HONG KONG – Pamela Lam’s 6-year-old son fell in love with the Hong Kong protest anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong,” the first time he heard it, and he loves singing it, at home, in the shower, and sometimes on the streets.
A sweeping new national security law, though, has made singing it in public risky. As China's Communist leaders tighten controls that many believe are stripping semi-autonomous Hong Kong of its freedoms, some families are considering leaving the former British colony, but few can afford to do so.
After Britain said in May that it would allow holders of British National (Overseas) passports extended stays and a path to citizenship, thousands of Hong Kongers rushed to renew or apply for them.
That may be an option for relatively affluent Hong Kongers, who often have been educated overseas and hold multiple passports, but it is not for most of the territory's 7 million residents.
One in five Hong Kong families scrapes by below the poverty line in a city with one of the biggest populations of billionaires, many of whom are tycoons who carved out lucrative niches in manufacturing, trade, property development and finance.
“I’ve thought about moving to Australia, or the U.K., but we don’t have the financial ability to do it now,” said Lam, who has a BNO passport.
“We don’t have to worry about putting food on the table or the clothes on our backs, but there isn’t much room for more," said Lam, a freelance designer whose family’s monthly income is about $4,300.
Most people in most countries either cannot or would not consider moving away to escape their governments. But many living in Hong Kong chose to escape the communist mainland or descend from people who did.
Lam’s parents fled from China in the 1970s, seeking a better life free from political chaos and poverty. She joined peaceful mass protests last year and is among many younger Hong Kong residents who grew up counting on the enclave’s freedoms and hoping for greater, not less democracy.
Beijing promised Hong Kong 50 years of a “one-country, two-systems” arrangement granting the city its own customs territory and legal system after the 1997 handover. They are underpinned by western-style civil liberties, such as the right to public dissent, that are rarely allowed on the Chinese mainland.
Even moving to nearby Taiwan, a self-governed island democracy that China claims as its own territory, would be a stretch financially, Lam says.
In early July, Taiwan opened an office to help Hong Kongers interested in studying, working or starting a business to move to the island. The office said it had received over 1,000 inquiries as of July 27, mostly related to emigration.
For many families, it’s a “very tough life” in Hong Kong, especially if they have mortgages to pay off, said Paul Yip, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s department of social work. He puts the number of Hong Kongers enjoying a Western-style middle class life and likely able to afford emigration at about 10% of the population.
It’s unclear how many in Hong Kong might be considering moving.
Hong Kong police say the number of people requesting a certificate of no convictions — often required to apply for visas — jumped 53% between 2014, the year an earlier round of protests called the Umbrella Revolution took place, and 2019.
As of December 2019, the number of people holding valid BNO passports was 314,779, according to the U.K., more than double four years earlier. Those who qualify can apply for visas enabling them and their immediate family members to live and work in the U.K. and eventually apply for citizenship, the British government says. However, they must show they have the means to support themselves in the U.K. for six months, and will not be entitled to public support.
As a freewheeling capitalist enclave, Hong Kong's population includes nearly 732,000 expatriates in the territory.
Globetrotting bankers and other executives tend to arrive with a promise of tickets onward or back home already paid for. The more than 400,000 migrant workers who work in the city and send money home to families in the Philippines and Indonesia also usually have contracts providing them passage home.
But saving up enough to pack up and build a new life elsewhere may be nearly impossible for most living in a city where buying an apartment costs an average of nearly $32,000 per square meter and the median monthly wage is 18,200 Hong Kong dollars ($2,348).
It would cost between 10,000-15,000 pounds ($13,000-$19,000) for a family of three to relocate to Britain, including visas, flights, ground transport and deposits to rent an apartment, said Evgeny Pavlov, managing director for Mann’s Solutions, an immigration law firm based in Britain.
That's excluding costs to move household goods.
Relocation inquiries to Pavlov's firm have grown by five to six times in the past two months. Most were from young professionals, entrepreneurs or investors, he said.
The increase coincided with the enactment of the security law, imposed by Beijing after the mass protests that began last year, triggered by proposed extradition legislation that could have resulted in Hong Kong people facing trial in mainland Chinese courts.
The bill eventually was withdrawn after demonstrations escalated with demands for more democracy and government accountability, sometimes turning violent.
May Cheung, a divorcee in her 50s with two grown children, also dreams of moving away, to Taiwan. But since she earns just over 10,000 Hong Kong dollars ($1,280) a month working at a church, barely enough to get by, she is resigned to staying, but not to giving up on rights she cherishes.
She joined thousand of others in July 1 protests against the national security law and says she intends to keep demonstrating.
“What I know about this national security law is that it makes a totalitarian government even more totalitarian,” she said. “There is no freedom, you can see for yourself — even speech is restricted.”
The government says the security law targets only a small number of people who engage in secessionist and subversive behavior. But it has arrested scores of people. It also criminalized the popular protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time” — a phrase included in the protest anthem. The education bureau has banned the song.
Lam worries that pro-democracy speech, and even her son’s singing of the song he likes so much he learned to say it in sign language, might be considered subversive and punished. She says she plans to educate her son about the issues they face.
“I believe that thought is free,” Lam said. “He may just be a child, but he has a sense of right from wrong.”
“We can’t be the first to cut ourselves off, or self-censor.”