By Carol Mang Natalie Thomas
HONG KONG/LONDON – When college graduate Wong, 23, leaves Hong Kong to escape Beijing’s new national security law, it will be his friends, the stunning views over Victoria Harbour and the city’s famous dim sum he will miss the most.
Wong is joining a flood of fellow Hong Kongers fleeing what they see as a more authoritarian era under the legislation, which punishes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
China says the new law is vital to plug gaping holes in national security defenses exposed by months of sometimes violent anti-government and anti-China protests that rocked the city over the last year.
Waving a Union Jack flag, Wong and his family attended some pro-democracy rallies and called on the British government to support residents of its former colony, an act that could now violate the vaguely defined law.
Wong said while the prospect of a new life in a different country is exciting, his family is also fraught with sadness.
“When you pack everything, you’re packing your memories in Hong Kong. You got photos and toys from childhood, you are packing your memories into a box and sending them to a foreign country, so it’s a very emotional time,” he told Reuters.
“Hopefully I can pack up everything,” said Wong, who declined to give his full name for fear of retribution.
Wong’s parents, an accountant and social worker, both have British National Overseas passports, providing them a path to citizenship in the United Kingdom, where they will fly to next year.
Wong hopes to accompany them but says if he can’t due to visa issues, he will consider South Korea until he can join his parents and members of his extended family, who are also leaving for the United Kingdom.
The speed at which Beijing raced through the legislation and a lack of transparency until it took effect close to midnight on June 30 drew criticism from all corners of the world, including Washington, Ottawa, London, Taipei and Japan.
On Thursday, Canberra said it was suspending its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and announced measures to attract people and businesses from the global financial hub.
The Chinese government has condemned foreign interference in the affairs of its freest city.
A Hong Kong immigration lawyer told Reuters she had been inundated with inquiries from people eager to get to Britain since the law was introduced, with a noticeable spike in the number of extended families seeking information.
“One of my friends is a teacher in Hong Kong. She’s been teaching for over 10 years and she said she has four siblings and the five families altogether they want to move,” said Janine Miu, Managing Director at UK Immigration Specialist.
Miu said she had also seen a shift in the demographic of people rushing for the exit, from more wealthy and experienced people to younger individuals and couples with small children.
Critics of the law fear it will be used by mainland and local authorities to crush dissent in Hong Kong, while supporters say it will bring stability after months of unrest.
Although China’s law also applies to activities abroad, Wong plans to lobby overseas support for those he leaves behind.
“I will not turn my back on my own people,” he said.
(Reporting by Carol Mang and Natalie Thomas; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree, Editing by Alexandra Hudson)