It was in the early 1970s, on the eve of the Mid-Autumn Festival, when my father, without telling his family and friends, fled his birthplace in China by sneaking onto an overnight cargo train transporting crates of pears to the then-British colony of Hong Kong.
When he heard the songs of Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng, whose music was at the time banned in China, being played on board the train, he realised he had arrived in Hong Kong.
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He jumped off the moving train somewhere in the countryside, made his way to the city centre, and took advantage of the touch-base policy rolled out by the colonial government that allowed undocumented immigrants from China to remain in Hong Kong if they managed to dodge security measures in the countryside to reach urban areas. He thought he had finally escaped the clutches of the repressive Chinese Communist Party for good and was free to build a new life for himself in one of the most thriving economies in Asia.
Earlier this year, however, my father and I had to leave post-colonial Hong Kong to flee the very same regime whose repressive policies led my father to sneak onto that cargo train half a century ago.
In recent years, the Chinese government has tightened its grip on what was supposed to be an autonomous finance centre and launched a series of crackdowns on dissidents in the Special Administrative Region.
As a Hong Kong-born journalist, I experienced first-hand the gradual erosion of our civil liberties and autonomy in blatant violation of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration – the treaty which supposedly set the conditions for Hong Kong’s transfer from British to Chinese control.
The situation became especially bad after Beijing imposed a new, draconian national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020. Under the law, designed to restrict freedom of expression and repress political opposition, broadly defined offences of “secession”, “subversion”, “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces” incur maximum penalties of life imprisonment.
The law had a chilling effect on the most basic civil liberties of Hong Kong residents and made it almost impossible for journalists like me to do their jobs.
Earlier this month, almost half (46 percent) of 99 Hong Kong-based journalists polled anonymously by the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club said they were considering or had plans to leave the city due to the decline in press freedom under the national security law. Meanwhile, 84 percent of respondents said working conditions in the city have deteriorated, and 56 percent admitted to self-censoring since the passage of the law.
But the law’s effect was not limited to stifling press freedom. Countless activists and pro-democracy lawmakers, some of whom I talked to regularly during my five-year stint in journalism in Hong Kong, are either in jail or self-exile. In October, human rights NGO Amnesty International announced its decision to close its two offices in Hong Kong by the end of 2021, citing concerns for the safety of its staff due to the same law.
The Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (LegCo), the power centre of Hong Kong’s deeply flawed representative democracy, is now free to do China’s bidding without any meaningful opposition. According to LegCo President Andrew Leung, the legislature had passed 46 government bills over the past year, more than double the number from the year before. “The clouds are finally cleared and we can now see the blue sky,” Leung said of the efficiency of the legislature following the enactment of the national security law and the consequent exodus of opposition lawmakers.
The Chinese government has also started to use Hong Kong’s schools to subdue what it calls the city’s “rebellious youth”. Children as young as six are required to learn about the national security law and teachers are asked to report any behaviour “supportive of pro-democracy movements”. All schools are required to fly the Chinese flag at all times and conduct weekly flag-raising ceremonies starting from 2022 “to promote national education and help students develop a sense of belonging to the country, an affection for the Chinese people and enhance their sense of national identity”.
The independent judiciary should have been Hong Kong’s last line of defence, but judges are finding it increasingly difficult to uphold judicial independence and protect the rights of the city’s residents. The judges who return verdicts not favourable to Chinese interests are regularly targeted by Chinese state media and pro-Beijing loyalists. District Judge Sham Siu-man, who acquitted 14 pro-democracy protesters in two separate cases in 2019, for example, quickly became the target of an intimidation campaign by Chinese nationalists. “Don’t let Siu-man get away with this,” they commented online. Sham, 59, has since applied for early retirement and is reportedly planning to migrate to the United Kingdom with his family.
In my last few years living in Hong Kong, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was in a police state. Since the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests, the police presence on Hong Kong streets has been heavier than ever before. Even though mass protests have now come to an end, groups of police officers are often seen patrolling train stations, outside government buildings and areas that were central to past protests. Especially for young people, being stopped and searched by the police is a common occurrence.
The yellow economic circle – a system of classifying businesses based on their support or opposition to the 2019 protests, with pro-democracy shops labelled as “yellow” and pro-police ones as “blue” – is still active. But many only use cash when they shop within the yellow circle to avoid leaving a record of their purchase and potentially being targeted by the security forces. Moreover, after the passage of the national security law, some pro-democracy businesses started to distance themselves from the circle due to concerns over persecution. As a result, just like the future of Hong Kong, the future of the yellow economic circle is highly uncertain.
In light of all this, like many others, I took the difficult decision to leave Hong Kong and start a new chapter of my life in the UK.
“We will miss you,” my friends said to me as I hugged them goodbye at the Hong Kong airport. Next to me was a girl crying on the shoulder of her father and waving goodbye to her cousin. Meanwhile, a grandmother was handing out red packets symbolising good luck to her grandchildren who were due to get on a flight to the UK. The parents looked as if they were struggling to hold back tears.
These heart-breaking scenes were not an anomaly – almost every day people are saying goodbye to their loved ones at the Hong Kong airport to escape the clutches of the Chinese Communist Party.
Hong Kong leader, Carrie Lam, however, seems undisturbed by the fact that the city’s residents are escaping in their thousands. She claims that similar “emigration trends” have been seen in Hong Kong’s history many times before, and insists the semi-autonomous region has a prosperous future ahead.
But if Lam really looked at the history of Hong Kong, she would realise the city she is governing has never seen such a large population decline since records began in 1961. The population of Hong Kong dropped to 7.39 million in mid-2021 from 7.48 million a year before. The net outflow of Hong Kong residents was a whopping 89,200 in mid-2021.
“I thought I escaped from it 50 years ago, but now it caught up with me,” my father said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party, as our plane left Hong Kong soil.
Today, we are once again free. But it is impossible to say when – if ever – those we left behind in Hong Kong will be able to enjoy freedom and democracy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.