Hong Kongers are suddenly the world’s most sought-after emigrants


On Friday, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy activists announced that he had fled the city two days after Beijing implemented a new national security law in Hong Kong.

“No Hong Konger is under the illusion that Beijing has any intention to respect our basic rights and honor its promises to us,” tweeted Nathan Law, who has been a leading figure in pro-democracy activism since playing a major role in Hong Kong’s 2014 umbrella movement. “So I bade my city farewell.”

Law, who departed for a still-undisclosed location, was perhaps Hong Kong’s first public emigrant of the security law era. Others may follow him.

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Beijing’s new sweeping national security law in Hong Kong aims to arrest and prosecute those accused of jeopardizing China’s national security via subversion, secession, terrorism, or collusion with foreign forces. Critics see it as undercutting Hong Kong’s promised autonomy, squelching anti-Beijing protests, and snuffing out the free, civil society that’s set Hong Kong apart from its mainland peers.

Since Beijing introduced the law in May, thousands of Hong Kongers have applied for foreign immigration documents; immigration consultants in Hong Kong report that caseloads have doubled since the legislation’s proposal.

A man looks across the harbor towards the Hong Kong island skyline in 2019. Hong Kong residents considering leaving the city could have ample options for resettlement as nations vie to welcome them.
DALE DE LA REY/AFP via Getty Images

Hong Kong is especially ripe for a mass exodus given its sizable population of dual passport holders. In the city of 7.5 million, for instance, 90% of the city’s 300,000 Canadian passport holders are estimated to also hold dual Hong Kong and Canadian passports.

As some Hong Kongers consider leaving, a growing number of countries are preparing to receive them. Since the law’s introduction, at least five nations have taken steps to welcome individuals and families departing Hong Kong. Nearly all the measures are framed as acts of goodwill, but most of the countries coming forward are also at odds with China’s central government. Offering refuge may benefit Hong Kongers, but it’s also another means of dealing a blow to Beijing.

Here’s where the five measures stand:

U.K.

Hong Kong’s former colonizer is the furthest along in offering a route for Hong Kong citizens to permanently emigrate from the city.

On Wednesday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government will move forward with plans to give up to 3 million Hong Kong citizens a chance to gain British citizenship. The U.K. government has said further details of the law will be provided “in due course.”

The policy will be focused on Hong Kong’s British National Overseas (BNO) population. BNOs are Hong Kong residents who applied for the status before the 1997 handover, and previously had the right to go to the U.K. for six months without visas. Now, the U.K. government says BNOs will be able to live and work in the U.K. for five years and then have the chance to apply for full citizenship.

Currently, there are 350,000 active holders of BNO passports in Hong Kong, and roughly 2.5 million others in Hong Kong are eligible

For its part, China argues that the change in U.K. policy undermines international law and has vowed retribution.

“The British side made an explicit commitment that it will not confer the right of abode to Chinese citizens in Hong Kong who hold BNO travel documents,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, said on Thursday. “China strongly condemns this and reserves the right of further reactions, the consequences of which shall be borne by the British side.”

U.S.

Hours after the national security law went into effect on Wednesday, a group of bipartisan legislators introduced the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, which would force the U.S. state department to give refugee status to Hong Kong residents that had participated in the protests and feared government reprisal.

In a separate bill introduced on Tuesday, U.S. legislators pushed to expedite admission and permanent residency processes for highly-skilled Hong Kongers, a population that includes business owners, holders of advanced degrees, and people who had previously studied in the U.S.

Hong Kongers looking to flee to the U.S., however, may face some delays. Neither of the bills have been passed into law, and the U.S. government has largely put a stop to immigration pathways for the remainder of 2020 due to COVID-19.

Taiwan

On Wednesday, the Taiwanese government set up an office in its capital Taipei that is specifically geared to helping Hong Kong residents migrate to Taiwan. At the office’s Wednesday opening ceremony, Taiwanese officials said they hope to use the office to aid asylum seekers fleeing from persecution in Hong Kong as well as help attract capital and highly-skilled professionals to Taiwan.

“Many things have changed in [Hong Kong] since 1997,” Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said on Twitter on June 30. “But [Taiwan’s] commitment to supporting [Hong Kongers] who want freedom and democracy has never changed.”

At the ceremony, officials declined to comment on how many asylum cases they have received thus far.

A spokesperson for China’s government has called Taiwan’s actions to provide safe harbor for Hong Kongers as an attempt to “sabotage the prosperity and stability” of Hong Kong and warned that “harboring Hong Kong rioters will only bring problems to Taiwan people.”

Australia

At a press conference on Thursday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government was considering offering a “safe haven” to Hong Kong residents fleeing the city. He said the government was considering options similar the U.K.’s offer to provide long-term residency to Hong Kongers and pathways to citizenship.

Morrison’s government hasn’t made a final decision on the policy, but he said on Thursday, “Are we prepared to step up and provide support [to Hong Kongers]? The answer is: Yes.”

In response, China’s spokesperson Zhao warned Australia to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs with Hong Kong” and should “refrain from going further down the wrong path.”

Japan

Japan’s efforts to help Hong Kongers are squarely focused on the city’s financial professionals. In early June, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stressed the need for Japan to attract more financial talent to boost its own economy, and suggested that the government would seek to attract finance employees and other specialized professionals from Hong Kong amid Beijing’s imposition of the national security law.

On Thursday, Abe’s government started to weigh policies that would provide tax breaks and shortcuts to permanent residency status for Hong Kong’s financial professionals.

A history of mass migration

The prospect of mass migration from Hong Kong recalls the city’s pre-handover years. The U.K. and China agreed in 1985 to the 1997 handover that returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule. The years in between saw an exodus of residents from Hong Kong. An estimated 250,000 to 1 million Hong Kongers left the city between 1988 and 1994, averaging 55,000 departures per year, according to the Encylopedia of Immigrant Health. (In the early 1980s, the city averaged 20,000 emigration cases annually.)

In the lead up to the handover, many Hong Kong residents feared that Beijing wouldn’t keep its promises and would crack down on the city’s freedoms and institutions. Some Hong Kongers who left before the handover returned later on, when they saw that Hong Kong largely had retained its autonomy.

The number of Hong Kong emigrants fell in years after the handover to 6,000 to 7,000 during the 2010s, yet Beijing’s new law may spur another outward movement.

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