LOS ANGELES - From the outside, skyscrapers still loom over Hong Kong as a reflection of the bustling global financial center of Asia. Within the city, however, much has changed since 1997. July 1 marks the 24th anniversary of the moment Hong Kong reverted from a British colony back to Chinese rule. 

Changes to the financial hub were gradual at first, governed under the idea of “one country, two systems.”  

Hong Kong native Anna Cheung still keeps the newspaper with the handover on the front page.  

“It was like a landmark time at that moment,” remembered Cheung, a biology professor and pro-democracy activist now living in the United States. She said some Hong Kongers in the ’90s were hopeful “that maybe it is a good chance for Hong Kong to belong to China now and bring back the democratic value and all of the universal value[s] back to China.”  

Instead of Hong Kong’s democratic values influencing China, however, the opposite has happened, said many pro-democracy activists. Cheung saw the biggest changes over the past year, after China implemented the National Security Law in response to the 2019 protests against an extradition bill, leading to months of confrontation between pro-democracy activists and police.  

“I felt that Beijing was losing face, and they need[ed] to fix it quickly,” Cheung said.    

Recent changes in Hong Kong

Under the National Security Law, there have been mass arrests of people involved in anti-government activities.

A prison van, left, which a police officer says is carrying Tong Ying-kit arrives at a court in Hong Kong Wednesday, June 23,…
First Trial Under Beijing-Imposed National Security Law Begins in Hong Kong
24-year-old Tong Ying-kit arrested and charged with terrorism and inciting secession after driving his motorbike into a group of police officers just hours after new law went into effect last year

A June 4 gathering to commemorate the 1989 pro-democracy crackdown at Tiananmen Square was not allowed.     

"We have to improve along with the developments, that the Hong Kong police will use whatever measures in order to maintain the public order and public safety," said Liauw Ka-Kei, senior police superintendent in Hong Kong.     

Another change in Hong Kong is this year’s overhaul of its election rules “to improve the electoral system to ensure patriot governing Hong Kong,” said Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, who posted on the CCTV Video News Agency, the Chinese state television YouTube channel. VOA cannot independently verify the accuracy of the content posted. 

The change means Hong Kong’s Legislative Council increases pro-Beijing seats and decreases the number of directly elected seats on the Council.

Also new to Hong Kong is a vetting of its movies by censors, all pointing to China’s attempt to reshape Hong Kong to be more like the mainland.

Fear in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy activists say the impact of the recent changes has created a sense of fear for many people who live in Hong Kong as well as for those abroad with ties to Hong Kong. 

Pro-democracy activists holding a copy of Apple Daily newspaper and banner protest outside a court in Hong Kong, Saturday, June 19, 2021, to demand to release political prisoners.

“The biggest change that I've seen is the self-censorship,” said U.S.-based Hong Kong pro-democracy exile Frances Hui. “People start[ed] to delete their posts on social media, the posts that they have made about the movement, about China — anything that is deemed to be criticizing the government or supporting the movement,” Hui added. 

Activists say Hong Kong residents now need to be careful about what they say and what they do.

“They always say they don't know where is the red line. When are you crossing the red line? So when they couldn't say those words, we are here to say it. When they couldn't do the things, we are doing [them abroad],” said Cheung about the work exiles are doing in other continents.

Exiled Hong Kongers

For pro-democracy activists, whether to stay or leave Hong Kong has become one of the most common debates with one another and within themselves. 

“The people who decided to stay in Hong Kong, they believe that existence is resistance and that by being there, they are protecting Hong Kong,” Hui said.

Hui was attending college in the U.S. during the 2019 protests but had been active in social movements years earlier when she was in high school in Hong Kong as well as in the U.S. as a university student. When she returned to Hong Kong in 2020, she did not think she would be a target but soon realized the National Security Law changed everything.  

“I didn't want to leave, and thinking the fact that if I leave right now, I will never be able to go back home. That is, like, [torture] for me,” said Hui of her mindset when she decided to leave Hong Kong.   

When Hui heard news of people she knew being arrested by Hong Kong police, “there is a sense of guilt, like a strong sense of guilt, because I left,” Hui said.

U.S. resident Joey Siu of the human rights group Hong Kong Watch described her experience when she was last in the territory.

“I found myself very frequently followed and also my personal information and so on and so forth are being exposed by the pro-Beijing groups,” she said.

Former Hong Kong legislator Baggio Leung also made the decision to leave.

“I feel that I need to leave, or else I would be in danger,” Leung said.    

Another exile is a man who calls himself “Chuilao” to protect his identity. He arrived in the United States without documentation by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. He stayed in immigration detention before receiving asylum in the U.S.  

“Other countries are willing to accept us Hong Kongers. We should leave [Hong Kong].  If a ship is sinking and we have life rafts, we will, of course, get on them. There’s no point in sinking with the ship,” Chuilao said.   

Hong Kong pro-democracy movement abroad

“Seems like there is nothing that we can do to stop [the changes], but all of us are trying our best to at least slow down the process,” Hui said.

People gather for a rally to mark the second anniversary of the protests in Hong Kong, in Union Square in New York City, June 12, 2021.

Hui and other exiled pro-democracy activists say they can do more for their movement abroad with the hope that they can save the Hong Kong they knew, unique among cities in China.  

“We belong to the land of Hong Kong, and we are Hong Kongers, and we should have the ownership of that land,” Hui said.      

Some exiles have given up on Hong Kong as a physical place and are starting new lives in a country that shares their ideals.  

“Don’t miss Hong Kong, because Hong Kong is not a place. It’s a person,” said Chuilao, who would like to join the U.S. Marines. “If your position in the battlefield is lost, you can regain it, but when a people die, you can’t bring them back.”  

Stella Hsu, Songlin Zhang and Suli Yi contributed to this report.

Some information for this report provided by Reuters.