Mirror crises: As Hong Kong residents consider fleeing, many in Canada worry they won't be able to return

For an estimated 300,000 Canadian citizens, and members of the Hong Kong diaspora spread all over the world, the new law has accelerated a pair of mirror crises

People detained by riot police during a march against national security law at the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China from Britain in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2020. Tyrone Siu / Reuters

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Before she went out into the streets Wednesday, Nes made a pact with her boyfriend. The two agreed that if either one of them were arrested, the other wouldn’t wait. They’d delete their chat history and move on. And someday, in the distant future, whoever was on the outside would name a pet in the other one’s memory.

Nes (not her real name) is a young professional in Hong Kong. For the last several years, she’s been an activist, too, working mostly behind the scenes in the pro-democracy movement. For Nes and many of her friends, this week has been a nightmare made real. She hasn’t been able to sleep. On Wednesday, she woke up at 5 a.m. and just kept scrolling through the news. “It’s like waiting to be beheaded,” she wrote in a secure chat later that day. “I’m afraid for my life.”

Nes was born before 1997, so she has access to a British National Overseas Passport. In theory, she could leave Hong Kong, start over in the U.K., where the government is offering residency rights and a path to British citizenship. It’s something she thinks about all the time. But leaving would be tough, she said. Hong Kong is her home. She doesn’t want to leave. She doesn’t know if she can stay. And she’s far from alone.

On Wednesday, the government of the People’s Republic of China imposed a sweeping new security law on Hong Kong. According to analysts, the measures — ostensibly meant to combat terrorism, separatism and sedition — could effectively criminalize virtually all dissent in Hong Kong, and even among those living elsewhere in the world.

For the millions of Hong Kong residents who have access to a second passport, including an estimated 300,000 Canadian citizens, and the members of the large Hong Kong diaspora spread all over the world, the new law has accelerated a pair of mirror crises. Those in Hong Kong, facing what many view as the end of that territory’s special status, must decide soon whether to flee and leave their lives behind. Those on the outside, meanwhile, including many in Canada, are now wondering whether it will ever be safe to go home.

“It’s hard to digest right now for a lot of Canadians and people who are Western educated,” said Cheuk Kwan, a Hong Kong native and head of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China. “This is back to Mao’s China right now, and worse.”

Activists in Canada’s large Hong Kong-Canadian community spoke with near universal dread this week about what the new law will mean, for themselves and for their homeland. Under Article 38 of the new security law, anyone, anywhere in the world could be held criminally responsible for speaking out in favour of Hong Kong democracy or independence.

“I’m a Canadian. I left Hong Kong when I was 13 years old. I have nothing to do with Hong Kong, but because of what I do here in Canada with regards to human rights in China and human rights in Hong Kong, I’m now deemed a threat to national security,” said Kwan. “I can not go back to Hong Kong anymore.”

Protesters chant slogans and hold a placard during a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong, on the 23rd anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain to China on July 1, 2020. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

At the same time as some Hong Kong emigrants are worried they can never go home, many in Hong Kong are wondering if it’s time for them to leave. Organizations, including big Canadian real estate developers, are now running immigration seminars, and standalone emigration consultants are doing a booming business.

This summer, the University of British Columbia’s Hong Kong alumni group — Alumni UBC Hong Kong — will be hosting a five-part webinar on moving back to Vancouver. The event, spread over three weekends, will include sessions on jobs, education, real estate, banking and taxation. Eugene Ho, the organization’s president, said he’s definitely seen an uptick in people wanting to leave Hong Kong in recent years, although he said the trend has nothing to do with politics.

“All I can say to that is that we’ve noticed over the past several years, more and more Canadians have expressed an interest in moving back,” he wrote in an online chat. “I suspect it’s either because of their kids and wanting to give them that kind of awesome Canadian childhood that they had growing up there, or elderly parents in Canada to spend more time with and take care of…. or a combination of both.”
In a way, that represents the acceleration of a trend, according to Miu Chung Yan, a professor of social work at the University of British Columbia and a researcher at that school’s Hong Kong Studies Initiative. For about the last five or six years, Yan has noticed more and more people coming back to Canada from Hong Kong, a trend that’s been dubbed “re-returning.” Some were spurred by lifestyle choices — Canada is seen as a nice place to retire. Others, Yan said, sent their children here for school.


But more recently, Yan has noticed an increase in the number of whole families moving here at once, something he thinks is being spurred at least in part by the political situation. “I was in Hong Kong from September last year to January this year,” he said. “Lots of people came to me and asked me… how to immigrate to Canada, and many Canadians asked me ‘what are the procedures for coming back?’”

Yan has one friend in Hong Kong with a son at UBC. His friend doesn’t want his son to come home. He’s afraid he’ll go out onto the streets and get arrested. At the same time, he has other friends, with younger children, who don’t want their kids growing up in an education system that’s being increasingly shaped by Beijing.

“The government already made it very clear that they want to introduce more patriotic education in the school system,” Yan said. “And parents are very, very worried about that.”

Still, Yan doesn’t expect to see a flood of people leaving Hong Kong right away. Many in the territory have their wealth tied up in property, and a pandemic is a bad time to sell an apartment. Others are likely hesitant to leave their home, a place with its own rich and unique culture, unless they absolutely have to. “I would suggest probably six months from now the picture will be more clear,” Yan said.

As for Nes, she’s torn about whether to leave. (Nes spoke to the National Post anonymously, on a secure mobile chatting platform. Her identity was verified by another activist.) For now, she wants to continue her work. She wants to keep fighting.

“Leaving (Hong Kong) isn’t an option now unless something really bad happens,” she said. “We Hong Kongers are trying to learn from the Polish back in Soviet times.”