The Sunday Magazine

China is ready for a potential exodus from Hong Kong, and has designs to make it more prosperous

In 1997, China promised to maintain Hong Kong's democratic system and civil liberties for 50 years. But many believe a new security law imposed upon Hong Kong by Beijing effectively means the end of democracy there. Diana Fu — a China expert at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy — discusses the potential fallout over the law and the decisions Hong Kongers have to make now about whether to stay and whether to keep pushing for democracy or censor themselves.

If Hong Kongers choose to leave their city, China is planning to to fill the void

China's national security law for Hong Kong has sparked fears that Beijing continues to encroach on Hong Kong's autonomy while curtailing a number of its freedoms. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

With the passage of a new security law that gives the Chinese government unprecedented power over the lives of people in Hong Kong, residents of the city might be getting ready to pack up and leave.

Diana Fu is a China expert at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. (Submitted by Diana Fu)

Hong Kongers have participated in waves of emigration before, in response to actions on the mainland. One wave came after the harsh crackdown on the 1989 protests, and another around the 1997 handover, where the United Kingdom transferred the former colony to China. 

The new security law went into effect on July 1. It has the potential to curtail freedom of speech and ability to protest — not only in Hong Kong, but for Hong Kongers living anywhere in the world.

Already, there are reports of immigraton consultants seeing their case numbers double.

Countries like Australia and the United Kingdom are anticipating a new wave of emigration from the city, and are setting up policies that could allow them an easier path to residency and citizenship. Fortune magazine called Hong Kongers "the world's most sought-after emigrants."

The Sunday Edition's guest host, Anthony Germain, is a former China correspondent for the CBC. He talked to Diana Fu, associate professor in political science at the University of Toronto about why Hong Kongers would choose to leave and the impact that might have on the city.

Here are some highlights from their conversation with The Sunday Edition's host, Anthony Germain, condensed and edited for clarity.

How is the Hong Kong business community reacting to this law set by Beijing?

Beijing has very successfully been co-opting the business community by and by in Hong Kong. And it's done so with a combination of carrots and sticks. As far as the sticks — Beijing has warned the heads of big banks like HSBC that they would lose businesses from their Chinese banking customers if they did not support the new security law. They've also warned airlines, such as Cathay Pacific, and accounting firms that  these companies need to keep their employees from joining the pro-democracy movement. So these are the sticks that have been used to co-op the business community. 

But there's also carrots, right? Chinese companies from the mainland are expanding their businesses in Hong Kong. They're bringing in lots of investment capital. It's unclear if these expansions of Chinese companies are directly orchestrated by Beijing. In fact, there's no clear evidence of that. But it certainly does bode well for securing Hong Kong's financial status in the future. So even if there were worries about any sort of brain drain from Hong Kong, Beijing promises to replenish any brain drain that might be caused by potential mass exodus.

For those of us who are old enough, in the post-Tiananmen era, we remember these waves of immigration. And I think that's the time when a lot of Hong Kongers managed to obtain Canadian passports. What's the likelihood that we're going to see that kind of immigration from Hong Kong again, given what's happening right now?

So currently, we know that there are five jurisdictions prepared to receive emigrants from Hong Kong — these are the United Kingdom, the United States, Taiwan, Australia and Japan. Unsurprisingly, among these jurisdictions, the U.K. has gone the furthest in terms of providing a pathway to citizenship. There is a historical reason for this, which is that Hong Kong used to be a British colony. When Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, there was a mass exodus of people from there to all different kinds of places, including the U.K. The British government actually gave passports to [people from] Hong Kong. 

There are 350,000 active holders of what's called BNO, British National (Overseas) passports in Hong Kong, and the British government has vowed to provide a pathway to citizenship for these people. 

Canada actually has one of the world's largest Hong Kong diaspora communities. It's second only to the U.S. In 1997, when Hong Kong was handed back to China, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers emigrated to Vancouver and many have returned to Hong Kong after getting Canadian citizenship. Although Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has publicly welcomed Hong Kong Canadians to come back, Ottawa has yet to grant any special accommodations to asylum seekers from there.

This might sound a bit crass, but can some countries capitalize on this to get some extremely talented immigrants? Because I can sense there's probably a tension in Canada: do we really want to pick another fight with China? On the other hand, if other countries are going to poach some of these great minds and people who want to leave the place anyway, maybe Canada will miss out?

It's an interesting angle, because certainly the Western media has made a big deal about this possible brain drain from Hong Kong. And it has called Hong Kongers the world's most desirable immigrants, precisely because of their relative wealth, their education level and their skills. It remains to be seen exactly how large this exodus will be and how much of a windfall, as you put it, that countries who are receiving Hong Kong immigrants will actually get.

From Beijing's perspective, they're well prepared for this possible brain drain. They have a vision for Hong Kong — to be even more prosperous and stable than it was before.

I don't know if you've heard of this thing called the Greater Bay Area. It sounds like the San Francisco Bay Area, but it's actually an area that the Chinese government has proposed, which consists of an economic zone in south China, that would include Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong province. These are some of the country's most economically vibrant and open regions in southern China. The government's goal is to develop a world class urban cluster that could rival global cities like San Francisco, New York or Tokyo.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now