In a casual conversation last weekend, it turned out that a diplomat due to retire later this year had originally intended to remain in Hong Kong and join the private sector. But now, he said, “That is clearly impossible.”
Hong Kong is changing so much that it is quickly becoming unrecognizable. Its still sizable expatriate community includes many people who came intending to stay for two or three years and ended up staying a lifetime. But, with China tightening its grip over the former British colony, Hong Kong is losing much of its old attraction.
As for the 7.5 million residents, considerably more than 100,000 are uprooting themselves this year and moving, primarily to Britain, which has offered to take about 5.5 million of the territory’s 7.5 million people, but also to other countries, such as Canada and Australia, which have put out the welcome mat for Hong Kong.
At almost every dinner, the conversation inevitably turns to the question of whether to stay or go; and if it is go, the discussion moves to the pros and cons of the country being considered, its tax rate, health care, schools and other issues.
Similar conversations were held in the 1980s and early 1990s, before China’s takeover of Hong Kong in 1997. The then British government had raised the drawbridges to prevent an influx of people from Hong Kong and, through changes in the immigration and nationality law, turned British citizens into Chinese citizens when Hong Kong was handed over to China.
Of those who left four decades ago, most moved to Canada and many, after obtaining citizenship, returned to Hong Kong armed with a foreign passport to continue their career.
This time, however, change in Hong Kong is so profound that few are thinking of returning. Many suspect that China will retaliate by stripping them of their permanent residence status in Hong Kong.
Those who remain will have to struggle to live in a city increasingly under China’s direct control. The Hong Kong administration, citing the pandemic, has banned for the second year the annual Tiananmen Square vigil, held to commemorate victims of the military crackdown on June 4, 1989.
After the ban, Chief Executive Carrie Lam emphasized that Hong Kong should respect the Chinese Communist Party, since the state constitution describes the party as the country’s leader. As for whether disrespect was a crime, Mrs. Lam said it depended on relevant laws, evidence and actions taken.
It seems safe to predict that June 4 commemorations will never again be permitted.
The government is also acting to curb the media, taking steps that it says are necessary to protect individual privacy, but which will make the job of journalists a lot tougher.
On March 30, the chief executive said at a news conference: “I don’t see why journalists should have prerogatives — what other people can’t see, journalists want to see. No one in Hong Kong has prerogatives.”
The government will introduce legislation this month to limit access to information on company directors filed with the Companies Registry. This was attempted eight years ago and withdrawn because of public pressure. Mrs. Lam said in February that since there is now no opposition in the legislature, the government can introduce bills it would not have dared bring forth in the past.
Some restrictions don’t require legislation. As of April 1, the courts have redacted ID card numbers, addresses and dates of birth of defendants in documents accessible to journalists.
One recent case illustrates journalists’ precarious situation. On July 21, 2019 there was a mob attack in Yuen Long. Choy Yuk-ling, a freelance producer, used a Transport Department database to trace license plates of cars in the vicinity. On a form giving the reason for her search, she checked the box “other traffic and transport-related matters.” There was no “media” option.
Choy was charged with violating the Road Traffic Ordinance. On April 30, the day after the show she co-produced won a media award, she was fined HK$6,000,
Meanwhile, the government is transforming RTHK, the public broadcaster. In March, Patrick Li, a senior civil servant with no journalistic background, was installed as its director. He quickly canceled a slew of programs, some critical of the government, others for being “imbalanced.”
In late April, RTHK announced a new daily program, the Carrie Lam Show, also known as “Get to Know the Election Committee Subsectors,” starring the chief executive, in which she interviews members of Hong Kong’s new election committee.
The show may not enhance Hong Kong’s attraction to outsiders. It is in Chinese. But its run through May 17 may well affect the current exodus.
Frank Ching is a U.S. journalist based in Hong Kong who frequently writes on China-related issues.
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