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Hong Kong: How Beijing's moves are pushing some to emigrate

Joyce Lee
August 7, 2020

Beijing's move to impose a new contentious security law on Hong Kong appears to be the last straw for many Hong Kongers. A single mother tells DW how she's fed up with the government and plans to leave for the UK.

Riot police officers walk as anti-government protesters march during the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China from British rule
Image: Reuters/T. Siu

"More than 10 families I know of are planning to leave Hong Kong. Most of them are going to the UK, just like me," said 37-year-old single mother Ming, as she googled for ways to transfer money to the UK. "As soon as my bank account is ready, I will quit my job and leave immediately."  

She is among the hundreds, if not thousands, of Hong Kongers heading to the former colonial power. "I won't glamorize the UK. Every country has its flaws. But when it comes to freedom, human rights and diversity, the UK obviously respects these values more than China," she told DW.

Read more: A year of Hong Kong protests: Is Beijing finally regaining control?

Ming participated in the anti-government movement in Hong Kong last year. She even brought her 6-year-old daughter to rallies a few times. But that freedom is now gone under the new national security law imposed by Beijing in July.

"We now live in fear. I can't even use my real name in this interview," she said. "Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I have seen the most glorious days of Hong Kong. I took freedom for granted. It's so painful to see it taken away by the communists, and nothing can be done to stop it."

Hong Kong activists at a loss

'Freedom is not free'

After Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong, the UK government made an offer to the city's British National (Overseas) passport holders and their immediate family members to apply for a special UK visa from January 2021. The new visa will be valid for up to five years and will grant holders the right to reside, work or study and provides a pathway to obtaining full British citizenship.

As one of the 3 million Hong Kongers eligible for the new visa program, Ming plans to leave in November with her daughter. They may settle in Manchester or Birmingham, depending on job opportunities and the cost of living. "I haven't been to either of the cities. But I know they are cheaper than London for sure. When it comes to emigrating, you've to be pragmatic."

Her decision to move to the UK, though, is not seen as pragmatic by some of her friends. She has to give up her job as a journalist and producer in Hong Kong. Without any working experience in the UK, her worst-case scenario is to work for a minimum-waged job in a local supermarket. That means a two-third cut from her current pay. "Freedom is not free. That is what I have to sacrifice for safety and freedom. It's not just the money. It's the career that I've built for 16 years."

Yet, she still thinks it is worthwhile, at least for her daughter. "If not for her, I might not leave. She's a curious child. It hurts me to picture her growing up in Hong Kong without the freedom to seek the truth and stand for what is right."

Read more: China's actions risk Hong Kong's future as global financial center

Starting a new chapter

She recalls her daughter asking about the "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times" protest slogan in public, after the city's government announced it violates the new national security law. Ming had to stop her right away. "I warned her that from now on, we can only talk about such slogans at home. I hated myself so much when I said it. Why do I have to indoctrinate fear and self-censorship to my own daughter?"

That was the moment when Ming decided to take the BNO offer. She is thankful her parents are fully supportive even though they "belong to the pro-government camp."

"They were born in mainland China and had experienced the cultural revolution in the 1960s and 70s. They know how bad it could get under the communist rule. If they hadn't escaped to Hong Kong then, I wouldn't be here today. The same logic applies to my daughter and me."

Read more: What is China's world order for the 21st century?

Starting a new chapter in a foreign place is not easy. She has only been to the UK once on a short trip. But she thinks the UK is not too alien to her, thanks to Hong Kong's 156-year colonial history. "At least we have the same legal system. The education systems are somewhat similar. Plus, we drive on the same side. That gives me a sense of security."

In just a few months, they will call the UK their new home. But she says that a part of her will forever be in Hong Kong. She hopes to join advocacy groups in her future home calling for international attention to Hong Kong's human rights issues. "As a witness of the anti-government movement, it is my obligation to testify what I saw. This is a way to support my fellow Hong Kongers remotely. My spirit is with them no matter where I go."