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Fears of Hong Kong 'exit ban' add to emigration wave

Law kicking in Sunday another factor driving exodus to countries with open arms

Passengers take a selfie before departing to the U.K. at Hong Kong International Airport in late June.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Kate, a marketing executive in her late 20s, hastily bought a one-way ticket to London earlier this year when the Hong Kong government introduced a controversial immigration law giving authorities vast powers to bar people from entering or leaving the city, starting Aug. 1.

Having "actively" participated in the pro-democracy protests of 2019 -- and stopped and searched by police near the Polytechnic University during its siege -- Kate said she was worried she would be banned from boarding planes once the law takes effect, even though she has never been arrested.

"Maybe I'm a bit paranoid, but you never know how extensive their blacklist is," she told Nikkei Asia from the U.K., noting many of her friends who took part in the protests have also been eyeing the August deadline. "The law just expedited our plans to leave."

Despite concerns raised by activists, legal experts, and the international community, the bill was passed by the Legislative Council in April with little public consultation or debate, after all opposition lawmakers resigned en masse last year. Many of those former lawmakers were subsequently detained under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

The Hong Kong government has characterized the new immigration law as being aimed at screening illegal immigrants amid a backlog of asylum applications, affecting only inbound flights. But Hong Kong's influential Bar Association warned that the wording of the legislation could give "unfettered power" to impose a travel ban.

Former security chief John Lee, who was recently appointed chief secretary -- the city's No. 2 official -- publicly dismissed such concerns as "complete nonsense." Lee said the government will propose a subsidiary law in the upcoming legislative term to ensure citizens' constitutional rights to travel freely.

"The fears reflect a general mistrust toward the government," said Gavin Greenwood, a senior Asia analyst at A2 Global Risk, a political and security risk consultancy. "The perception was more important. People see authorities' increasing control as a threat."

Greenwood said although residents seeking to leave Hong Kong might have to face an extra layer of scrutiny under the new law, the government has always had the power to stop people at immigration checkpoints. "It doesn't make a lot of difference," he said.

Police last month arrested a former senior Apple Daily journalist at the airport while he was attempting to leave the city. The staff member of the now-closed pro-democracy newspaper was accused of foreign collusion under the national security law.

A man reads the final edition of Apple Daily as police patrol in a mall in Hong Kong on June 24.   © Reuters

Still, worries linger that the financial hub, under Beijing's tightening grip, could adopt mainland-style "exit bans" against dissidents as well as businesspeople involved in commercial disputes.

Shortly after the law's passage, the U.S. State Department said it shares "widespread concerns about [the legislation's] content, potential uses, and lack of oversight or accountability."

"We have long-standing concerns about the PRC's arbitrary use of exit bans without due process of law, including against American citizens," a State Department spokesperson said. "We are deeply concerned by the prospect of Hong Kong authorities adopting similar arbitrary measures."

Earlier this month, the Biden administration issued an unprecedented advisory warning investors about the risks of conducting business in Hong Kong under the "new legal landscape." It highlighted risks associated with the rule of law, data privacy, access to information and exposure to business under U.S. sanctions.

Greenwood of A2 Global Risk said he would now strongly advise his clients to take the same level of precautions when traveling to Hong Kong as if they were going to mainland China, including bringing clean laptops and mobile devices to protect sensitive information.

He noted the new law and further clampdown on freedoms in Hong Kong would mean that residents who are emigrating now are much less likely to return in the future, unlike the immigration wave ahead of the city's handover from Britain to China in 1997 when people could come back to a relatively free society.

Coronavirus travel restrictions have not deterred many. Hong Kong International Airport in recent weeks has seen a bustling crowd of city residents -- many of them families with young children -- carrying bulky luggage into the departure hall, hugging and bidding farewell to their loved ones.

In the first two months since the U.K. opened a new immigration route and path to citizenship for Hong Kongers with British National (Overseas) status, about 34,300 people have applied. Since the sweeping security law took effect in June last year, the net outflow of citizens through the airport has totaled over 110,000, according to data compiled by the city's Immigration Department.

Thousands of Hong Kongers also accelerated their plans to emigrate as a U.K. emergency route ended on July 19. The Leave Outside the Rules, or LOTR, policy had allowed Hong Kong people to enter Britain with full work and study rights pending their visa application.

The British Home Office's highest estimate indicated that more than 1 million people -- one-seventh of the city's population -- could move to the U.K. over the next five years. Canada and Australia have rolled out similar programs for Hong Kongers seeking an alternate destination.

A Hong Kong-based engineer surnamed Wong who plans to move to Canada with his young family over the summer said the new immigration law was not the major push factor. "What's most disturbing is the education system that's under increasing censorship," he said. "This would have a long-term impact on our next generation."

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