The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hong Kong exodus gathers pace as thousands vote with their feet

A girl waves to friends as she departs for a permanent move to Britain at the Hong Kong airport on June 30. (Vincent Yu/AP)

HONG KONG — The ritual unfolds daily. In an otherwise near-deserted airport terminal, hundreds line up to check in for a one-way journey. Elderly parents on walking sticks see off their adult children and grandkids, who hug and cry as they snap photos with loved ones they might not see for years. Their destination: Britain.

With a travel pillow around his neck, Cheung, 32, dropped off his luggage on a recent day to board a British Airways flight to London. He patted his father’s back as they walked through the terminal with family and friends — but his dad began weeping as Cheung neared the immigration gate.

“It’s regrettable that we are leaving under these circumstances,” said Cheung, who gave only his last name because he feared repercussions.

Alarmed by Beijing’s rapid erosion of their freedoms, Hong Kongers are voting with their feet. The exodus has picked up pace this month, with net outflows of residents regularly exceeding 1,000 a day, according to government figures compiled by activist investor David Webb, even as the pandemic continues to disrupt travel. Many of the emigres are taking up Britain’s offer of safe haven and a path to citizenship for some 5 million residents of its former colony, introduced in response to Beijing’s crackdown in the financial hub.

The British government expects roughly 300,000 to make the move over five years, in what would be one of the largest waves of migration into the country.

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Like thousands of others, Cheung began planning to leave when the authorities cracked down on pro-democracy protests in 2019 that were sparked by a proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China. Beijing’s subsequent introduction of a national security law that curtailed freedom of speech and led to the jailing of dozens of pro-democracy activists “triple confirmed” his decision.

“Originally, we had some hope that 2 million people protesting on the streets could be a starting point for Hong Kong to become better,” Cheung said. But the government’s reaction showed it was “against” the people, he said, adding that the city was “not suitable for living, in every aspect, be it politics, the economy or social policies.”

Hong Kong has experienced prior waves of emigration, notably ahead of its 1997 return to China when thousands obtained foreign residency or passports from places like Canada and Australia. Often, one parent would stay while their spouse and children went abroad — allowing these “astronaut families” to maintain a connection to Hong Kong and take a “wait and see” approach to life under Chinese rule, said Paul Yip Siu-fai, associate dean of the University of Hong Kong’s faculty of social sciences.

Many ultimately returned. But if there was uncertainty back then, Hong Kong’s path now looks clearer.

“There is a lower chance for them to come back,” said Yip, noting that elderly parents are likely to be left behind in the city.

The security law has reshaped Hong Kong, ending hopes that China would keep its promise to preserve the city’s freedoms until 2047. In addition to criminalizing dissent with penalties of up to life in prison, the law has been used by the authorities to ban songs and slogans, block distribution of films deemed subversive and force the closure of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper after the government froze the company’s assets. Fearing vague red lines and now-routine arrests of activists, dozens of civil society groups and unions have disbanded.

At the same time, China overhauled Hong Kong’s electoral system to prevent the pro-democracy camp from winning power, and it barred government opponents from public office.

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The people leaving include many middle-class families. “They have more resources and therefore want to be able to choose their children’s education,” Yip said.

They are taking their money, too. Pension data from Hong Kong’s Mandatory Provident Fund system shows the value of withdrawals surged over the past year, reaching the equivalent of about $250 million in the final three months of 2020 and again in the first quarter of 2021. People who withdraw retirement savings on departure must sign a declaration stating that they don’t plan to return to Hong Kong to work or live permanently.

In a radio interview over the weekend, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said she “respects personal choices” people make for their families, and that the exodus was not a “big problem.” She added that talented workers from China and elsewhere want to come to Hong Kong to further their careers.

“People who are leaving will eventually realize how good Hong Kong is,” Lam said.

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While some are choosing Taiwan, Canada, Australia or the United States, a large proportion are headed for Britain. In response to the security law, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government last year eased immigration barriers to allow those born in the city before 1997 to stay in Britain for five years and apply for British citizenship after six. Anyone eligible for the British National (Overseas) passport can apply for the special visa; some 34,300 did so in the first quarter, according to the British Home Office, while thousands more have been granted entry under other provisions.

In turn, the Hong Kong and Chinese governments ceased to recognize the BN(O) passport, making it harder for holders of the document to access their retirement savings. New measures that take effect Aug. 1. give authorities the power to block people from leaving Hong Kong.

Families who spoke to The Washington Post cited education as a push factor, with some pointing to the city’s “patriotic education” drive. Students now have to learn about national security from a young age. Some publishers, hoping to pass vetting by education licensing officials, have amended history textbooks to align with Beijing’s perspective. Teachers who diverge from the curriculum could face suspension or have their registration revoked.

Jeffrey Lau, 32, who departed on July 5 with his wife and two sons, said he helped his elder son switch from a local to an international school last year, but then decided that educating his children in Britain would be best.

“The tightening of freedom affects our children,” Lau said. “We picked this time to leave because it is the end of term for my elder son.”

He doesn’t have a job in Britain yet, but Lau is not worried — he made the move so his children could live free.

“The most important thing is their future,” he said.

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