Goodbye to Hong Kong

The city's time as an open and liberal society has run out.

Hong Kong has long been a city in a hurry, abuzz with urgency and haste. Perhaps that’s no surprise—for most of the past century, two looming expiration dates have given Hong Kong a sharp sense of its mortality: first 1997, the end of Britain’s 99-year colonial lease on the territory, then 2047, once China promised to leave Hong Kong’s freedoms intact for 50 years after the 1997 handover.

“A borrowed place living on borrowed time” was how the Australian journalist Richard Hughes described Hong Kong in the 1960s. Still, Hughes reminded his reader, “borrowed time is as good as any.” No longer. The last year has made painfully clear that Hong Kong’s time as an open and liberal society has run out.

Hong Kong’s contradictions were not new—a capitalist enclave in a communist country; a place too democratic for its rulers but not democratic enough for its people—but it was only in 2020 that they finally buckled under their own weight. Nathan Law, once the territory’s youngest lawmaker, now a pro-democracy exile, put the situation succinctly to me: “the immediate future of Hong Kong is grim.” 

By now, the ledger of damage is all too familiar, though still no less jarring to recount. Last June, the Chinese government imposed a wide-reaching and authoritarian National Security Law (NSL) on Hong Kong, criminalizing “subversion” against the Chinese government, among other offenses. At the time, Chief Executive Carrie Lam promised that “citizens will continue to enjoy the freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of demonstration, of procession, and to enter or leave Hong Kong in accordance with the law.” A year on, many pro-democracy politicians languish in prison; the last major pro-democracy newspaper has been forcibly shuttered and its proprietor jailed; and the annual vigil for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the only such commemoration on Chinese soil, has been banned for the second year running.

No sector of Hong Kong society appears safe from political interference. Nathan Law flagged the education system in particular as an imminent flashpoint. “Beijing wants to introduce brainwashing education and … harsher restrictions and censorship in the schools,” he said. Already, Hong Kong’s liberal studies course—a secondary school subject designed to teach critical thinking and societal engagement—has been revamped to focus on patriotism and Hong Kong’s connection to mainland China. In a recent press conference, Carrie Lam called on parents, teachers, and pastors to monitor the teenagers around them and report them to the police if necessary.

And the pace of change is not abating. Just in the past few weeks, Hong Kong’s free internet, one of the starkest remaining differences between Hong Kong and the mainland, moved further into the government’s crosshairs. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others have warned that planned changes to Hong Kong’s internet privacy laws, intended to prevent the “doxxing” of police officers, could make it impossible for them to continue offering their services in the territory.

Nonetheless, it would be foolish not to hesitate before pronouncing Hong Kong dead. The city’s vitality has wrong-footed many aspiring obituary writers. In a brutal review of the novelist Xu Xi’s “break-up letter” to Hong Kong in 2017, “Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy for a City,” the writer Holmes Chan challenged her fatalism: “Go down with the ship, I dare you. Our world crumbles. Witness it. Bear it. Only then are you worthy to write it.” 

Four years later, after protest, pandemic, and crackdown, such defiance is more difficult to muster. The tenor of advocacy within Hong Kong has changed to focus on damage mitigation. As Law describes it: “civil society in Hong Kong is in defending mode. We can only try to protect the freedoms we already have as much as possible.” Those who want more must now look abroad—to the UK, Canada, Australia, Taiwan, and any other countries willing to open their doors to Hong Kong emigrants.

Shortly after the passage of the NSL last summer, the UK introduced a new pathway to citizenship for Hong Kongers who are eligible for “British National (Overseas)” status and their dependents: a group that accounts for around 5.4 million of the city’s 7.5 million residents. More recently, Canada has also set up two Hong Kong immigration routes targeting university graduates. In the months after each scheme opened, the UK received 34,000 applicants, and Canada received over 3,000.

Last year, the UK Home Office estimated that around 260,000 Hong Kongers would emigrate to the UK by 2025. Julian Chan, the co-founder of Hongkongers in Britain, a group that assists Hong Kongers emigrating to the UK and lobbies the British government on issues regarding Hong Kong, says that arrivals so far have been “more or less on track to meet the Home Office estimate,” but added that “provided the situation in Hong Kong continues to worsen … I think the numbers are going to exceed what the Home Office has put forward.”

Unlike previous departures, most emigrants today are leaving for good. “Today, people clear out everything, selling all their property, bringing all their money to Canada, to the UK, and they are not planning to return, forever,” said Andrew Lo, an immigration consultant in Hong Kong. “My clients say ‘it’s hopeless, so I’m not going to come back.’” Ninety-six percent of British National (Overseas) visa holders intending to come to the UK cited the NSL as a significant factor in their decision to leave, according to a poll by Hongkongers in Britain.

Among the first wave of arrivals will be many Hong Kongers fleeing direct political danger. Jabez Lam, who runs the Hackney Chinese Community Services charity, told me: “those who are at the forefront will be people who are in media, who are teachers, educationalists, who are community workers and social workers, who are in the legal profession, and also young Hong Kongers who have taken part in the protests.”

Lo, the immigration consultant, concurred. “[People] are worried about having to sign declarations saying you’re loyal to the Basic Law and the central government. I have three doctors, they resigned from the government hospitals because they don’t want to sign the declaration. They are very scared of everything right now.”

But Beijing’s influence stretches even into the streets of safe countries like the UK. Close to 200 UK-based Chinese community organizations, many of whom would usually assist new migrants arriving in Britain, have signed public declarations of support for the Hong Kong government since 2019. Jabez Lam, who has been personally harassed by pro-Beijing demonstrators, noted that “these people are arriving in a new country, but unlike previous waves, who knew they would get support from established Chinese organizations … they are met with hostility.”

Alongside this intimidation, Hong Kong migrants face a raft of challenges as they adapt to their new home countries. Many new arrivals struggle to find accommodation, transfer professional qualifications, and obtain the necessary documentation to work, especially amid Covid-19 restrictions and delays. Existing government support systems are often patchy and poorly tailored to the needs of Hong Kongers.

Other difficulties run deeper still. Lam, from Hackney Chinese Community Services, told me that he has personally spoken with about 50 young people suffering from mental health issues after leaving Hong Kong.

As Hong Kongers settle into new lives in the UK, Canada, or elsewhere, many do so with the knowledge that they may never again step foot in their hometown. Recent polling has found that 14% of would-be emigrants already say that Hong Kong is too unsafe for them to ever return. Aniessa Andersen, a Hong Konger now living in Germany and chairperson of Hongkonger in Deutschland, revealed to me that she was too concerned for her own safety to go back to Hong Kong even to visit her dying mother.

For those who leave, facing up to the prospect of becoming part of a permanent diaspora is jarring. “Hong Kong was a place, when I was young, to receive refugees. And now we have become refugees. It is a very complicated feeling, and difficult for the self-esteem of Hong Kong people,” Andersen told me. For a society so accustomed to taking matters into its own hands, one where a quarter of the population took to the streets in one day to defend Hong Kong’s free society, the sheer powerlessness of the present moment stings.

The crucial questions now, as one Hong Kong emigrant recently put it to me, lie in the realm of culture. How can you pass on that intense love of a place—of all Hong Kong’s beauties and eccentricities—to a new generation of Hong Kongers, who will never have lived there?

Beneath Hong Kong’s political fight have always sat profound cultural stakes. Hong Kong’s danger to the mainland lay not just in its restive population, but what the city embodies: an authentically Chinese vision of liberal politics, a part of China that doesn’t owe its wealth or modernity to the Communist Party, a forcefully Cantonese rejoinder to any lofty aspirations in Beijing of cultural and linguistic uniformity. 

But it isn’t Hong Kong that best represents those ideals, it’s Hong Kongers, wherever they reside.

Archie Hall is a writer from London and Hong Kong.