Tommy Chan still vividly remembers the injuries he treated during the climax of the 2019 protests in Hong Kong.
“One of the most critical cases I handled was a deep wound near a protester’s eye. The others said he was hit by a gun bullet, but we weren’t sure what kind of bullet it was,” he recalls in Cantonese.
“When the protesters came to us for help, we saw a lot of blood coming from the wound. We tried to stop the bleeding, but it didn’t work. No matter how many pads and how many bandages we put on the wound, it just kept bleeding.”
Chan was a first aid volunteer who helped anyone injured during the protests that began in June 2019. He treated eyes and skin itchy and reddened from police firing tear gas and pepper spray — but the injuries he saw soon escalated to serious wounds from baton beatings, beanbag rounds and rubber bullets as the violence galvanized Hong Kong for months.
But now Chan is in Vancouver, unable to forget the pops of tear gas canisters flying through the air with tails of smoke — and the numerous nameless protesters in black who took a stand against the authorities to protect their rights and freedoms.
After news reports of other first aid volunteers being arrested and charged for offences like illegal assembly and aiding and abetting, Chan made a hasty and agonizing decision to leave for Canada.
“Even at the airport I was worried I would be stopped from getting on the plane I was even prepared for that scenario,” he says. “It was only after the plane took off that I could finally relax.”
The Hong Kong government’s increasing hard line and China’s growing control over the region has coincided with more than 100,000 people leaving the region in the past two years, mostly to the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore and Canada.
Many of those who left say they are disillusioned by the assurances China made in 1984, when it signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, promising Britain that Hong Kong would be under a “one country, two systems” framework. The region’s residents could retain their rights and freedoms for at least 50 years, things like free speech, free press and rule of law, unlike communist China across the border.
That was the agreement when the region was officially handed over from the U.K. to China on July 1, 1997, marking the end of Hong Kong’s 156 years as a British colony.
WATCH | How Hong Kong has changed in the 25 years since the handover:
But the contradiction of having one the freest economies in the world be governed by an authoritarian regime came to a head before five decades could pass.
As this week marks the halfway point of the handover agreement, Hong Kong has changed so much — with Beijing increasing its control over the city’s political and legal system and gutting its civil society and media landscape — that people like Chan and Arial Wong say they cannot recognize the place they call home and have sought new lives elsewhere.
Wong was also active in the 2019 protests, which were sparked by an extradition bill that Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam proposed in the spring of that year. The city’s residents vehemently opposed it, as it would give the government powers to arbitrarily extradite anyone in Hong Kong to China to face the draconian legal system there.
The protests began peacefully, with up to two million people out on the streets, from parents pushing strollers to seniors walking with canes. They braved the hot humid weather demanding the government withdraw the bill.
However Lam was unmoved, and the movement soon escalated into young black-clad protesters clashing with police. In the ensuing months, the authorities arrested more than 10,000 people related to the protests, more than 2,900 of whom were prosecuted, according to figures released up to February 2022.
That’s when Wong stepped up to help those behind bars.
“I formed groups to support the persecuted political prisoners that were sent to jail … I just helped them out with the legal aid and living expenses,” she says, noting she regularly visited people in jail.
However, in recent months the Hong Kong government has charged groups like hers of aiding and abetting those related to the protests. To evade prosecution, Wong fled to Vancouver in January.
“It is very heartbreaking every time I read the news of Hong Kong on what’s happening now. Like they never stop arresting people. Some of them are my friends and now I’m not in Hong Kong. I couldn’t go to jail to visit them,” she says.
She knows her chances of going back to Hong Kong to visit her mother are slim but felt being far away would be better than her mother visiting her in jail.
In the meantime, Wong said feels safer here and is applying for asylum. As she settles in, she said she hopes she can contribute to the community in Vancouver.
By late January 2020 the protests were abruptly halted in two ways: the COVID-19 pandemic gave the Hong Kong government an opportunity to impose strict social-distancing measures, and six months later Beijing passed the national security law on Hong Kong, bypassing the city’s legislature.
It is a vaguely worded law where anyone anywhere in the world can be charged with endangering China’s national security if the authorities deem someone has colluded with foreign forces, committed sedition, secession or terrorism.
For that reason, Chan and Wong agreed to speak only if CBC News kept their identities confidential. Both of their names have been changed for the purpose of this story.
When the national security law came into effect in 2020, Jeff Nankivell was the Canadian consul general of Hong Kong and Macau.
He says the law went beyond the understanding of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, superseding Hong Kong’s common law system and giving police the power to arrest and charge someone under nebulous legislation.
“Can you imagine in a place like Canada … publishing a far-reaching law without any public consultation or notice whatsoever,” said Nankivell, now the president and CEO of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a not-for-profit think-tank looking at Canada’s relationship with Asia.
“It [the national security law] became effective within minutes of having been promulgated. And the next day, already 10 people were arrested,” he said, adding that no one in Hong Kong knew the details of it, not even Lam, the city’s leader.
It had an immediate chilling effect on the city. Many civil society groups, unions and non-governmental organizations disbanded, and several pro-democracy politicians and activists announced they were stepping away from public life.
Hours before the national security law was enacted, Nathan Law, who was the youngest lawmaker elected to the Hong Kong legislature in 2016, went into exile in the U.K.
Unlike others who are keeping a low profile, Law says he has made it his mission to continue advocating for democracy in Hong Kong.
“The challenges that I face as a political activist in Hong Kong are different from the challenges I face as an exile activist,” he says from London. “I have to talk to policy-makers, talk to the media to explain things in a way that they understand — and to connect what I want them to do to their own interest.”
LISTEN | The Early Edition examines Hong Kong’s handover, 25 years later:
Despite these changes, both in where he lives and the work he does, Law says he’s trying to adapt.
“I think it’s a very rewarding journey for me,” he says.
In other ways, however, it’s easier to get media attention in London than in Hong Kong, as press freedom has plummeted alongside the upswing of China’s influence, according to Reporters Without Borders.
In 2002, when the Press Freedom Index was first published, Hong Kong was ranked 18 out of 180 countries. Last year it plunged to 80, and this year it sits at 148.
China, meanwhile, is ranked at 176.
That drop is attributed to the arrest of Jimmy Lai, founder of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, and six of the paper’s executives under the national security law. This prompted several other independent media outlets such as Stand News and Citizen News to shut down out of fear of facing arrest. While the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association managed to fend off attacks from the authorities for months, it is now looking to disband.
Emily Chiu was an Apple Daily reporter until the paper was shut down last June. In 2019, she and her colleagues covered the months-long protests, interviewing protesters, some only teenagers who told her they were terrified of being arrested, she said, but also fearful for Hong Kong’s future if they didn’t stand up for it.
Chiu is not her real name; CBC News agreed to keep her identity confidential, because Chiu said she worried she could be arrested and charged like her boss, Lai.
She recalls watching the arrest of Lai and other executives, who were prepared to go to jail.
“As employees we were heartbroken, because those were the people that we respect the most,” says Chiu, who moved to Vancouver six months ago, unable to see a future for herself any longer in Hong Kong.
“When you don’t have freedom of press, freedom of speech, then I don’t see the point of being a reporter in Hong Kong,” she says.
Chiu is one of almost 6,000 people who have arrived in Canada in the past three years to make a new life here.
A few months after the national security law was enacted, Nankivell says, Canada announced an extraordinary immigration measure: it allowed graduates from any worldwide recognized post-secondary institution in the past five years to apply for work permits that could lead to permanent residency.
Many who have arrived though the new stream are young families concerned about the government overhauling the education system in Hong Kong to be more patriotic towards China. There, students must sing the Chinese anthem and conduct a flag-raising ceremony weekly, while textbooks set to be published will teach the next generation that Hong Kong was never a British colony. There is also no mention that local residents held candlelight vigils to commemorate the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre for 30 consecutive years until it was banned three years ago.
Not only students are leaving Hong Kong, but teachers are too — 4,460 students and 987 teachers left the education system in the 2020-21 academic year, according to a survey released by the Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools.
That’s nearly double the number of teachers who left in previous years, the survey notes, with a “seven-fold increase” in emigration.
In Vancouver, several church groups are helping those seeking asylum settle into their new homes. Thanks to one of them, Chan has been learning English and getting to know Vancouver.
“I recently saw the documentary, Revolution of Our Times about the protests, because it is banned in Hong Kong. I even watched it twice and couldn’t help but keep crying as I watched it,” he says, worried about the ones he has left behind.
“I feel hopeless and guilty, and I feel like I have abandoned my comrades in Hong Kong,” he says. “I feel that I should speak out more often here, because I have the freedom here to express my opinions.
“People in Hong Kong are basically silenced, so I feel I should join the protests here and speak up for them.”
Produced by Bridgette Watson; editing and design by Laura Fraser; translation by Winston Szeto and Falice Chin