Hong Kong Search Data Indicate Unease, Migration Plans Among Middle Class

Hong Kong Search Data Indicate Unease, Migration Plans Among Middle Class Hong Kong citizens from all walks of life joined in protests in 2019-20.
Photo: RFA

Google search engine results have indicated a sharp rise in the number of searches for emigration-related topics from Hong Kong since China first mooted the draconian national security law for the city, which took effect from July 1.

"Emigrating to Taiwan" and "emigrating to Canada" were among top searches from Hong Kong, along with keywords relating to offshore accounts with foreign-based banks including HSBC, suggesting that the city's middle-class families are at least thinking about leaving.

The incidence of keyword searches linked to "emigration" rose sharply from mid-May, when China's National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee first started discussing the new law, which bans peaceful criticism of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Hong Kong government, and pro-democracy slogans linked to last year's protest movement.

The searches also roughly tracked a fall in Hong Kong share prices in late May and early June, when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo first indicated to Congress that Washington could revoke Hong Kong's status as a separate trading entity from mainland China.

Another peak was visible in early December after HSBC froze the bank accounts of self-exiled former opposition lawmaker Ted Hui and his family after he said he was resettling in the U.K., this time for "offshore account Citibank," suggesting searchers no longer saw HSBC as a safe bet.

"It turns out that the so-called national security law is being used to target opposition voices," a Hong Kong resident who gave only the nickname Rocky told RFA. "Hong Kong's laws are becoming more and more like those of China."

"I don't think that the rule of law exists any more. I don't have much confidence in the future," he said, adding that his plans to leave Hong Kong are already under way, with the freezing of Ted Hui's accounts the last straw for many others.

"This incident wasn't just about politics; it affect people's money," Rocky said. "I applied for an offshore account because of it ... I may not be very well-known, but I have these worries too."

There are indications that many more are having similar worries.

Preliminary applications rising

Applications to the authorities for certificates of no criminal record -- a crucial stage in any emigration application -- soared to around 3,000 a month in the wake of last year's protest movement, which was triggered by plans to allow extradition to mainland China.

Applications dipped in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to less than 2,000 a month in May, but bounced back in June, where they have stayed at around 2,600 a month since.

Hong Kong economist Law Ka-chung said many of those who are leaving come from middle and lower-middle socioeconomic groups, as the richest people often have their financial and political fortunes bound up with the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.

"The second and third-generation [richest people] are mostly delegates to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference," Law said. "They can't leave."

"Only the ones in the lower socioeconomic echelons are able to think about leaving."

Chung Kim-wah, deputy chief executive of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI), said the current wave of emigration is much more urgent in nature than the wave precipitated by the 1997 handover to Chinese rule, when people used emigration as more of an insurance policy.

"The ones leaving now are thinking about their kids' futures, and they don't want them to be brainwashed," Chung told RFA. "Many people are worried about the political situation, and there is more of a sense of panic than there was [back in 1997]."

"[This] is reflected in the recent number of immigration applications, and applications for offshore accounts," he said.

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Democratic Patriotic Movement in China, which has organized public vigils marking the 1989 Tiananmen massacre by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) on June 4 for more than 30 years, said it is transferring some if its historical records and data overseas.

Next red lines unclear

Eight of its standing committee members have been prosecuted for commemorating the anniversary in Victoria Park last June, and its leader Lee Cheuk-yan said everyone is preparing for the worst-case scenario.

"This year has been the worst so far, because nobody knows where the red lines are going to be drawn next," Lee said. "The CCP doesn't function on the basis of evidence, or the law, and even political prosecutions only happen when it decides it wants to go after you."

"So nobody has a clue, which means I think that we have to plan for the worst-case scenario."

He said there are also concerns that the June 4-related materials that remain in the June 4, 1989 Memorial Museum in Hong Kong could be seized by national security police under the new law.

"We are all worried about whether these cultural relics will be confiscated, but if we were to remove them ourselves, that would remove the whole point of the Memorial Museum," Lee told RFA. "So we will leave the items currently on display at the museum."

The Hong Kong government on Thursday held an oath-taking ceremony for top officials to swear allegiance to the city.

"All 12 under-secretaries and 14 political assistants, swore to uphold the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of the People's Republic of China and pledged allegiance to the HKSAR, witnessed by chief executive Carrie Lam," the government said in a statement on its website.

Video footage of the ceremony showed the officials standing in spaced rows in front of the emblem of the HKSAR, holding up one hand and reciting the oath.

A government spokesman said the officials were "truly demonstrating to the community their loyalty and commitment."

Permanent secretaries and heads of department will take the oath on Friday.

Reported by Cheng Yut Yiu and Lu Xi for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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