Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
In a recent casual conversation, a diplomat due to retire later this year told me that he 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-sizeable expatriate community includes many people who came intending to stay for two or three years and ended up staying their whole lives.
But with China tightening its grip over the former British colony, Hong Kong is losing much of its old attraction. And more than 100,000 are uprooting themselves this year and moving. Many are going to Britain, which has offered about 5.5 million of the territory’s 7.5 million people the right to resettle and become citizens if they so choose, but others have gone to countries such as Canada and Australia, which have also put out the welcome mat for Hong Kongers.
At dinner tables around Hong Kong, conversations inevitably turn to the question of whether to stay or go. If the decision is to 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. At the time, however, the British government had raised the drawbridges to prevent an influx of people from Hong Kong, and after changes in the immigration and nationality law, British citizens became Chinese ones after the handover.
Of those who left four decades ago, most moved to Canada. Many, after obtaining Canadian citizenship, returned to Hong Kong armed with a foreign passport to continue their career. But the changes in Hong Kong this time have been so profound that few are thinking of returning. Many suspect that China will retaliate by stripping them of their permanent-resident status in Hong Kong.
Those who remain will have to live in a city increasingly under China’s direct control. For the second straight year, the Hong Kong administration has banned the annual Tiananmen Square vigil, held to commemorate victims of the military crackdown on June 4, 1989, citing the pandemic. 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, Ms. 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 curbing the media in the name of protecting individual privacy. “I don’t see why journalists should have prerogatives,” Ms. Lam told reporters at a press conference on Mar. 30. “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. Ms. 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. After a mob attack in the town of Yuen Long in July, 2019, a freelance producer named Choy Yuk-ling 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. For her efforts, Ms. Choy was charged with violating the Road Traffic Ordinance, and on Apr. 30 – the day after the show she co-produced won a media award – she was fined HK$6,000 ($930). Ms. Choy plans to appeal.
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.
But don’t worry; there’s exciting stuff in the works. In late April, RTHK announced a new daily program, The Carrie Lam Show, also known as “Get to Know the Election Committee Subsectors,” in which the Chief Executive interviews members of Hong Kong’s new election committee.
Its run is unlikely to attract Hong Kongers’ attention – nor to convince them to stay.
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