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The offices of immigration consultants across Hong Kong have swelled with people desperate to leave, with Canada remaining a top desired destination

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A pro-democracy demonstrator raises his British National Overseas passports during a protest against the new national security legislation in Hong Kong, China, on June 1, 2020.TYRONE SIU/Reuters

One young registered nurse is preparing to leave Hong Kong and take a pay cut as a home support worker in Canada. A kindergarten teacher in the Asian financial centre is getting ready to take a job as a Canadian live-in nanny. And one of the city’s private bankers is so determined to leave that he has seriously considered becoming a pig farmer on the other side of the Pacific.

Across Hong Kong, the offices of immigration consultants have swelled with people seeking to depart, since Beijing said in late May that it would impose national-security legislation on a city whose streets have frequently become battlegrounds for protest and violent conflict over the past year.

Many, consultants say, want to come to Canada, in a new echo of past moments of crisis that led large numbers of people to leave Hong Kong for Vancouver and Toronto. An estimated 300,000 people with Canadian passports currently live in the city, a testament to the close ties established over the past three decades.

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This time, however, fear is driven by national-security legislation that, after its imposition this week, allows Beijing to define what constitutes secession, subversion, terrorism or foreign interference. It is legislation that Chinese authorities say is needed to restore stability, but which critics say blurs the boundary between the authoritarian mainland and a city that has cherished freedoms akin to those in Western democracies.

The day Chinese authorities said they would impose the legislation, May 21, was the busiest day immigration consultant Andrew Lo can recall in more than three decades. “Everybody is panicked. We even have clients calling to say, ‘can you help me move tomorrow?’”

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Police detain a protester after being sprayed with pepper spray during a protest in Causeway Bay before the annual handover march in Hong Kong, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. Hong Kong marked the 23rd anniversary of its handover to China in 1997, and just one day after China enacted a national security law that cracks down on protests in the territory.Vincent Yu/The Associated Press

By his staff’s count, the number of immigration companies advertising their services in the city has swelled to nearly 200 from just over a dozen months ago. That number will only increase after Hong Kong police arrested residents on Wednesday over protest signs and chants that contravene the sweeping law.

Interest in immigration began to increase last summer, after the Hong Kong government introduced an extradition bill that raised fears local residents could be sent to China to face justice in courts under the control of the Communist Party. That bill was later withdrawn, but not before months of protests, some violent, began to snarl the city.

The national-security legislation, which criminalizes a wide range of conduct – from legislative filibusters to “Liberate Hong Kong” chants – has added new impetus. Chinese authorities have said they will protect freedom of speech and assembly. In Hong Kong, critics question Beijing’s commitment to upholding liberties that are sharply curtailed in mainland China.

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A man walks past the stickers with messages about an anti-Beijing government are left by protesters on a street in Hong Kong on Thursday. Hong Kong police have made the first arrests under a new national security law imposed by mainland China.Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

In normal times, people interested in emigrating from Hong Kong might be 45- to 55-years-old, said Jean-François Harvey, a Canadian lawyer who is worldwide managing partner for Harvey Law Group, which specializes in immigration and taxation. “Now it’s 18 to 80,” said Mr. Harvey, who is so busy that he just doubled his office space and staff retinue.

That includes young graduates groomed for success in a city that has grown rich bridging mainland China with the outside world: people who speak Cantonese, Mandarin and English.

“They just want to leave this place,” said Alisha Ma, a licensed immigration consultant who is the founder of Halcyon Counsel.

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Employees remove stickers and posters with messages in support of the pro-democracy movement at a restaurant in Hong Kong on Thursday. Hong Kong police have made the first arrests under a new national security law imposed by mainland China. Police say they arrested 10 people under the law, including at least one who was carrying a Hong Kong independence flag.Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

“They don’t feel safe here. They don’t want to bring up their children here. And their parents are asking them to leave.” Some of those are contemplating leaving good jobs in Hong Kong for smaller salaries and less professional security abroad – including the teacher and the nurse looking at lower-paying work in Canada.

Ms. Ma can’t escape a feeling of sadness as she watches people enter her door, knowing that they are intent on leaving, and taking with them valuable skills. One recent client was a mid-level manager fluent in four languages and rapidly progressing in her career. “Every country would like to have that person,” Ms. Ma said. “And Hong Kong is losing her.”

“It’s very emotional to see the change,” she added. “It’s very sudden. And it’s not subtle.”

Exact current statistics are difficult to obtain. But the Hong Kong police issue certificates of no criminal conviction to people applying for visas or immigration. Those figures show an 8-per-cent increase in the first five months of 2020, despite the pandemic and the widespread interruptions to international travel. In March, the number of applicants was up nearly 40 per cent over 2019.

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A protester uses a sharp object against a police officer who is trying to detain a man 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.ALASTAIR PIKE/AFP/Getty Images

One of Mr. Lo’s clients, a private banker, was so eager to leave after the announcement of the national-security law that he latched onto a pilot agri-food immigration program to Canada that promises residency for people qualified to work as butchers, ranchers and farmers. “I said, ‘are you serious?’ " recalled Mr. Lo, the founder of immigration company Anlex.

“He said, ‘I’m serious. Because I just want to go.’ ”

Mr. Lo eventually talked the man out of it.

Canada continues to rank among the most desired destinations for people seeking to leave Hong Kong, alongside Australia and Ireland.

But those are hardly the only choices. Unlike the years between the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 and the 1997 handover to China, when people in Hong Kong had few options, numerous countries now have policies that provide residency to investors and home buyers. Bulgaria, Greece, Malaysia, Montenegro, Thailand and Turkey have all become potential destinations.

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Police detain protesters during a march marking the anniversary of the Hong Kong handover from Britain to China on Wednesday in Hong Kong. The city marked the 23rd anniversary of its handover to China in 1997, and just one day after China enacted a national security law that cracks down on protests in the territory.The Associated Press

Immigration lawyer François Mandeville has been approached by consultants from Ireland, Portugal and Germany, looking for qualified people. They see Hong Kong “as a very good source of immigrants,” said Mr. Mandeville, the founder and managing partner of Mandeville & Associates. “It’s a centre of wealth, and also it’s a centre of knowledge.”

In past moments of exodus from Hong Kong, people left because they were uncertain about what the future would hold. “Nowadays, it’s not that they don’t know about the future. It’s that they don’t like the future,” Mr. Mandeville said. To many, Hong Kong looks as if it will “become more and more like a Chinese city,” he said.

Others have said their fear is not China, but the U.S. response to Beijing’s actions. When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened sanctions against Hong Kong, wealthy residents suddenly began to worry that their economic well-being could be affected.

“Politics is one thing. But when this has a direct impact on their assets, then those people say, ‘now it’s getting serious,’ " Mr. Harvey said.

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Pan-democratic legislator Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, vice-convener for Hong Kong's Civil Human Rights Front Figo Chan, and activist Leung Kwok-hung, also known as "Long Hair", march at the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China from Britain, in Hong Kong.TYRONE SIU/Reuters

For those eyeing Canada, meanwhile, the most attractive destinations remain Vancouver and Toronto. In Vancouver, real estate agents have seen an increase in queries from Hong Kong.

“We have seen a noticeable uptick in interest and that’s while travel is still severely restricted and the economy is still locked down from COVID-19,” said Macdonald Real Estate Group president Dan Scarrow.

But a small minority of people looking to leave Hong Kong have grown so displeased with China’s treatment of the city that they are looking for options outside major centres.

Roughly one in 10 people say they want to “go where there are not many Chinese, especially mainland Chinese,” Ms. Ma said.

“Psychologically, they want to avoid that oppression – and anything to do with Mandarin.”

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