China promised to keep Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms for 50 years in July 1997. Halfway in, thousands have abandoned the city for New Zealand to escape Beijing’s grip. Justin Wong reports.
Kit-hung Yip never thought he would end up in Wellington, but that all changed when police officers knocked on his Hong Kong door after a Facebook post in January 2019.
Days before he had shared a 38-second video clip which showed a male student being trapped under two chairs and assaulted by seven other students, to blow the whistle on the rife bullying at his high school.
The detectives asked Yip to go with them to the police station for a statement about the alleged bullying, but instead interrogated him for five hours.
Yip is speaking out as Hong Kong today marks 25 years since the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) on July 1, 1997.
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Although Beijing promised the rights and freedoms that Hong Kongers enjoyed under colonial rule would continue for another 50 years post-handover until 2047, it has been cracking down on the city of more than 7 million.
“There were five police surrounding and treating me like a convicted criminal,” he said. “They asked me about my political stance and why I have to spread misinformation about the school and the government. I was ordered to keep my mouth shut and not cause any trouble,” he said.
“I was genuinely scared – they didn’t let me call for a lawyer or family.”
He was only released after signing a statement he didn’t agree with, Yip said, which claimed he had “no intention of pursuing anyone”, and was told to report to the police station every fortnight.
By July that year, pro-democracy protests had grown increasingly violent. Protesters clashed with the authorities every day, barricading the main roads and setting fire to railway stations. Riot police responded with rounds of tear gas and a water cannon.
At that point, Yip chose to leave Hong Kong for good to study at Victoria University in Wellington. His experiences with police officers and seeing the force they used to subdue protesters taught him not to trust police in Hong Kong.
Yip is just one of more than 3300 people who have moved to New Zealand from Hong Kong since June 2019, including those with dual citizenship. They join a growing wave of nearly 100,000 Hong Kongers who have left since 2020, disillusioned with their hometown’s future.
Since the introduction of a sweeping national security law banning “subversion” or “secession” in July 2020, the government has used it to crush the pro-democracy movement.
Activists, lawmakers, social workers, and academics were detained in mass arrests, while sways of elected district councillors were disqualified for refusing to take an oath of loyalty.
Independent media outlets like Apple Daily closed immediately after police raided their offices and charged their editors with national security offences. Public demonstrations, including vigils to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacres, were banned.
The authorities’ electoral reforms last year, which officials claimed would “improve” the electoral system, only allowed “patriots” to run in elections and govern the city.
Sutela Cheung wasn’t happy with that future for her 9-year-old son, so she relocated her family to Auckland last year.
She’s no stranger to migrating to a new country. Her family were part of the previous outflow of Hong Kongers who migrated to New Zealand after the Tiananmen Square massacre in the 1990s, as they were uncertain of what Beijing had in store for the city.
“It’s like political insurance at that time because everyone was scared,” she said. “But a lot of people who left were still looking over their shoulder because they had a slight hope that everything would turn out fine.”
Cheung returned to Hong Kong to work after finishing university in Auckland in the early 2000s. Things were looking good – China was opening up its economy to the world, Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympics.
Many who left were convinced that Hong Kong’s new master was not as menacing as they once feared and returned to the city.
Two decades later, history was repeating itself – Cheung moved to New Zealand from Hong Kong once again, this time as a mother.
If uncertainty was the reason why Hong Kongers went overseas in the 1990s, she said, people were leaving now because they had “given up” on the city.
Cheung was wary about how the new political environment changed education, especially after a new middle school textbook denied Hong Kong was ever a British colony but had been Chinese territory “since ancient times”.
It showed Beijing was trying to “rewrite history”, she said. “They are now delivering patriotic national education curriculums in schools. It’s basically brainwashing from kindergarten – they’ve got toddlers learning to sing the national anthem and raise the flag. I just can’t accept that.
“We know what education is like in China – I’ve got colleagues from the mainland who have no idea about what happened in Tiananmen Square. I’m scared that my child won’t be able to speak Cantonese.
“It’s important for him to be able to think critically, not just do what he was told.”
A new government led by former Secretary for Security John Lee will be sworn in on July 1 by Chinese President Xi Jinping to replace outgoing Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Lee ran as the only candidate for the role and was elected with 99.44% of the vote by the 1500 members of the handpicked Election Committee in May.
As Hong Kong’s security chief, he played a key role in pushing a now-failed extradition bill that sparked the 2019 protests, and likened the violent action of some protesters to “terrorism”.
Lam said last month Hong Kong was entering a new era of stability, prosperity and opportunity, thanks to the national security and electoral reforms.
But Max Wong, who settled in Christchurch in September 2019, doesn’t share the same rosy vision.
It had been nothing but broken promises from China throughout the past 25 years, he said, especially on delivering universal suffrage for Hong Kongers to elect their Chief Executive.
The authorities were not serving locals but rather their overlords in Beijing, he said, and Lam’s government only hammered the final nail into the coffin in changing Hong Kong from an international financial centre into “an ordinary Chinese city”.
- All interviews were conducted in Cantonese and translated into English