Asia Stream: the struggle for Hong Kong’s identity

25 years after taking control of the territory, how is Beijing trying to change Hong Kong — and how is Hong Kong pushing back?

Nikkei staff writersJuly 2, 2022 07:23 JST

Nikkei

NEW YORK — Welcome to Nikkei Asia’s podcast: Asia Stream.

Every other week, Asia Stream tracks and analyzes the Indo-Pacific with a mix of expert interviews and original reporting by our correspondents from across the globe.

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This episode, we take measure of the economic impact of China’s stringent laws in Hong Kong and then take a deep dive into the social and political costs of Beijing’s crackdown on the special administrative region.

First, digital editor Waj Khan lays out the big picture: What ails the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong? (02:25) Next, business and markets reporter Jack Stone Truitt crunches the numbers of the economic impact of the crackdown (05:49). Then, Asia Stream correspondent Monica Hunter-Hart reports on how activism, academia and the media have been affected (10:19), interviewing former Hong Kong legislator and student protest leader Nathan Law (13:03), professor Isabella Ng (18:16) and journalist Lam Ying-pong (24:18). Finally, our deputy Big Story editor, Alice French, reports with the weekly Tokyo Dispatch on the Hong Kong diaspora as she talks to Pak Yiu (29:22).

Asia Stream is hosted by our executive producer Wajahat S. Khan and produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt.

Related to this episode:

Hong Kong’s identity in crisis after 25 years of Beijing rule, by Pak Yiu

Hong Kong press freedom bruised a year after Apple Daily shutdown, by Takeshi Kihara and Frances Cheung

Brain drain: Hong Kong political crackdown sparks scholar exodus, by Frances Cheung and Takeshi Kihara

TRANSCRIPT:

(Theme music in)

WAJAHAT S. KHAN, HOST: Hello and welcome to Asia Stream, where we track, report and analyze the issues and interests of the world’s largest region.

I am Waj Khan, Nikkei Asia’s digital editor, here in New York City.

Today’s episode: The Struggle for Hong Kong’s Identity.

Friday, July the 1st marks 25 years to the day that Hong Kong ceased being a British colony and was taken over again by China. During that handover in 1997, Beijing promised that for the next 50 years, Hong Kong would get to keep its own economic and governance systems, even while it was formally part of the mainland. That framework came to be known as the “one country, two systems” policy. It sounded like a working compromise, as Beijing also promised that Hong Kong would have “a high degree of autonomy.”

We’re halfway through that 50-year pledge, but recent years have seen a significant erosion in Hong Kong’s autonomy, raising the larger question: Is the “one country, two systems” principle dead?

NATHAN LAW, GUEST: Hong Kong has basically fallen into an authoritarian police state.

LAM YING-PONG, GUEST: If somebody’s going to be arrested, that’s gonna be me. I know it’s going to happen, I just don’t know when.

KHAN: Those are the voices of exiled activist Nathan Law and Hong Kong journalist Lam Ying-pong, some of the guests in today’s show who will guide us through the big questions.

What has happened to Hong Kong? How did the former British colony become an experiment of China’s harsh brand of governance? What is coming, and at what cost? That’s what we’re discussing today.

Get your calendars out and get ready to account for 25 years of China’s rule over Hong Kong.

You’re listening to the sound of Asia, streaming in your ear.

From Nikkei Asia, this is Asia Stream.

(Theme music out)

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KHAN: Geographically, Hong Kong is merely a blip on the radar: The former British colony, now a special administrative region of China’s, juts out into the South China Sea and is one of the smallest territories in the world. It has just 428 square miles of land, making it less than half the size of the famously tiny country of Luxembourg. But economically, Hong Kong is a powerhouse — the financial hub of Asia. And now it’s in the middle of a political fight for its life, between autonomy and autocracy.

Over the last few years in particular, Beijing has exerted so much power over Hong Kong that many argue a more accurate description for China’s “one country, two systems” policy for the territory is actually “one country, under Beijing.”

Consider: After a wave of pro-democracy politicians won electoral victories in 2019, many were intimidated into retirement. Now, most lawmakers are Beijing loyalists. News outlets have been shut down. Unions have disbanded as leaders have been arrested or forced into self-exile. So-called patriotic-education curricula — encouraging Chinese nationalism, of course — are now a mandatory part of schooling.

On the ground, under a controversial national security law, sweeping powers of surveillance have been given to the state. Websites have been censored and gatherings banned. Consequently, citizens are fleeing the territory in the thousands — as are international businesses. The territory’s superstrict pandemic controls, as well as the recent brutal wave of COVID that gave Hong Kong, for a time, the highest COVID mortality rate in the world, haven’t helped.

It didn’t used to be like this. A few years ago, before the pandemic and some crucial political turning points, the reputation of Hong Kong in the eyes of the international community was all shine and chic. It was home to the second-highest number of billionaires in the world. Its films, its food and its brand were truly international.

YOUTUBER: “The financial mecca of Asia.”

TRAVEL COMPANY: “Its soaring skylines look boldly towards the future.”

REPORTER: “It’s a place for people to come and build their professional dreams. Hong Kong is a magnet for talent, skill, finance and creative energy.”

KHAN: Notably, that glossy reputation masked severe income inequality and poverty rates. Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, and one of the priciest.

TRAVEL COMPANY: Looking down upon the skyscrapers and apartment towers, you might wonder how so many people can live in such a tightly packed area.

REPORTER: More than 200,000 people live in these subdivided apartments known as coffin homes.

KHAN: But these days people are fleeing the region. In just one year, between July 2020 and June 2021, the city of Hong Kong lost 1.2% of its population. Over 270,000 residents have left since the implementation of the notorious national security law in 2020.

And the same is true of international companies: The U.S. used to dominate Hong Kong’s foreign business landscape, but now the number of American companies with a base in the region has fallen to an 18-year low.

To start off our fantastic lineup of reporting today, let’s talk business. Here to discuss the changing landscape of Hong Kong’s financial sector, is our business and markets reporter, Jack Stone Truitt. Jack, thanks for joining me.

JACK STONE TRUITT: Happy to be here, Waj.

KHAN: So we’re going to take a deep dive into the human and political side of China’s encroaching authority over Hong Kong after this, but before we do, Jack, what has Beijing’s grip on the region meant businesswise for this global financial hub?

TRUITT: Well, I think it’s important to get some context, as it’s pretty hard to overstate just how synonymous Hong Kong is with business. Between 1961 and 1997, just before it was handed back to China by the British, Hong Kong’s GDP rose 180 times.

KHAN: Wow.

TRUITT: Now, this growth wasn’t fueled by a massive manufacturing boom like mainland China, but by trade and its financial sector. It’s been consistently at or near the top of lists ranking the easiest places to do business and economic freedom indices, and its long-standing ties to the West as a British colony helped it become the place for international business in Asia.

KHAN: But now things are changing?

TRUITT: Changing and changing fast. It’s not even on the Heritage Foundation’s ranking of economic freedom anymore. And almost half of European and American businesses in surveys this year said they had plans to relocate either partially or entirely out of Hong Kong.

KHAN: So what’s driving this? Is it just politics?

TRUITT: The national security law is definitely part of it. The American Chamber of Commerce reported that over 80% of U.S. firms in Hong Kong said they were impacted by the law. This could be by employees deciding to leave, or uncertainty for those who remain. But it’s also the effect of COVID, at least on the business side, that has accelerated the exodus or served as the last push for those who were already considering leaving.

KHAN: Right, Hong Kong has shared China’s severe zero-COVID approach.

TRUITT: Quarantine under those kinds of restrictions is already tough. But even more so when living in Hong Kong, where apartments on average are the smallest in the world. All of which is really bad for business, too. Goldman Sachs forecasts its GDP growth to be just 0.3%. Hong Kong’s airport now doesn’t have enough flights to fill up a whole video board, and passenger traffic is down 98%. So some of Hong Kong’s biggest attractions — its international connectivity and proximity to China — are totally nullified.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is roaring back up and all but doing away with any COVID restrictions. But there’s little end in sight to severe COVID restrictions for those in mainland China or Hong Kong.

KHAN: So we know that people are leaving Hong Kong. But where are they going?

TRUITT: Well, at least on the business side, they’re fleeing to the other great financial hub of Asia: Singapore, the city-state also famous for its ease of doing business, and one with a long history of Chinese influence and ancestry. Assets under hedge fund management were down 14% in Hong Kong from their 2019 peak. Meanwhile, in Singapore, they’re up 8% from 2019. Dubai is another business hub that is absorbing some of the Hong Kong exodus.

KHAN: What about heading northeast across the sea and going to Tokyo?

TRUITT: Well, there were hopes that Tokyo could flourish as an international finance hub, but that hasn’t happened, and some think it’s due to Japan’s restrictive tax system. Tokyo was for a long time No. 3 among Asian cities on the Global Financial Centers Index, but now it’s fallen behind many mainland Chinese cities to ninth, and Seoul is nipping at its heels.

KHAN: Tokyo aside, Jack, surely there must be some case for optimism for Hong Kong’s business future?

TRUITT: Well, for now it still ranks quite high on various economic freedom indices. The Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce surveyed about 400 businesses heading into this year and found that business sentiment is improving, but they also admit it’s not a very high baseline to improve from.

KHAN: Gotcha.

TRUITT: There’s also the matter of the Hong Kong stock exchange — the world’s sixth largest. Over the last year there’s been a number of Chinese companies listed on American stock exchanges that are delisting and instead listing in Hong Kong. These so-called homecoming listings could become more common due to ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China. So as the divide between Washington and Beijing grows, and more companies and traders are pushed back to Hong Kong, perhaps it will still be a financial hub, just not one that is quite as international as it once was.

KHAN: Jack Stone Truitt is our business and markets reporter in New York. Jack, thanks for being here.

TRUITT: Thanks, Waj.

KHAN: So, how did we get to this point? Why has the mainland’s grip over Hong Kong tightened so much in recent years? Here to walk us through it is Asia Stream correspondent Monica Hunter-Hart.

HUNTER-HART: Thanks, Waj. As you mentioned earlier, China agreed to a “one country, two systems” principle when the Brits gave back sovereignty in 1997. But that principle hasn’t ever fully borne out. There have been many democratic crises in Hong Kong’s recent history that included pushback against Beijing. There was the Umbrella Movement in 2014, when thousands of demonstrators protested attempts to give Beijing more control over the territory’s electoral process.

REPORTER: “The Hong Kong government cracked down by firing 87 tear gas canisters right into the crowd.”

DIFFERENT REPORTER: “Protesters use this ordinarily mundane object, the umbrella, to shield themselves.”

HUNTER-HART: Perhaps the biggest turning point came in 2019, when Hong Kong’s then-chief executive, Carrie Lam, proposed a national security law that would have allowed dissidents to be extradited to the mainland for trial. Many people saw the proposal as a threat to Hong Kong’s ability to make and run its own legal and judicial system. Again, massive protests erupted. Over a million people joined in, and eventually Lam rescinded the proposal.

But the failed law was still a harbinger of things to come. In the following year, 2020, Beijing stepped in directly to create its own national security law for the territory.

REPORTER: “China’s premier defended the decision, saying that the national security laws protect the long-term prosperity of the city.”

DIFFERENT REPORTER: “The unveiling of a national security law for Hong Kong is, to say the least, unnerving this city of more than 7 million and leaves little doubt about who’s in charge.”

HUNTER-HART: So, what is this national security law? This — bear with me here for the name — “Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” Among other things, the law criminalizes acts that are seen as subverting the mainland’s authority. It’s really vague in defining what that means, and it gives Beijing the power to interpret the law, rather than the Hong Kong government. Since its passage, thousands of people have been arrested, including activists, journalists, academics and politicians — many for simply protesting.

Beijing’s exertions of influence over Hong Kong aren’t just limited to arrests and prosecutions. The PRC is also working to spread Chinese nationalism. One recent example is a series of new high school textbooks that will be rolled out this fall, which deny that Hong Kong was ever a British colony. According to Beijing’s version of history, it was just under colonial rule. The PRC refuses to recognize the 1842 treaty that handed over Hong Kong’s sovereignty, because it was a so-called unequal treaty signed under coercion. Of course, that’s kind of the thing about colonies, isn’t it? They are created through coercion. No colonized group welcomes its occupiers with open arms. I recently had a conversation with Nathan Law, a prominent Hong Kong activist who was an Umbrella Movement leader and briefly the youngest-ever elected lawmaker in Hong Kong before he was kicked out of the legislature for taking what was seen as an anti-Beijing oath during his swearing-in. He now lives in self-exile in the U.K. I asked him about this rewriting of history.

LAW: It was basically violating every bit of knowledge that we know. Hong Kong was a British colony, though that is nothing to be proud of, there is nothing to say that, “Oh, it was a good part of history.” Many people do have nostalgia to that period of time. It is not because we got, we think that colonialism is a good thing. We just feel like for now, Hong Kong is just so strange, and we can barely recognize. It’s a fact, we just have to admit that. And it shows how blatant Beijing has been trying to, to, basically lying to Hong Kong people in order to, to have more political control. There has been a long tradition for Beijing to distort history to service political aims.

HUNTER-HART: Law speaks passionately about the changes that have come to the home he can’t inhabit but still loves.

LAW: Hong Kong has basically fallen into authoritarian police state. We have no democracy, we cannot elect our city’s leaders. Most of the seats in the Legislative Council are reserved for Beijing loyalists. And for autonomy, there is no autonomy, because we cannot elect our city’s leader. It does not represent us, it’s just a puppet appointed by Beijing. I think “one country, two system” now is already dead. People will suspect that whether we are in “one country, 1.5 or 1.3 system,” that we will continue to count the digit as it approaches to “one country, one system.”

HUNTER-HART: Law, now 28 years old, was imprisoned for two months in 2017 for storming Hong Kong’s Civic Square during the Umbrella Movement. He fled to London three years later, fearing persecution under the national security law.

LAW: In June 2020, I left Hong Kong a few days before the implementation of the national security law. I could not discuss that decision with any other one. Because that may endanger them. The government may accuse them assisting my departure. And I could not say a proper goodbye to friends and families. And after I left, I needed to issue a public statement saying that I’m severing my ties with my families in order to protect them from political persecution, because in mainland China is almost a common practice for the Beijing government to harass the family members of the dissidents, monitoring them, even incarcerating them. So these are the least things I wanted to happen to my family.

HUNTER-HART: He said he tries not to think too much about when — if ever — he’ll be able to see them again. But he’s not alone. Many other activists have fled abroad, too.

LAW: For us, it’s almost impossible to continue our advocacy work in Hong Kong. So I think I have to leave because I serve for greater purpose. And I can retain a voice on the international level, speaking out for Hong Kong people. We are seeing a growing diaspora community of Hong Kongers in the United Kingdom that spread across the country. And many of them have also a strong desire to continue to participate in the advocacy work and, and raise awareness for Hong Kong issue. There is a sense of responsibility for the people who have left Hong Kong to carry on, to speak up.

HUNTER-HART: Law recently published a book called “Freedom: How We Lose It and How We Fight Back,” in which he writes about the gradual changes he saw and felt in Hong Kong as he left adolescence, far before the recent collapse of parts of the territory’s civil society. He mentions seeing shop staff discriminate against locals, and the promotion of Mandarin instead of Cantonese. Mandarin is the official language of the mainland, whereas Cantonese is dominant in Hong Kong. Here’s how Law describes his political awakening.

LAW: Someone who have come up from a very rough neighborhood, a blue-collar family, a very apolitical family, to someone who started to realize, “Oh, um, there’s something ongoing in this society and and I as a young, young, young citizen in the city, that I should stand up for my rights.” For me, I used to be someone who did not care about politics, you know, care about social issue. And in the year 2008, in the Beijing Olympics, I even cheered for the Chinese national team. And we were so happy that the Chinese — the Chinese national team did fantastically in the Olympics, and we were so proud of our identity. I think in that trajectory of Hong Kong’s erosion of freedom, on the other side is the decay of trust to, to Beijing, and the identity of Hong Kong is rising simultaneously.

HUNTER-HART: Switching gears now, let’s bring in someone who’s still on the ground in Hong Kong: Isabella Ng, founder of the Hong Kong Society for Asylum-Seekers and Refugees and an assistant professor and associate head of the Department of Asian and Policy Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on migration. Isabella, thanks for coming on Asia Stream.

ISABELLA NG: You’re welcome.

HUNTER-HART: So, you’re an academic. I want to start off with a question about education. Hong Kong’s primary and secondary school curricula have been changing in the past few decades in ways meant to encourage Chinese national identity, in particular recently. Is there a similar trend towards Chinese nationalism in academia? What is the academic climate like right now?

NG: I think a lot of people are really anxious. There, there is actually a general fear and anxiety over the Hong Kong population. And especially like when we are teaching, like for me, it’s not that, it’s not that sensitive, because I’m teaching labor migration and gender development. Whereas for colleagues who are teaching political science, right, so how are they going to approach certain subjects and what would be considered to be not sensitive? This is one of the things, and second of all, because of course, it’s to do with the getting research grants. So, academics would start thinking like, “So, am I going to submit those grants? So, would that grant be considered sensitive? Will, you know, and worst thing is, if I submit those grants, and people think they’re really good quality, will I get people in trouble?” And I believe this is going to be a trend. And the thing is what I will be seeing is that you’ll still see good or very good academics coming in doing the kind of research that are deemed not sensitive. The problem comes like there will be, I would say, the kind of limit, limited scope in terms of the areas, like the research areas, the disciplines. Or there will be certain disciplines that will be flourishing, while the others will be gradually in decline.

HUNTER-HART: On a personal level, how have the changes of the past few years affected you?

NG: I think it has affected tremendously my life, I think. In terms of my job, then I have to think about a few things. First of all, is what, what, how am I going to juggle, you know, how am I going to balance the way that I’m researching? I’m working on the irregular migrations, particularly on asylum-seekers and refugee populations. And I’m using different ways studying the group. But then at the same time, we don’t know if this could eventually be deemed breaching the national security law. We don’t know, because this has something to do with justice and human rights. And when we talk about the group, the vulnerable population, that would touch upon social justice and human rights. So how far can the, can the Hong Kong government take research which is about these things? So, so, I have to think very carefully about what, how I should, you know, how I should juggle and balance in terms of my research. The way that I have been doing my work and especially my advocacy work as well, my — given that a lot of NGOs have been, have been deemed problematic. How am I going to balance and just not to, not just about myself, but not to cause any colleagues in trouble? And apart from that, on the personal level, what am I going to do, right? How am I going to take? Am I going to stay for, you know, for long? And what about, you know, when I retire? You know, would, will Hong Kong be still a place I can, I can stay? There are all these questions coming up. And, and I have never been more in doubt about my situation than, you know, actually, these three years. And before I was just thinking, “I’m going to grow old and stay here and, and have a good life, because I really love this place.” But now then I have to be, really think twice about what to do. And the worst thing is, whatever I do is not just about myself, it could, it could affect my colleagues, my university, and also people around me.

HUNTER-HART: Let’s pivot now to the media. Prior to becoming a professor, you were a reporter. You worked as a correspondent for Time. Do you have a sense of how the general populace views Hong Kong media at this point? Do they see it as free, or controlled?

NG: I think people are seeing increasingly it is less free than before. We see what happened to Apple Daily, right, the shutdown of Apple Daily, which has been a controversial newspaper, nonetheless it represent a kind of, like a different voice from, from the kind of new, you know, like other newspapers; some of them are more neutral in their position, while others are more pro-China or pro-, pro-government. And then with Stand News. With those two big giant, you know, symbols of press freedom, actually they have collapsed, we are seeing something is changing dramatically in terms of the news coverage or or even the entire mediascape in Hong Kong, which is unlike before, where you see the different kinds of media flourishing. And now you’re seeing actually, less and less of this kind of diversity could be found in in Hong Kong mediascape.

HUNTER-HART: Thanks, Isabella, and that’s actually a perfect segue. Besides being a financial hub, Hong Kong has long been a media hub — home to the Asia headquarters of places like the AFP, CNN and once the BBC and others.

REPORTER: Welcome to CNN Newsroom, live from Hong Kong.

DIFFERENT REPORTER: International media outlets are considering leaving Hong Kong over the national security law and its restrictions on free speech.

HUNTER-HART: Two decades ago, Hong Kong had the top media freedom ranking in Asia — Reporters Without Borders ranked it No. 18 in the world in 2002 — but now it’s dropped to 148. A lot of the starkest changes have happened in the past year or so, and local media has been specifically targeted. As Ng alluded to, last June, police raided the offices of Apple Daily, the territory’s largest pro-democracy paper. The outlet was forced to shut down shortly afterwards. Stand News was the most influential pro-democracy paper that remained after that, but it was also raided and shut down in December of last year. I recently spoke to Lam Ying-pong, a reporter who worked at Stand News when it was shuttered. He told me about that fateful day. He was working from home but rushed in after getting a call from his colleagues about what was happening. A police officer escorted him to his office.

LAM YING-PONG, GUEST: During the short walk, that officer said, “You can’t move anything, you can’t even talk to each other.” And then I simply ask him, “What? I cannot even talk here? It should be my own freedom.” And then another, sort of an angry officer just shouted me and said, “This guy is not cooperating. Get him out of here.”

HUNTER-HART: Lam went outside and saw a crowd of journalists from other outlets documenting the raid.

LAM: Actually it’s sad and strange when I see so many cameras under my office, because if this is not happening to my own company, I will be among those cameras waiting for people to come out. But now, I just stand aside and observe. And it seems to be not related to me anymore. And I got a feeling like, “Oh, my path as a professional journalist has come to an end.”

HUNTER-HART: But a few months later, Lam decided he couldn’t give up yet.

LAM: The city has be — has become so quiet. It sounds like there are little or even no opposition voices alive. It’s just not OK. Hong Kong shouldn’t be like that. There should be some different voices instead of sound bites of government officials and everything going according to the agenda of the government. So I guess maybe I should give myself another try. OK, and then I evaluate the whole news industry, and I suppose I won’t be employed by any mainstream media anymore because of political risk. And so the logical conclusion is, oh, if I would like to do journalistic work again in Hong Kong in a style that myself believe is right, the only path remain is to set up my own platform.

HUNTER-HART: In April, he launched reNews, an online media outlet that currently has about 70,000 followers. He doesn’t want to put anyone else in danger, so he’s the only employee. That means he does everything himself: reporting, editing, taking photographs, graphic design, etc.

LAM: I’m trying hard. And I hope I’m doing good enough.

HUNTER-HART: Leading media figures have been arrested in Hong Kong, and news outlet shutdowns have rendered an estimated 1,000 people jobless. I asked Lam whether he worries about getting arrested.

LAM: I would say I’m worried, of course, but I’m not very worried, as well, because I’ve been expecting similar things to happen. Actually, after what happened to top management of Apple Daily and Stand News, everybody in Hong Kong understand that if you would like to be a journalist who will, who dare to voice out different views from the government and the authority, you will face the risk of being arrested. It’s something that you have to take into account if you decided to continue. I know it’s going to happen. I just don’t know when.

HUNTER-HART: Increasingly, those who continue the struggle for Hong Kong’s identity are knowingly putting themselves at risk. And that risk doesn’t seem likely to diminish in the short term. July 1 marks not just the anniversary of the British handover but also the day that Hong Kong’s new chief executive will take office: Beijing loyalist John Lee. He was the top security official during the 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations and oversaw the violent crackdown on protesters then. Analysts believe that the Hong Kongers fighting for democracy and resisting Beijing’s influence will find that project even more difficult under his leadership.

KHAN: That was Monica Hunter-Hart, we go now to Alice French, our deputy Big Story editor, for this week’s Tokyo Dispatch.. How have the Hong Kongers who have left continued the fight for autonomy, and preserved their cultural identity, in their new homes? Here’s Alice with more.

FRENCH: Konnichiwa! And welcome to the Tokyo Dispatch, where I’ll be sending regular updates from the narrow streets and neon lights of Tokyo, home to Nikkei HQ and hub for our East Asia coverage. In this week’s Nikkei Asia Big Story, our correspondent in Hong Kong, Pak Yiu, reported on the growing Hong Kong diaspora.

As Hong Kong’s civil freedoms have dwindled, more and more Hong Kongers have chosen to leave the city for good. Journalists, artists and businesspeople have fled the territory in search of a new, more liberal home. In the U.K. alone, more than 60,000 Hong Kongers have already applied for the newly created British National Overseas visa, which has made Hong Kong nationals eligible for British citizenship since January 2021.

In his story, Pak spoke to six Hong Kongers who have recently relocated to Canada, Europe and elsewhere, about how they’re working to keep Hong Kong culture alive in their new locations. I caught up with him to find out more.

So, Pak, as we’ve heard in this episode, the mainland’s crackdown on Hong Kong has resulted in a loss of political freedom for many residents. But as your story covers, it’s not just the right to speak out against the government that Hong Kong has lost. Many Hong Kongers fear an erasure of their cultural identity, too. In which sectors in particular are we seeing this cultural erasure most prominently?

YIU: Yes, Alice, that’s correct. So, all across Hong Kong, there’s different aspects of people’s lives that are being changed. I think most prominently we’re seeing it happen in the arts and creative sector. Artists, filmmakers, musicians, even writers are being very careful of what they say and do. And, as a result, it limits people’s creativity and, you know, critical thinking and discussions. Another aspect that we have yet to see but is probably very likely to come in the near future is Cantonese. In the mainland they speak Mandarin, but in Hong Kong, Cantonese has been the common mother tongue. In the constitution — the Basic Law — it says Chinese and English are the official languages, so it doesn’t exactly state whether or not it’s Mandarin or Cantonese, but you know, looking north of Hong Kong, in the Guangdong region, where Cantonese was once very commonly spoken, they’ve had to resort to speaking Mandarin, and so we should expect Cantonese to become less and less prominent within, you know, pop culture.

FRENCH: Now, your article features a range of Hong Kongers who have fled their home city as a result of these crackdowns. One character that features prominently is Adrianna. Could you tell us a bit about her and how she’s working to keep her culture alive?

YIU: She was born and raised in Hong Kong, and she moved to Canada last year having never been there before. And when she moved there it was because of the national security law and the future that she saw for Hong Kong. And for her, moving was a huge step. Because of this immigration, there’s been all of these different groups that have been created: support networks, community groups for the Hong Kong diaspora, and also community social groups such as Vancouver Activists for Hong Kong, which Adrianna is a part of. And what they’ve decided to do is to organize events, create exhibitions, and to try and really preserve what they value. So, there was a recent Hong Kong fair that was held in Vancouver earlier this year, and I spoke to the organizers who talked about how successful it was — it sold out within days. There were all of these different groups selling different arts and crafts and trinkets. Adrianna and her group did something a little different, and what they did was showcased Hong Kong street food, which is fish balls, and siu mai dumplings. As well as street food, they were also playing, you know, Cantopop songs, which is a very unique genre in Hong Kong.

FRENCH: But it’s not just culture that the Hong Kong diaspora are fighting to preserve, right? They’re also working to amplify the voices of Hong Kongers who can no longer protest on the ground, due to the national security law. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

YIU: So what the overseas diaspora is, they feel like it’s their duty to be able to continue to tell the world about what’s happened in Hong Kong. The general message is that they feel like they are the lucky ones to have been able to leave and that they should take advantage of the privilege that they have, to be able to speak out for the people who can’t leave Hong Kong. And I think protest is an inherent part of a Hong Kongers’ identity. Unlike the mainland, you know, you could protest in Hong Kong. In 2003, there was a very successful protest of 500,000 people which forced the government to shelve a controversial national security law. During the 2019 protests, we saw a million people take to the streets on June 12. And so I think overseas, what a lot of Hong Kong people have done is that they’ve organized protests in their respective cities to mark the anniversary of the protests. And we’ve also seen June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, you know, the diaspora overseas have taken it upon themselves to hold it because the vigil has effectively been banned in Hong Kong.

So I think people do see the news from overseas of people protesting, and I think the general mood is that they are very moved by the efforts of the diaspora. And you do see people here in Hong Kong try, as well. There does tend to be a lone protester here and there, but done in a very, very subtle, low-profile way. But I think the general consensus here is that, whatever they can’t do here in Hong Kong, they do hope that Hong Kongers overseas will be able to represent their voices.

FRENCH: Well, thank you so much, Pak, for talking about this story. I wanted to end, if you don’t mind, on a bit of a personal question. So, you yourself of course are a journalist, living and working in Hong Kong, and I can imagine that you have felt the weight of the crackdown in full force. How have the restrictions affected your work?

YIU: You know, freedom of expression has definitely been restricted here. I personally know people who have been arrested, you know, fellow colleagues at different news organizations have lost their jobs. I started reporting in Hong Kong in 2015, just after the umbrella movement. I was here a few times during the 2014 protests, and you could really see people were very interested and keen to talk to the media. And having moved back in 2020, you know, just as the national security law was introduced, I really got the sense and got to see the transformation for what it’s like to be a journalist. People aren’t as open or keen to speak, the conversations — at least conversations with officials — are extremely scripted, they’re often trying to figure out whether or not you’re on their side, or the other side. And, you know, working for foreign media tends to mean that you’re on the other side. You know, for the time being, we’re still able to do our reporting and we’re still able to talk to people. I think that we’ve got to work within the confines of the national security law.

FRENCH: That was Pak Yiu, speaking from Hong Kong about his Nikkei Asia Big Story on “Hong Kong’s identity in crisis.” You can read the full story on the Nikkei Asia website. And this has been Alice French, with the Tokyo dispatch. Mata kondo!

KHAN: That’s it for Asia Stream this week.

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KHAN: As always, I encourage you to head to Nikkei Asia at asia.nikkei.com for more in-depth coverage of Hong Kong and all things related to Asia. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share, subscribe and leave us a review — and hopefully, a five-star rating! And a last reminder that Nikkei Asia is currently offering an exclusive discount for our podcast listeners. Get three months of our award-winning coverage for just $9. To redeem, just click the link in the episode description. This episode was produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt. I’m your host, Waj Khan.

We’ll stream again in two weeks, but for now, we hope you feel that this episode… smells like stream spirit.

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