|Seen is a currency exchange shop with a photo of Mao Zedong, the founder of the People's Republic of China, in Hong Kong, Dec. 25. Korea Times photo by Park Ji-won
By Park Ji-won
HONG KONG ― In June 2020, China passed the new national security law (NSL) for Hong Kong, making it easier for Beijing to prosecute Hongkongers, including extraditing citizens to the mainland.
As the law can punish anyone who "endangers national security" and can be interpreted in different ways, many Hongkongers have been staying low key ever since the passage of the law or have decided to leave the city for good.
Statistics from the U.K. show during the period from Jan. 31, 2021, to the end of June 2022, there were some 140,500 applications from Hong Kong for British National Overseas (BNO) citizenship, which allows Hongkongers born before 1997 to get U.K. citizenship.
An estimated 5.4 million Hong Kong people out of its 7.5 million population are eligible for the move, according to the South China Morning Post.
The COVID-19 pandemic since 2020 may have contributed to the government banning protesters from gathering as well as to the swift passing of the law.
|A street in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, on July 5, 2019. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk
Some people have made the life-changing move to emigrate to other countries, but most Hongkongers carry on their lives in the city in the post-NSL era. Over the last couple years, things might not have changed dramatically, but there have been both subtle and major changes for some.
"I don't say things that go against the government or China via messaging apps because I heard our messages can be wire-tapped anytime and the NSL can be applied," said a Japanese banker surnamed Suzuki who has been living in Hong Kong for the last five years.
The resident said he and his Japanese friends "self-censor" when talking about many subjects with others electronically.
"Compared to 2019, 2020 and 2021, I do care less, but if sensitive subjects related to China pop up, I try to talk about them in person. I am definitely more careful than before in my behavior."
He is not the only person who acts discreetly in daily life, seeing the mainland gaining influence in Hong Kong.
"In the subway, I can hear more students in their teens speaking Mandarin than before. School education is more focused on teaching the language than before," a private language school lecturer surnamed Wong, in his 40s, said.
"There is a glass ceiling in promotion especially for foreigners in companies here. To get into upper positions, you should speak Mandarin Chinese well nowadays to do business with the mainland. I was able to get hired without speaking Mandarin Chinese about eight years ago, but now the language is required," said an office worker surnamed Kim, who has worked for an investment company over the last eight years.
|A window at Wan Chai Muay Thai in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, offers a glimpse inside the martial arts school where students are warming up on July 5, 2019. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk
Some said the virtue of Hong Kong as a cultural melting pot is disappearing, losing the diversity of people from different countries.
"Hong Kong used to be a place where there are always new people from all over the world and welcoming of new immigrants. But people are leaving the city and there are still mainland Chinese immigrants coming to Hong Kong," a merchandise shop owner surnamed Ng, in her 50s, said. "I am sad that the only thing I can say is, 'There is no way to change the situation.'"
The total population of Hong Kong fell from 7.41 million people to 7.29 million as of August this year, a 1.6-percent decrease year-on-year, according to the Census and Statistics Department of Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, the number of immigrants from mainland China posted an average of around 40,000 every year between 2010 and 2019. But with the coronavirus pandemic, the number stood at some 10,000 from mid-2020 to mid-2021 and 18,000 from mid-2021 to mid-2022.
Some companies have relocated to Singapore for good, but insiders point out that it cannot be a major trend if they consider their relationship with mainland China.
"Companies cannot pull out of Hong Kong as it is considered as in opposition to mainland China," a banker surnamed Chang said. "There are businesses in the mainland too, but if companies pull out of Hong Kong, businessmen all know that there is a possibility that Chinese authorities may give them disadvantages in business."
"In terms of corporate taxes, both Hong Kong and Singapore are attractive. Also, Singapore is family-oriented and considered boring, which means Hong Kong, which is still dynamic, can be an attractive city to many talented global professionals," a banker surnamed Cho in their 40s said. "Singapore cannot be an alternative to Hong Kong for political reasons, as Singapore also has a strong central administration."
For some, including legislator Frankie Ngan Man-yu of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), a pro-Beijing party in Hong Kong, the passage of the law is a game changer in terms of offering the city "stability."
Calling the protests "endangering public and national security," Ngan told The Korea Times, "The action indeed has made a significant contribution to reverting the chaotic situation, bringing unlawful acts to justice, suppressing the riots, and restoring normal lives for the members of the public so as to protect their lives and property and, more importantly, enable them to enjoy their legitimate rights and freedom without fear and threat to their safety."
|Seen is a restaurant with stuffed frogs and pigs symbolizing support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong on Dec. 27. Korea Times photo by Park Ji-won
Yellow and blue
The city is still largely divided into two, so-called "yellow" or "blue" labels according to their pro-Beijing political stance.
"Many restaurants and shops, which support the pro-democracy movement or so-called 'yellow' side, still have the characters of a frog, a pig and a man in a helmet of any form inside as signs to show their supportive stance for the movement," a Hongkonger surnamed Liu said. "It is no longer as big a thing as when the demonstrations were active. But we all know that from the characters whether it a shop is 'yellow' or not."
Roughly speaking, being "yellow" means supporting the pro-democracy protesters while being "blue" means they support the police and are pro-Beijing.
When there were fierce demonstrations between 2019 and 2020, protesters attacked shops that were considered pro-Beijing.
For some, talking about politics among friends or out loud is considered taboo, as doing so may harm friendships due to political differences.
"If I go to a restaurant, sometimes I can see the frog character and know it supports the movement. So even if I get closer to the owner of the restaurant, I try not to reveal my 'blue' stance because it may harm our relationship," Liu added.
Interviewees' surnames only were used due to the sensitivity of the issue.