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Hong Kong protests

Hongkongers plot exit under shadow of security law

Beijing's clampdown fuels fears of brain drain to Taiwan and UK

Many worry that China's new security legislation will dampen the free atmosphere that had drawn talent to Hong Kong.   © Reuters

HONG KONG/TAIPEI -- A growing number of Hongkongers look to pack their bags and leave after China's passage of national security legislation for the territory, raising concern over whether it can remain a financial hub if it cannot attract top talent.

"Inquiries have tripled or quadrupled since the national security law was announced," said Benny Cheung of Hong Kong-based Goldmax Immigration Consulting, which provides support to would-be emigrants. Local media have reported that the legislation will be implemented as early as next month.

Fears of Beijing's growing influence threaten to dampen the free atmosphere that had helped make Hong Kong a magnet for the highly skilled workers on which the city's global status rests.

"The enactment of a vaguely defined national security law will make it harder to recruit and retain top-tier talent," the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong wrote in a statement last week.

This marks an escalation of a trend that began around last June, when pro-democracy protests rocked the territory.

Applications to the Hong Kong police for certificates of no criminal conviction, a requirement for visas, jumped about 50% year on year to about 32,000 for the 11 months through April, official data shows. A representative from Midland Immigration Consultancy in Hong Kong noted that consultations have surged to 100 a day from 30 to 50 in the first half of 2019.

The U.S., Canada and Australia, which offer English-language education and solid social welfare systems, are among the preferred destinations for emigrants. But as these countries have tightened scrutiny of immigration applications, "Southeast Asia, Taiwan and Portugal have also been popular lately," Cheung said.

The Taiwanese government has set up a team to support people moving to the island from Hong Kong, President Tsai Ing-wen said Friday during a visit to Causeway Bay Books, which reopened in Taipei in April.

The bookseller, formerly based in Hong Kong, had offered books that were banned on the mainland. In a sign of Beijing's tightening grip on the territory, proprietor Lam Wing-kee was detained in 2015 for eight months by Chinese authorities and ultimately gave up on keeping the store open there.

Bookseller Lam Wing-kee greets supporters outside his Causeway Bay Books bookstore before taking part in a protest march in Hong Kong on June 18, 2016.   © Reuters

Tsai thanked Lam "on behalf of the Taiwanese people" for "protecting human rights, freedom and democracy in Hong Kong."

Taiwan issued 5,858 permanent residence permits to Hongkongers last year, up 41% from 2018. The tally jumped another 150% for the first four months of this year to 2,383, and the security law looks likely to accelerate the trend.

The U.K. said Thursday it would allow Hong Kong holders of British National (Overseas) passports -- which confer travel rights but not British citizenship or residency rights -- to stay in the U.K. beyond the current six-month maximum if Beijing does not withdraw the security legislation.

Holders could "apply to work and study for extendable periods of 12 months, and that will itself provide a pathway to future citizenship," said Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

BNO passports were issued to Hong Kong residents before London handed the territory over to Beijing in 1997. About 300,000 people hold them now, and renewal requests have skyrocketed.

Some in the U.K. have called for BNO holders to be offered full British citizenship amid fears that the "one country, two systems" framework, a central condition of the handover, is being hollowed out.

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