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Should we stay, or should we go? Hong Kongers grapple with life in a changed city

·6-min read
A supporter holds a poster of pro-democracy figures on trial under the new national security law for participating in an unofficial primary in 2020 (EPA)
A supporter holds a poster of pro-democracy figures on trial under the new national security law for participating in an unofficial primary in 2020 (EPA)

Gavin Mok never expected the day for him and his family to leave Hong Kong would come so soon, but last July, the situation in his hometown deteriorated so quickly he could no longer find a reason to stay.

Almost a year ago, the Chinese government passed the National Security Law which makes it easier to punish protesters and also reduces the city’s autonomy. Penalties have been increased - up to life imprisonment for “crimes of subversion” - and some serious cases can now be tried in mainland China.

Critics say it curtails democratic freedoms, where China views it as returning stability.

“Unlike most Hong Kong people, my family have been planning [to emigrate] since 2015, as I saw signs that suggested the Chinese government was trying to increase their control over Hong Kong,” said Mok. “Originally, I thought we would leave the city in 2025 but following the imposition of the NSL last July, I realised there is no more reason to stay in Hong Kong.”

Mok, 42, used to work in the financial services industry in Hong Kong. He and his wife and two daughters moved to the UK in October 2020, after the British government unveiled the new immigration scheme for Hong Kong people who hold the British National Overseas status (BNO).

Mok sold his house in Hong Kong two years ago, which gave him more flexibility on the timing of his departure. Others haven’t been so fortunate.

According to a report in May by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, 34,000 Hong Kongers have applied to live in the UK in the first three months of 2021.

The story of Mok and his family represents a growing trend in Hong Kong, as residents in the former British colony feel increasingly threatened by the controversial law and a wide range of other measures that the Hong Kong and Chinese government have used to detain and prosecute prominent activists and normal citizens.

Data collected by the Georgetown Center for Asian Law last month, the National Security Department (NSD) within the Hong Kong Police have made 113 arrests, including 92 individuals who were arrested for allegedly violating the NSL since last July.

After reviewing all the cases under the NSL, Georgetown’s Lydia Wong and Thomas Kellogg concluded that the law has been used to “punish the exercise of basic political rights by the government’s peaceful critics”.

In the eyes of some Hong Kong residents who are still in the city, the NSL has blurred the lines when it comes to what they can say and what they can do.

“The boundary keeps moving and the government has been very harsh when it comes to suppressing the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong,” said Tim Leung, a business owner in Hong Kong who plans to move to the UK in two years.

Mr Leung thinks the choice facing Hong Kong people now is much starker compared with those who emigrated in the 1980s and ‘90s. “When they chose to move to western countries, they knew there was still a place that they could call home and they could always visit Hong Kong,” he said.

“If the situation in Hong Kong continues to deteriorate, I would feel like I shouldn’t come back to visit after I move to the UK. I think the Hong Kong government and Chinese government are trying to destroy the norms that Hong Kong’s civil society has established over the last few decades,” he added.

A division of work

Apart from arrests made under the NSL, the Hong Kong police has increased the frequency of arrests made under other laws, targeting prominent pro-democracy figures like activist and politician Joshua Wong, media mogul Jimmy Lai, and other former legislators.

Chow Hang Tung, a Hong Kong barrister and vice chairperson of the Hong Kong Alliance, became the latest target of Beijing’s most recent crackdown. She was arrested last Friday for allegedly publicising an unauthorised assembly via social media, which was the annual Tiananmen Vigil, commemorating the 1989 pro-democracy crackdown, that was banned by the police for the second year in a row.

Hong Kong’s Victoria Park on June 4 2021, usually the site of an annual candelight vigil remembering the Tiananmen Square crackdown, but police warned people not to attend (AP)
Hong Kong’s Victoria Park on June 4 2021, usually the site of an annual candelight vigil remembering the Tiananmen Square crackdown, but police warned people not to attend (AP)

After she was released on Saturday, Mr Chow characterised the arrest as the government trying to “frighten” people and prevent them from marking the Tiananmen Squre crackdown. To her, the imposition of the NSL has made it more difficult to work and plan events because simple actions that no one used to care about will need to be debated over and over again.

“It’s been much more difficult to coordinate actions and make people come out,” explained Chow . “The law has damaged the social fabrics that used to bring different parties in Hong Kong’s civil society together.”

Despite the worsening conditions for civil society groups like Hong Kong Alliance, Chow said she has no plans to leave the city. She believes that activists like her can achieve more by staying in Hong Kong. “I think if you want people to continue the fight, you first have to be there and not abandon them,” she said.

Previously, we always thought about Hong Kong as a physical place, but we now need to highlight the core values including democracy, freedom and social justice that define Hong Kongers.

Simon Cheng, formerly at the British Consulate in Hong Kong

“You should explore and expand every space and action that still exists. I think there are a lot of lessons from other campaigns and other people’s movements,” she added.

She cites the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests as an example. Following the bloody crackdown in Beijing in 1989, several key student leaders were forced into exile while some activists remained in China to fight for the cause of the movement. “Those who are outside of China are supporting what’s happening in China, and that’s how it should be,” Chow said of the movement today

“I’m not saying it’s not important to have people abroad to do international lobbying as it’s a sacrifice to leave Hong Kong. While someone needs to do that, someone also needs to stay in Hong Kong. It’s a division of work,” she explained.

For Hong Kongers who have moved to the UK, they think one of the important missions now is to find ways to uphold the core values that define Hong Kong as it used to be.

“Previously, we always thought about Hong Kong as a physical place, but we now need to highlight the core values including democracy, freedom and social justice that define Hong Kongers,” said Simon Cheng, a former staff at the British Consulate in Hong Kong who now lives in London.

Gavin Mok agrees with Mr Cheng’s ideas.

While he may have felt compelled to leave the city itself, he hasn’t given up on being a Hong Konger.

“I can keep upholding the spirit and values of Hong Kong no matter where I am, but it no longer makes sense for me to remain in Hong Kong,” he said.

“Leaving the city behind doesn’t mean I don’t love Hong Kong, but I need to give up on some things that I can no longer reclaim.”

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