The harsh new national security law has cast a shadow over Hong Kong, but the threat of Covid-19 is still big enough to keep many New Zealanders in Hong Kong from leaving. The Spinoff spoke to four people living in Hong Kong during a time of historic upheaval.
On June 30 a draconian new national security law was enacted in Hong Kong intended to counter secession, subversion, terrorism, and “collusion with foreign forces”. Critics say the wide-ranging law will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and the right to protest, making it much easier for the Chinese government to punish protestors and prevent criticism of its policies. Beijing has the final say in how the law should be interpreted, rather than any Hong Kong-based body.
It’s all concerning stuff, but many New Zealanders in Hong Kong aren’t keen to leave; to them, Covid-19 is an equally terrifying prospect.
In October last year, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam banned the wearing of face masks, which were worn by people trying to avoid tear gas and dodge surveillance cameras during the long-running protests against the Chinese government. In April of this year, almost four months after Covid-19 had reached the country, the mask ban was largely upheld by authorities despite health experts recommending otherwise; the ban was widely ignored by citizens. Following a recent uptick in cases, the government has now reversed course and made mask wearing mandatory.
Despite the authorities’ early reluctance on masks, Hong Kong’s efforts against Covid-19 have been largely successful. There have been only 14 deaths in the nearly six months since the virus’s arrival – eight fewer than in New Zealand, despite a 50% larger population and a 30km land border with China. The local government closed borders early on and required all arrivals to quarantine from mid-March. The vast majority of citizens wore face masks at all times, and those in quarantine were equipped with mandatory geo-fenced bracelets to avoid escapes.
Ruby*, a dual citizen of Hong Kong and New Zealand, said the dangers of the pandemic have made her reluctant to leave Hong Kong, despite the new national security law. “I feel much safer in a country like Hong Kong that has dealt with outbreaks before [like SARS]. We also have a much better sense of community responsibility here, so I trust that my neighbour or colleague would do the right thing and take the situation seriously.”
Dylan*, a New Zealander in Hong Kong on a working visa, agreed Covid-19 was a strong incentive to stay in Hong Kong. “They were leagues ahead of the rest of the world with masks, sanitiser, and so on,” he said. “Considering our proximity to the epicentre [Wuhan], I was surprised and stoked we haven’t had it worse, though I suppose it’s an old hang up from the SARS days.”
The 2003 SARS outbreak was especially destructive in Hong Kong, where the virus took the lives of almost 300 people.
“Besides Taiwan, Hong Kong was probably the best place to be [during Covid-19],” said Dylan. “Hongkongers were masking up in January, before the virus arrived in Hong Kong and before the government made any statements about it.
“Hongkongers look out for each other. They have to, because no one else ever has.”
Ruby said the new security law will affect New Zealand-based family members who intended on retiring to Hong Kong. “I don’t think I would be comfortable with that decision anymore and am now looking into other options for them,” she said. “I never thought it would happen overnight.”
Ellen*, a New Zealander in Hong Kong on a dependant visa, says she thinks about going home all the time. “It’s a strange feeling to have missed funerals, birthdays, and other special events. I understand why, and I am so fortunate compared to others who have been fighting to get home for genuinely compelling reasons.”
She said the dialogue around returning New Zealanders – including the news that returnees may soon by required to pay for their time in managed isolation – is upsetting. “Something that hurts to read is when people comment that expatriates deserve to be locked out because they’ve abandoned their country to chase money,” she said.
“Fuck that. I paid taxes for 15 years, and I haven’t abandoned anything. I’m overseas to try and pay off my student loan, and save money for my first home in New Zealand because wages aren’t rising in line with the cost of living, and it’s impossible to get ahead there.”
Ellen understands that the new security law will change her life in Hong Kong significantly. “I am now forbidden to express an opinion about [the law],” she said. “The punishment would be swift and severe. It’s as simple as that.”
The UK responded to the law by extending the privileges held by British National (Overseas) passport holders; in 1997, Hong Kong citizens were given these as a way to allay fears about the handover. UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab said BN(O) passport holders will now be able to live and work in the UK for up to five years, and be able to apply for settled status and then citizenship at the end of that period.
On Monday, Raab announced a suspension of its extradition treaty with Hong Kong alongside an extension of its arms embargo on China. Economic sanctions could seriously impact the future of Hong Kong, which has become a global financial hub over the past few decades.
Here in New Zealand, foreign minister Winston Peters has said he will monitor the impact of the legislation’s effect on Hong Kong residents and conduct a review of our country’s relationship with Hong Kong .
Dylan said that to people who live in Hong Kong, Peters’ words are little more than lip service. “I think New Zealand, and the rest of the world, needs to take a good look at what China is doing not just to the people of Hong Kong, but to the people in Xinjiang and all the other blatant disregards for international law,” he said. “Condemnations clearly aren’t working and there needs to be something more concrete before anything changes.
“It breaks my heart that in one fell swoop China crushed their freedom and the world stood by and said ‘please don’t’.”
Kate* is a Hong Kong citizen born before the 1997 handover. During a visit to Tibet in her early 20s, she realised the political situation of her country. “Nobody was talking about what was happening there; no one outside of Asia understood. It was like the world not only forgot Tibet existed, but they were purposefully turning a blind eye,” she said.
“I realised then that what had happened to Tibet could easily happen to Hong Kong, and the thought terrified me.”
Kate’s family is from mainland China, and her father is one of those who fled from China to Hong Kong via the Shenzen border during the cultural revolution in an event termed “The Great Exodus”. He doesn’t talk about it much; the family avoids political discussions.
Now a pro-democracy activist, Kate has been closely monitoring global responses to the implementation of Hong Kong’s national security law. She said while she’s grateful for words of support from New Zealanders, petitions likely won’t make a difference. “China is not a country that will back down just because it’s under pressure, nor are they open to self-reflection or critique,” she said. “They need to have concrete actions.”
Kate said sanctions against government officials and corporations that support China’s actions could be more effective than a petition. “Freeze any assets and funds these individuals and corporations have in their jurisdiction,” she said.
“If the rest of the world takes protection of human rights even halfway seriously, it must prepare to punish China with their actions, otherwise there will be more and more victims.”
*Names have been changed to protect interviewees from the new law.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.