A 21st Century Exodus

As Hong Kong's freedom dies, its residents prepare to leave en masse.

Hong Kong was once the bridge between East and West. This year it has become a battleground in an emerging cold war, with 7.5 million Hong Kongers caught in the crossfire. As the city is wracked by political turmoil and economic uncertainty, hundreds of thousands are making plans to leave—veteran protest leaders, ordinary families, and government sympathizers alike.

The exodus is poised to transform Hong Kong and deepen the brewing conflict between China and the West. Enlarged and energized diasporas will drive Hong Kong’s plight up the international agenda, while Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement risks losing steam as fresh arrivals from the Chinese mainland replace liberal-minded emigrants who have left to find security abroad.

In June, the UK made history by granting asylum to a Hong Kong citizen, Simon Cheng, for the first time. Cheng says that Chinese security services shackled him, beat him, and pressed him to confess that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests had been masterminded by the British. The following month, Nathan Law, one of Hong Kong’s best-known politicians, also went into exile in London. Last week, multiple local sources reported that twelve Hong Kong dissidents were intercepted by the Chinese coast guard while fleeing by boat to Taiwan. They allegedly remain in Chinese custody.

Cheng now helps run an encrypted email hotline for Hong Kongers seeking asylum in safe countries like Germany, Taiwan, or the UK. He told me he receives more than a dozen requests for information and assistance each day.

“It’s not just Hong Kong activism leaders. I receive inquiries from ordinary people … they have no resources and are even more vulnerable than those prominent figures,” he said. “They’re upset with the political system because for a long time they [couldn’t] speak out, and possibly their daughters or sons joined the protests and have been arrested, or had their ID card registered, and fear that they can be persecuted at any time.”

Last October, more than 40 percent of respondents told a Hong Kong pollster they would emigrate if they could. Since then, the situation has only darkened: Beijing’s rubber-stamp legislature imposed a National Security Law with sweeping powers, upcoming legislative elections were postponed by a year, and Covid-19 has become a pretext to shut down even the tamest of political gatherings.

Under the National Security Law, anyone convicted of “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism,” or “collusion” with foreign forces could face life in prison. The shortest jail sentence that the law allows for “active participants” is three years. Since the law was enacted, protesters have been arrested for as little as carrying banners or stickers with anti-government slogans.

It’s a startling reversal. For almost two centuries, people fleeing violence and repression—the Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s, the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s—have found safe haven across the border in Hong Kong. Now, their children and grandchildren are being forced to take flight once more.

For John, a recent graduate, 2019 was a breaking point. “It’s not so much the National Security Law—that was the nail in the coffin,” he said. “The people who run this city are not people who share the same ideals that I have.” (Like many others I spoke to, John asked not to be directly identified.)

Trust in Hong Kong’s government and confidence in the territory’s future have never been lower, according to the Public Opinion Research Institute, a respected local pollster that has charted public sentiment for nearly forty years. Since protests resumed in 2019, net satisfaction in the Hong Kong government has hovered between minus forty and minus seventy percent.

Few facets of public life in today’s Hong Kong are immune to political interference. After a spate of politically motivated arrests, the credibility of Hong Kong’s much-vaunted legal system is in tatters. A review of school textbooks completed in August excised the phrase “separation of powers” and substantially rewrote sections on civil disobedience. The law professor Benny Tai, who led the protest campaign for universal suffrage in Hong Kong in 2014, was fired from the University of Hong Kong faculty in July.

Steve, a lawyer, left Hong Kong several years ago. His immediate motivations were pragmatic: “I didn’t want to start my career in a city with an expiry date that is constantly being pushed forward,” he told me.

Nonetheless, he found the emotional toll of recent events in Hong Kong inescapable. “I know that most Hong Kongers don’t have the luxury of simply leaving. Watching the protests last year from afar was pretty gut-wrenching. I really felt guilty for not being there standing up for what I believe in, while students were getting beaten up and arrested,” he said. “We’ve cried over stuff.”

Three quarters of young people in Hong Kong say they see themselves first and foremost as Hong Kongers, not Chinese, compared to less than half of over-30s. In a cruel irony, the first generation to embrace a Hong Kong identity without qualification or reservation is now faced with a terrible choice: watch the freedoms they grew up with slip away or abandon their home for good.

John grappled with just that dilemma. “Hong Kong is home,” he told me. “But I certainly don’t mind starting a family elsewhere. If it comes to it, I would much rather do that than live under tyranny.”

Even Hong Kongers who are sympathetic to the government are beginning to look for ways out. One such family admitted to me that they were hoping to send their teenage son to Canada or Finland after he finished secondary school. If he attended a local university, they worried, he would risk being swept up by the protest movement, which dominates student politics in Hong Kong.

Andrew Lo, a Hong Kong-based immigration consultant, told me that 30 percent of the inquiries he receives are from the “blue,” or pro-government, side.

“Even if they don’t want to leave Hong Kong,” Lo said of his pro-government clients, “they have wired money overseas already. People really can’t see the future of Hong Kong at the moment. Hong Kong is being used as a [bargaining] chip.”

Lo estimated that well over 300,000—about one in twenty—Hong Kongers could leave within the next year, disproportionately young professionals like John and Steve. The working assumption at the British Foreign Office is that around 200,000 people will move from Hong Kong to the UK in the next five years alone. In July, the UK government opened a path to citizenship for the 3 million Hong Kongers eligible for “British National (Overseas)” status, almost anyone born before the 1997 Handover.

Other governments have taken less dramatic steps: Taiwan opened a bureau dedicated to processing Hong Kong asylum requests, and Australia extended visa rights for Hong Kongers already living there.

If those estimates are even close to the mark, the exodus would dwarf anything in Hong Kong’s recent history and fundamentally change the character of the city. The closest modern parallel is the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when Hong Kong lost around 60,000 people each year as Chinese rule began to loom.

But there is a key difference between today and the early 1990s: China now sits ready to fill the gap. Although many Mainland Chinese citizens, especially upper middle-class professionals, have settled in Hong Kong, migration from the Mainland remains tightly regulated. The main pathway for Mainlanders to migrate to Hong Kong, the one-way permit, is capped at 150 people per day. If Beijing and the Hong Kong government choose to ease these restrictions even a little, any gap that emigrants leave in Hong Kong’s workforce would be filled almost instantly.

Those involved in the pro-democracy movement are very much alive to this reality. Cheng, the dissident who received asylum in the UK, laid out his assessment of the situation in blunt terms. “Hong Kong society will be deeply changed,” he said. “More and more Chinese pro-Beijing immigrants will assimilate Hong Kong into … Mainland China.” The key advantage that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement holds—a supermajority of popular support—would then be under serious threat.

The more enduring impact to Hong Kong, though, may well be cultural. Tensions between Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese have long run high, as understandable gripes are mixed with outright discrimination. Hong Kongers often blame Mainlanders for inflating housing prices or emptying stores of staples like baby formula, which is thought to be safer and higher quality in Hong Kong than China. An animating strain to Hong Kong’s protests has been small-c conservatism: a deep appreciation for Hong Kong’s distinctive culture, history, and way of life coupled with a real sense that all of it is under threat. In such a fraught context, a wave of Mainland immigration could be incendiary.

As for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, mass emigration will pull its center of gravity further away from Hong Kong’s shores. Since the draconian National Security Law came into effect in July, major protests in Hong Kong have already become infrequent—the threat of decades in jail is an effective deterrent. Meanwhile, within weeks of arriving in London, the pro-democracy politician Nathan Law had met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, rallied a wide range of British MPs, and secured glowing profiles across the UK press. Much as the Cuban diaspora in the United States has driven a hardline American policy towards the Castro regime, Hong Kong dissidents hope that a large and engaged Hong Kong diaspora could push policy conversations in popular destination countries like Britain or Taiwan.

Beyond politics, choosing to leave home is a heart-wrenchingly personal decision. In the months and years ahead, households across Hong Kong will be weighing difficult options. The sum of those individual choices will reverberate through Hong Kong’s future and shape how the West navigates China’s rise for decades to come.

For John, the ultimate answer was dispiritingly clear: “Perhaps in the future there will be some place for me here. But for now, I’m not particularly hopeful … What made this city successful is going away, and I don’t think I can be part of it.”

Archie Hall is a writer from London and Hong Kong.