The Dominion Post
No place like home
Stephanie Dwyer knew it was time to leave Hong Kong when her 7-year-old son was in fear of the local police. Lucy Craymer reports.
Hong Kong – a former British colony – has long been a popular expatriate destination for Kiwis. The tax rate is low, it is a good base for Asian travel and the city is renowned for its shopping, dining and nightlife.
But in the past 18 months, residents have lived with a growing number of restrictions applied from Beijing, as China’s government works to bring the city in line with the rest of the mainland.
Last June, a sweeping National Security Law, barring what it calls sedition, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces, was passed. This was followed by a law that allows only ‘‘patriots’’ to run for public office. Most recently, a law that gives Hong Kong the power to stop people leaving the city has also been passed.
Residents are increasingly fearful of what they say and do.
‘‘Although there is no direct impact on the New Zealand members from the National Security Law, it does create an atmosphere that leaves you feeling insecure and uncomfortable, so a lot of them are just deciding it’s time to leave,’’ says Lachlan Christie, president of NZ Society of Hong Kong.‘‘Members are disconcerted.’’
Many protesters and prodemocracy leaders have been arrested and others have fled, fearing incarceration. Hong Kong was handed back in 1997 by the British to China, which agreed that for 50 years the city would operate under a different system from the rest of the country. This meant Hong Kong’s capitalist structure and way of life were to remain unchanged.
However, many in the city believe Beijing has increasingly encroached on operations there. Growing tensions came to a head when a bill in the city’s legislature was introduced that allowed people from Hong Kong to be sent to China to be tried in the country’s often murky legal system.
Protesters took to the streets in June 2019 – the largest rally was estimated at one million people – to prevent the bill. The movement grew and the protesters began to demand fully democratic elections and some even asked for independence.
What followed was months of often violent protests and a police crackdown; thousands were arrested; and even peaceful marches were prevented from going ahead.
New laws were introduced and the education system has begun an overhaul.
The NZ Society Of Hong Kong estimates 30,000 New Zealand citizens or residents live in the city. That figure is based on the number of Australians living in the city who, unlike New Zealanders, have to register.
The Consulate-General says there are 3000 New Zealanders resident there ‘‘and considerably more when including dual nationals on New Zealand passports’’.
Christie, who has been in Hong Kong for 24 years, says he too is now seriously contemplating returning home because of his own concerns that he could say the wrong thing and end up in trouble with authorities.
‘‘There has been a long period in Hong Kong where the resumption of sovereignty by China didn’t really have any impact on your lifestyle or attitudes, but that has changed over the last few years,’’ he says.
Christie doesn’t like his children growing up in an environment of oppression and he worries about accidentally breaching the law.
‘‘In our role with the New Zealand Society of Hong Kong there seems to be some risk attached to carrying out a very uncontroversial role,’’ he says. ‘‘I could say the wrong thing.’’
Hong Kong’s 7.5m population includes more 700,000 foreign residents. Expats work in jobs like aviation and banking as well as a large domestic worker population.
Visa applications from foreigners in 2020 under the General Employment Policy were roughly a third of what they were in 2019. This is likely to be in part due to Covid-19 restrictions and concerns.
Thousands of Hong Kongers moved to Britain after visas were made available to those in the former colony.
There has also been a number of high-profile moves out of the city, such as the New York Times moving staff out over concerns new rules were impacting press freedoms.
Since February 2019 – when a controversial extradition bill was introduced in Hong Kong sparking protest – 724 New Zealanders have returned home permanently.
This is up roughly a third on the
two years prior, according to data from Stats NZ. Numbers peaked in January when 84 New Zealanders returned home.
Kiwi teacher Stephanie Dwyer says fear for her children’s safety prompted the family to move back to Christchurch, although Covid-19 meant the move came a few months earlier than planned.
One morning late in 2019, Dwyer says she’d put her children on the bus at 6.30am not knowing that riot police were stationed outside their school. The children would have to get through them to get into the school grounds.
Another parent at the school was able to intercept the bus and take all the children into her house until they could get them safely home.
‘‘It was too close for comfort,’’ says Dwyer. ‘‘It was horrendous.’’
She was also taken aback to realise her son had started to fear the police. ‘‘It wasn’t safe. It still isn’t safe. You can’t speak freely about the things that you believe in in Hong Kong any more.’’
Neville Bailey, his wife Sarah and their two children left Hong Kong after 22 years last year. The move had been in the works for a while as Neville was ready to give up the life of an international pilot.
But in 2019, as street protests dominated Hong Kong and the airport was closed down, the family bought a house in Christchurch. They moved back 10 months ago.
‘‘The political situation started to change,’’ says Bailey. ‘‘It didn’t propel the decision but it definitely contributed to it.’’
One day in late 2019, Bailey says he showed up at the Cathay Pacific offices to find protesters surrounding it. At other times the office was barricaded with steel doors and guards were on them.
For its part, the New Zealand Government has condemned the changes in Hong Kong. In January, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said on Twitter the country was deeply concerned by the recent arrest of pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong.
‘‘This represents another effort to erode the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and further undermine the one country, two systems framework.’’
However, the country was absent from a more strongly worded statement issued by other members of the Five Eyes intelligence movement.
The consular-general in Hong Kong has warned New Zealanders to avoid all protest and demonstrations and move to a safe place if they find themselves in an affected area, as ‘‘acts of violence have occurred between police and demonstrators’’.