit work related to China anonymously and told not to record classes

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

28, Sep, 2020 @4:00 AM

Article image
How HSBC got caught in a geopolitical storm over Hong Kong security law
Bank’s future remains uncertain as it finds itself under pressure from Beijing and Washington

Kalyeena Makortoff Banking correspondent

30, Sep, 2020 @4:00 AM

Article image
Big tech firms may be handing Hong Kong user data to China
Allegation follows new law that lets Hong Kong ask for sensitive data if deemed to threaten national security

Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington

30, Sep, 2020 @12:00 AM

Article image
How China changed Hong Kong: views from the city
As the 20th anniversary of the handover from the UK to China is marked, the Guardian talks to residents and officials about the shifts since 1997

Benjamin Haas

28, Jun, 2017 @4:00 AM

Article image
Demoralised but defiant, Hong Kong's spirit of resistance endures
Security law has largely stamped out anti-government protests, but the opposition is finding new ways to fight

Guardian reporter in Hong Kong

29, Sep, 2020 @12:30 AM

Article image
Hong Kong court bans pro-independence politicians from office
Yau Wai-ching and Baggio ‘Sixtus’ Leung banned from parliament after criticising China during swearing-in ceremony

Benjamin Haas in Hong Kong

15, Nov, 2016 @1:28 PM