It has been one year since China officially implemented a sweeping national security law for Hong Kong, right before the anniversary of the island’s handover from British to Chinese rule on July 1.
The wide-ranging law calls for the arrest and prosecution of those accused of jeopardizing China’s national security via subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign forces.
In the year since, critics say the measure has undermined the city’s core values, including freedom of speech, democratic elections and rule of law.
A number of Hong Kongers have made the decision to leave their homes and emigrate to other places in the world.
Many have ended up in Taiwan, where VOA spoke with three of them about why they left and what’s next for Hong Kong. All three asked VOA to use their English names to protect themselves and their families from retaliation by China’s government.
Create no more
Johnny, a 40-year-old working in the movie industry, moved to Taiwan at the end of last year. For him, the local government’s suppression of freedom of speech and creative work meant real obstacles for his industry.
Johnny told VOA that initially when Beijing enforced the National Security Law, he wasn’t particularly worried. He and others in the industry thought the film and entertainment industry is of particular importance to the Hong Kong economy, so they believed it would be immune from the National Security Law.
“Yet we didn’t imagine everything would happen so fast. Overnight, we lost freedom of speech, and the freedom to create. We were sad, and what’s more, we were surprised at the speed that Hong Kong has fallen,” he told VOA.
Hong Kong’s strong cinematic tradition once drew comparisons to Hollywood. With a greater degree of political and economic freedom than on the mainland, the city developed into a filmmaking hub for the Chinese-speaking world. It has minted martial arts superstars such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, produced Oscar-winning movies, acted as a magnet for global talent and built an energetic film community.
Censorship officially arrived for Hong Kong’s movies on June 11, when the local government announced changes to its film classification rules according to the National Security Law. The new Film Censorship Ordinance will block screening and distribution of films that “endorse, support, promote, glorify, encourage or incite” activities that might jeopardize the national security of Hong Kong.
Johnny said the change will probably be one of the main reasons why many more Hong Kongers consider emigrating from the island. “Freedom is one of our core values, freedom to create, freedom to communicate, freedom to screen films,” he said. “I think Hong Kong used to be a center for creative work. Now that’s gone, it won’t be that different from any Chinese city. That’s not the Hong Kong I grew up in.”
Leaving Hong Kong, a family decision
Nancy, 26, works in the wind energy industry in Taiwan. “I always think Taiwan’s green energy industry is more vibrant, so that’s appealing to me,” she told VOA.
For her, the decision to move to Taiwan came as a gradual process. Her parents, along with her older brother and younger sister, started to discuss the future of Hong Kong after the 2014 Umbrella Movement, when Hong Kongers engaged in massive sit-in protests to condemn China’s decisions to rule out universal suffrage on the island.
“My older brother went to work in Singapore in 2017, and for me and my young sister, we sat down with my parents at a family meal in 2019 to talk about moving away from Hong Kong,” she said, adding that witnessing the police violence in the 2019 pro-democracy movement was a big factor in her decision.
“My younger sister decided to go to university in the U.S., and I decided to come to Taiwan. My parents support our decision. They think the situation in Hong Kong is deteriorating and we should have other options,” Nancy said.
“I do miss family dinner, and chatting with my siblings,” she added.
Nancy keeps a close eye on what’s going on in her hometown. But for her, every day seems to bring worse news.
"For our generation, people in their 20s to early 30s ... when we talk about Hong Kong, we are talking about Hong Kong before 2019. For us, post-2019 Hong Kong is not our home. We want to forget about the National Security Law, the police violence, the changes in textbooks. It’s not the Hong Kong we miss, it’s not the Hong Kong we want to go back to,” she told VOA.
Forever a Hong Konger
Simon, a 23-year-old college graduate, is still looking for a job. He attended college in Taiwan and decided to stay after graduation.
For him, moving to Taiwan was an easy decision. He had been considering leaving Hong Kong long before 2019. “I remember more and more students can’t speak Cantonese in middle school, and the government requires the teachers to speak only Mandarin in class; I didn’t like that,” he said.
Simon said following the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the 2017 imprisonment of democracy activists, there was already a sense of dissatisfaction slowly brewing in society. But the local government’s proposed extradition law in 2019 was the last straw.
“Honestly, I wasn’t surprised that there would be a pro-democracy movement; I just didn’t expect it to be of this scale,” Simon said. For example, one of the major peaceful rallies in August 2019 has at least 1.7 million people participating. That’s one fifth of Hong Kong’s total population, according to organizer Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front.
Simon is also surprised at the level of suppression from the Hong Kong police. “I always know Hong Kong will eventually fall under the CCP rule, but what’s been going on for the past two years is just jaw-dropping,” he told VOA. “The Beijing government promised 50 years of One Country, Two Systems, and they are going back on their word.”
Yet he’s happy to see how Hong Kongers are standing up to China’s aggression. Last week, when local authorities forced the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily to close, Hong Kongers lined up in the rain for the last issue of the paper. The paper, normally selling for 80,000 a day, sold a million copies.
“I’m so proud to be a Hong Kong citizen. If anyone asks me where I'm from, the answer is always Hong Kong,” he said.