Mimi Lee knows what it’s like to suddenly make the move from Hong Kong across the world and build a life in an entirely new place. In the winter of 1987, Lee and her family settled in Toronto. Later, after graduating from the University of Waterloo, she moved back to Hong Kong, then came back to Canada after getting married and having her son. “I came back twice,” she says with a laugh.
“The first time, we were forced to come,” says the financial adviser, remembering the mood among Hong Kong citizens as Britain began paving the way for returning its colony to China—setting a date for its handover in 1997. “I had no choice.”
Now Hong Kong is taking a sharply repressive turn under a sweeping new national security law imposed on June 30, forcing many to once again think about uprooting themselves—this time perhaps forever.
Hong Kong’s “astronauts”
Hong Kongers have settled in many countries during periods of unease for the territory, including the US, Australia, and former colonial ruler Britain. But Canada, which has steadily liberalized immigration since the 1960s, became the de facto capital of the Hong Kong diaspora, who changed the landscape, food, and culture of cities like Vancouver and Toronto. These cities have two of the largest populations of Hong Kong-born citizens and first-generation children of Hong Kong descent in the world, based on analysis of the most recent census data. Nearly 600,000 people in Canada speak Cantonese, making it the second-most commonly spoken immigrant mother tongue in the country after Mandarin. By comparison, there are almost 460,000 Cantonese speakers in the US.
Lee was part of the second of two major waves of immigration from Hong Kong to Canada—one began in the 1960s, when the territory saw its worst colonial-era unrest, while the other accelerated in the late 1980s and 1990s, around the Tiananmen Square crackdown and ahead of the handover. In 1994 alone, the year of peak migration, more than 40,000 people moved from Hong Kong to Canada, then a country of less than 30 million.
It was a painful experience for Lee and many other immigrants in those periods, trying to merge into several racially segregated Canadian cities. They formed their own circle of Chinese friends. Many Hong Kongers struggled to practice their previous occupations and build careers due to a lack of recognition for their foreign degrees and qualifications. “For those that came in their 40s and 50s, the majority of them had a really hard time to get a good paying job similar to what they had been making back home,” Lee says.
Some families adopted the “astronaut” arrangement common among many Chinese immigrants, where one parent would continue working full-time in Hong Kong to support the family. In other cases, the separation was because of affluence—as husbands remained largely based in Hong Kong because of family businesses or senior positions, while wives and children lived in Canada, sometimes provoking resentment over their lifestyles.
Over time, Hong Kongers turned Canada into a far more multicultural nation than it was when they arrived. In 1991, a Hong Konger who moved to Canada as a teenager became the first Asian-born woman to become a Toronto city councilor. Hong Kong immigrants also fueled the creation of a national Cantonese television network, part of the Fairchild Group, founded by businessman Thomas Fung, the son of a famed Hong Kong securities magnate. Cantonese radio programs, malls, and even specialized long-term care facilities developed to meet the cultural needs of citizens of Hong Kong-descent.
In the 2000s, as unease about how the city would change after the handover faded, many immigrants embarked upon reverse migration, usually after developing strong ties to their adopted countries and becoming citizens.
Now Hong Kong is changing again—and far more quickly than anyone could have imagined. Since the national security law was implemented late on June 30, legislative elections scheduled for September have been delayed, a major newspaper was raided and its owner arrested for colluding with foreign forces, and scores of democracy activists have been arrested. People in Hong Kong are once more forced to seriously consider leaving a place fundamental to their identity. The growth of expat communities abroad, and advances in technology for staying in touch, can’t take that pain and trauma away.
A wave of national security law migration begins
On July 1, Britain offered people born before the handover and their close family a path to citizenship, a program that applies to nearly 3 million people. Prominent democracy activist Nathan Law has chosen to relocate there. In the US, lawmakers have introduced a bill to create a separate quota of refugees for Hong Kongers, though the climate on immigration in the country doesn’t favor it. Canada hasn’t created a special visa or citizenship status for Hong Kongers leaving because of the national security law but even the return of just its Hong Kong-heritage citizens would create a massive wave of migration.
Gloria Fung, a Toronto-based real estate professional and human rights advocate who immigrated from Hong Kong in 1989, says the Canadian government should be prepared for as many as 100,000 to 150,000 Canadians to move back as a result of the national security law. She figures that the official number of 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong as of 2010 is out of date, due to the missed population of spouses and children, as well as those who never declared non-residency.
Because of the ramifications of the new national security law, the returnees and new arrivals could approach immigration with a different mindset than earlier generations. Even people like Lee, who’ve gone and back and forth for decades, are wondering if that will be possible now.
As an organizer with the Torontonian Hong Kongers Action Group, founded last June to support the democracy movement, she’s created Lennon Walls in Toronto, and printed up tee shirts to support Hong Kong. She worries she wouldn’t be safe if she were to go to back. Other Canadians she knows who plan to stay in Hong Kong have started self-censoring on social media platforms, or moving to apps like Signal for additional security. “There are a lot of ripple effects,” she says.
A new degree of permanence among Canadian Hong Kongers, or new immigrants, could transform Canada’s civic identity. In the past, immigrants from Hong Kong have rarely run for public office. But sociologist Miu Chung Yan believes the new wave of Hong Kong migrants, especially young people politically awakened by years of mass protests, will carry more assertive ideas about their identity as “Hong Kong Canadians” and be more politically engaged as a result.
In just one example, former University of Hong Kong student union leader Davin Wong, who left Hong Kong last year after being attacked, has helped found Alliance Canada HK, to lobby the Canadian government, testifying most recently last week before lawmakers on the national security law.
“In the past, Hong Kong immigrants were just part of the Chinese immigrant group,” says the professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. “But now, you know, their sentiment is ‘We are Hong Kongers. We are not Chinese.’ That kind of sentiment is getting bigger and bigger.”
Hong Kongers have looked for ways to mark their identity as distinct from mainland China’s, and that will continue wherever they go, says Andy Yan, (no relation to Miu Chung Yan), an adjunct professor in urban studies at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. For example, some Hong Kongers only speak Cantonese and avoid Mandarin, he explains. “It becomes a kind of statement of current identity but then also historical identity,” says the director of the university’s City Program.
A stronger sense of identity “may trigger more Hong Kong immigrants to participate in Canadian politics in order to make sure that they can balance the influence of the mainland Chinese,” says Miu Chung Yan.
That will be true elsewhere as well, from the UK to the US and Australia.
China doesn’t easily let go of its “citizens”
On Oct. 17, 2015, Gui Minhai, who was on a vacation in the Thai beach town of Pattaya, went missing. Gui was a co-owner of Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay Bookstore, a font of vaguely sourced tell-all books on the Communist Party elite that would never be permitted on the mainland. Eventually, he turned up in Chinese custody in mainland China, and was put on trial.
Gui was selling books in a place where he was free to do so. On top of that, he is a Swedish citizen, entitled to the assistance of that country (pdf) for any crimes he is accused of abroad. Yet he was subjected to legal proceedings that made it clear that Gui was being treated as first and foremost a Chinese national whose failure to show loyalty to the Chinese state was a crime, and blocked multiples times from contact with Swedish consular officials. This year, he was given a 10-year prison sentence by a Chinese court for “illegally providing intelligence overseas.”
As the Economist put it: “China lays claim not just to booksellers in Hong Kong but, to a degree, an entire diaspora.” Added to that, the national security law declares the government can pursue people it deems to be acting against Hong Kong anywhere in the world.
It already has.
On July 31, a Chinese state broadcaster announced Hong Kong had issued arrest warrants under the new law for six overseas Hong Kongers, including Law in the UK, and Samuel Chu, the founder of the Washington-based lobby group Hong Kong Democratic Council, which has played an outsize role in drawing the world’s attention to Hong Kong. The broadcaster alleged that Chu had been “inciting secession” and “colluding with foreign powers” despite holding US citizenship since 1995 and leaving Hong Kong 30 years ago.
“[A]s my experience shows, you don’t have to be in Hong Kong to get yourself in trouble. Your next retweet could earn you a prison sentence,” wrote Chu in an opinion piece in the New York Times.
Cases like these challenge the idea that there can be true escape for Hong Kongers, especially if they prominently participated in the protest movement—or plan to continue to do from a distance. The Hong Kongers who leave now are doing so when China is far more powerful and able to act on its beliefs about who its people are, and how far its jurisdiction over them stretches.
But that kind of overreach could also backfire on Beijing, by showing the world that no one should feel safe from the creep of authoritarianism Hong Kong is facing—the city’s struggle may one day be their own.