In 1949, over one million people left Shanghai in fear of China’s new government led by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party. They feared it would limit their opportunities. Those with a lot to lose, because of their economic standing, army or political background were eager to leave.
Hong Kong’s emigration numbers of the mid-1980s saw nearly 30,000 citizens leaving per year after the People’s Republic of China signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration with the United Kingdom, which confirmed China taking sovereignty from the British over Hong Kong in 1997. Shortly thereafter, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre spurred further emigration, peaking at nearly 70,000 in 1992, as reported by the EIU Viewswire in September 2020.
In short, Hong Kong has seen a recurring pattern of emigration for decades. The Atlantic said Hong Kong had a “culture of emigration.” Helen Zia’s 2019 book, The Last Boat Out of Shanghai, explains the terrible lengths that many Chinese went to find a home outside of Communist rule. The choice was either to abandon everything familiar — family, home, culture — or risk losing these things as the CCP’s control took hold.
The parallels between China and Hong Kong’s emigrations in the mid-20th century, late 20th century, and recent events in Hong Kong are striking, making Zia’s work timely and prescient. Over 50,000 Hong Kong citizens emigrated out of Hong Kong in 2019 in fear of China’s dismissal of the “one country, two systems” arrangement.
The extradition bill proposed in May 2019 kicked off a year of political unrest in Hong Kong. An estimated two million person strong march followed the proposal, a watershed event that sparked innumerable protests which expressed anguish over China’s encroaching presence. Peaceful gatherings and violent demonstrations alike shook both the streets and the economy. Bystanders were arrested indiscriminately, protestors exchanged Molotov cocktails with the rubber bullets and tear gas of police, and frequenting public spaces demanded a new, heightened level of precaution.
By implementing legislation directly from China, Beijing demolished any illusion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Hong Kong’s much-vaunted freedoms of speech, thought and assembly evaporated; any opposition to the Chinese Communist Party violated their unwritten rules.
The events of 1949 seem to be repeating. Once again, China is asserting draconian measures on a society that previously prospered with greater degrees of autonomy. Rather than allowing Hong Kong’s long-standing “rule of law” reign, China enforces its own brand, “rule by law,” which has been met with widespread disapproval among Hong Kongers. Critics of the new establishment are silenced and arrested.
“Hong Kongers of all walks of life want to leave,” says Alex Frew McMillan, a Hong Kong-based freelance reporter. “People are moving to New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the US, and Britain, looking for a better life and a better education for their kids. Nobody wants their children to grow up in this new system.”
The events in Hong Kong mirror what occured in the port of Shanghai, where citizens fled China after the People’s Republic of China was established. Emigration applications skyrocketed; fear and public unrest became the new normal. In her book, Zia describes Ho Chow, a Chinese citizen who emigrated to the U.S. and went on to study engineering and build a freer and better life than he could have had he stayed. Chow describes how if anyone “criticized the Communists, their families in China could be harmed in retaliation.”
Decades later, Chow’s sentiment reverberates.
“China can do no wrong,” says McMillan. “No questions about the ruling party are allowed. Anything critical of China is condemned by ‘thought police.’”
In 2019 there was a 60 percent increase in Hong Kongers applying for emigration documents, and applications continue to be sent in. In October 2020, the UK offered a new path for Hong Kong citizens to acquire British citizenship, allowing those with British National Overseas (BNO) status to go to Britain. While this was a welcome development, it still leaves more than half of the population unable to emigrate on these terms.
“People don’t see a future here in Hong Kong,” says McMillan. “We witness it taking daily steps to become exactly like mainland China. It’s not safe to think for yourself here, that’s why people want to leave.”
One academic in the ethnic studies department at one of Hong Kong’s top universities explained that Hong Kong’s special status as an autonomous region is officially over. “I’m leaving Hong Kong because I don’t want to be here when even further restrictions of freedom occur,” says D.T. (Fearing retribution from the Chinese government, this academic source wished to remain cited by initials only.)
“I plan to move to the UK with the new citizenship option they are offering Hong Kongers,” says D.T. “Many of my peers plan to do the same. They especially worry about their children, and at the very least wish to give their children a choice that involves freedom.”
The Chinese University of Hong Kong conducted a poll and found that upwards of half of 15- to 24-year-olds were considering leaving Hong Kong. Many cited a general dissatisfaction with the social and political landscape of Hong Kong. Again, parallels with 1949 remain: of the innumerable emigrants out of Shanghai and greater China, many were students that emigrated on their own, sent by their families so that they could achieve a life their parents could not.
Not all Hong Kongers are unsettled by China’s growing influence. A villager of one of the traditional walled villages in Kam Tin, in the New Territories, explained that the young protestors are the ones who deserve to be expunged, not China.
“Everyone wants to complain about China, but that is the very nation that has taken care of Hong Kong for centuries,” says the villager. “People forget their roots, where they came from, and they think that a revolution is a good idea. If they do not like it here anymore then it would be better if they left us anyway.”
Basy Chow, a recent graduate and Hong Konger who emigrated to the U.K. in late 2019, explained that Hong Kong simply was not the place she would want to raise any future children in.
“Hong Kong has lost its special status as an East-West gateway into China,” says Chow. “Career opportunities for younger people are better elsewhere, in places like the U.K. or Singapore. The business world skips over Hong Kong now because we’ve lost our stature. Plus, there really is too much cultural and educational pressure in Hong Kong, and that’s not what I would want for any future children.”
How children are educated is a hotly contested topic in Hong Kong. There are bans on certain chapters in history that paint China unfavorably, and any hint of antipathy against the state is punishable. Teachers are purged for political missteps, and many now have resigned to simply teaching China’s prescribed ideologies. Now, even Mandarin, China’s primary dialect — rather than Hong Kong’s more customary Cantonese — is being prioritized and pushed in school.
This too has left a mark in the freedoms that have long defined Hong Kong. “There’s a lot of censorship in both the educational system and the media now,” says McMillan. “Some of it is self-censorship and second-guessing. Other times, it’s official.” The very same types of educational censorship occur in mainland China, and were first conceived during the inception of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Given the regime change and civil war that took place, China has never released official emigration numbers from the mid-20th century (those numbers may not even exist). Zia suggests that upwards of a quarter of Shanghai’s population of 6 million may have fled throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Add in those who fled other cities throughout China and the numbers burgeon further. If events continue to parallel those of the 1950s and 1980s, then an exodus in Hong Kong very well may already be underway. A city of over seven million strong is under siege in plain sight, and its citizens are fleeing because of it.
When the “one country, two systems” doctrine was established in the 1984 Joint Declaration, many hoped that by the time Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 2047, China would have transitioned away from its authoritarian roots to more closely resemble the values of the free world. This imbued a sense of hope for the future, reassurance that a forward-thinking society could thrive even with 2047 looming.
This hope now flickers weakly.