In the middle of a beautiful sunset in May, Emily’s boyfriend knelt before her on a beach in Japan and proposed. Overjoyed, she said yes.
They envisioned starting a family together in their home of Hong Kong. But within a month, their plans – their whole vision of a future together – had been thrown into chaos.
Four months into the largest protests in the city’s history, Emily is looking for a way out of the embattled city.
Now, along with her fiancé, Emily – who declined to give her full name due to political sensitivities – is actively looking to emigrate to another country within the next two years, including the UK and the US.
“I will have children one day,” the 25-year-old office worker told CNN. “I don’t want them to live in a police state where they cannot freely express their opinions.”
Time to leave
The semi-autonomous Chinese city is in its 18th consecutive week of anti-government protests. The unrest has grown increasingly violent on both sides, with protesters using petrol bombs and setting fires, and police firing tear gas and water cannons. During citywide protests on October 1, police used lethal force for the first time, after protesters attacked several officers.
Hong Kong has a history of politically driven waves of emigration. The first occurred in 1984, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed after years of secret negotiations, setting the stage for the city’s handover from British to Chinese control in 1997. The second started in mid-1989, after the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing led many to doubt China’s commitments to preserving Hong Kong’s freedoms. While many Hong Kongers who emigrated before 1997 returned to the city when Chinese rule was established and the “one country, two systems” formula – by which Hong Kong retained its own economic and legal systems and a degree of autonomy – seemed to be working, a substantial number retained foreign passports, giving them the option to leave in future.
Originally sparked by a now-shelved extradition bill with China, the protests have demonstrated just how the trust and hope regained after the Tiananmen Square massacre has been eroded in recent years, with many – especially younger Hong Kongers – looking forward with great trepidation to 2047, when current constitutional arrangements run out and Hong Kong could become fully a part of China, governed just like any other city.
Some Hong Kongers have expressed this distrust – and their frustration with Beijing’s increasing encroachment on the city’s freedoms – by taking to the streets, but others are looking for a way out.
According to a survey by the University of Hong Kong in June, nearly half of the city’s population was willing to consider emigration if the extradition bill – which critics feared could leave any Hong Konger open to prosecution in China – passed. While the bill was suspended following mass protests (and the government has since announced its full withdrawal), the unrest has continued to shake people’s willingness to stay. Research by YouGov in July found similar numbers wanting to leave. Of those surveyed, two out of three who were eager to leave were between the ages of 18 and 34. Half of those wanting to leave held university degrees.
The city’s young professionals don’t just want to move, they want to move soon. YouGov’s survey found that a quarter of those who want to migrate are likely to do so within the next three years. Government data provided to CNN shows that the number of applications for a certificate that is necessary for Hong Kongers applying for visas overseas surged over 50% from May to August this year.