The imposition of China's national security law on Hong Kong was a tipping point for many citizens.
In response to China's introduction of a controversial national security law in Hong Kong in 2020, the Australian Government offered visa extensions to more than 10,000 Hong Kong students, temporary graduates and skilled workers. Britain and Canada also offered visa entry programs in response to the new security law.
"It's definitely a light in the darkness for me, especially after going through countless nights of frustration, anxiety, desperation, anger," said Susie*, a 23-year-old Hong Kong student studying in Sydney.
In Australia, existing graduates and skilled workers will be granted an additional five years of working rights on top of time already spent in the country and future students will be eligible for a graduate visa for five years from the degree completion date.
The policy was welcomed by Hong Kongers unnerved by the fast-changing political conditions in the island territory.
In December, on the same day youth activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were jailed after pleading guilty to participating in the 2019 protests, Jimmy Lai, the island's biggest media entrepreneur and fierce pro-democracy advocate, was detained on fraud charges. The crackdown has continued in 2021 with more than 50 pro-democracy advocates arrested in January, accused of trying to "overthrow" the government.
For Susie, who is studying a Master of Occupational Therapy at the University of Sydney, the visa extensions offer a temporary safe haven as she follows events at home, concerned for her personal safety in Hong Kong should she return.
"At least now I can stay longer in Australia after I graduate. I can settle in and I have more time to find a degree-related permanent job here. And most importantly, I don't have to worry [about] my freedom being restricted and taken away by the Chinese Communist Party for now," Susie said.
'People just want to leave [Hong Kong] as soon as possible if they have the financial ability to start over in another country.'
Lily*, 21, an undergraduate studying construction management at the University of New South Wales, completed her degree in December and has changed her plans in response to the Australian Government's offer.
She had not initially planned to stay in Australia after graduation because she thought that her profession did not fit well with the Australian job market, particularly as an international student. However, the political changes in Hong Kong and the opportunity offered by Australia have changed her mind.
"The national security law is really terrifying to me and my family because nobody knows what the Chinese government will do with the law. So, my family kept urging me to have a Plan B. And at the same time, Australia opened a new option for me, so I thought why not take the chance to stay. It's fate maybe," she said with a laugh.
The visa extension also offers a pathway for eligible Hong Kongers to apply for permanent residency at the end of the five-year period. They would still be required to pass a character test and a national security test.
"Although it's not a guarantee, it's still an option to me," said Susie. "After five years, I'll be 28 and hopefully working as an occupational therapist. My age, profession and working experience add at least 40 points to my permanent residency application in five years, so it may shorten the processing time."
However, Karl Konrad, founder of Australian Immigration Law Services said the value of the visas was limited because, without an assurance of residency, they did not provide long-term protection to Hong Kongers. "We acknowledge it is a generous offer to those Hong Kong citizens who are currently in Australia," he said via a YouTube video when the government policy was announced. "We wish our government could have offered more and hopefully will do so in the future, although the Australian government may feel overcommitted on so many fronts."
The visa opportunity will also benefit Australia. In the economic recession triggered by the impact of COVID-19, unemployment rose to 7.5 per cent in July but as the country emerges from the downturn (50,000 new jobs were created in December and unemployment fell back to 6.6 per cent), skilled migrants will be vital to boosting productivity and consumption.
As well as Australia, Britain and Canada have offered special arrangements to Hong Kong citizens.The former is offering Hong Kong residents who hold a British National Overseas (BNO) passport (offered to Hong Kongers born before British rule ended in 1997) the right to remain in Britain for five years and then apply for citizenship. Eligible applicants can apply, with their close relatives, using a Hong Kong BNO visa. In January, China announced it would no longer recognise BNO passports as valid travel or identification documents from this month onward.
Canada's plan focuses on attracting younger Hong Kongers, through its Young Talents Scheme, mainly targeting those aged between 18 and 23 who do not have a BNO.
For Susie, Australia appeals to both she and her family because of its multiculturalism and close geographical proximity to Hong Kong.
For Lily, Australia is the preferred destination because she has already been here five years and it will be more comfortable to stay in a country with which she is familiar. Despite this, she thinks Britain's offer may prove more attractive to most Hong Kongers because it allowed them to stay in the country without applying for a residency visa and to bring their families along with them.
The Hong Kong people's desire to move overseas can be seen in the sudden jump in net population outflow, with more than 29,200 people leaving the city permanently in 2019, according to the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department. In 2018 there was a net population inflow of 20,400.
The Australian Department of Home Affairs recorded a spike in the number of Hong Kong people applying for refugee and humanitarian permanent visas in 2019, double that of the previous year. It is expected to continue to rise with the ongoing unrest and the implementation of China's national security law.
"People just want to leave [Hong Kong] as soon as possible if they have the financial ability to start over in another country," Lily said.
The popular dissatisfaction (with political control by Beijing) first emerged in three months of street protests, called The Umbrella Revolution, in 2014. Since then, Hong Kong had seen an increasingly vocal pro-democracy movement. Conflict stirred again in June 2019 when Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced an Extradition Bill, allowing Chinese authorities to extradite Hong Kong citizens to China.
This act triggered backlash as it violated the 1997 Sino-British Joint Declaration which outlined Hong Kong's relative independence in political, judicial and economic systems from mainland China. The Extradition Bill was withdrawn in September 2019 but the public outcry did not end there.
The relationship between many Hong Kongers and the governments of Hong Kong and China has continued to deteriorate. In 2020, as the world struggled to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party announced the introduction of the national security law in Hong Kong in the name of strengthening China's national defences. The law allows Chinese authorities to prosecute dissidents and suppress protests or any activities against the Chinese authority. (Despite this, Hong Kong leader Lam insisted the city's freedom was not at stake.)
The announcement of the law in late May was condemned by world leaders, including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and then United States President Donald Trump, both criticising China's intervention in Hong Kong local affairs and expressing concerns about the escalating risk of political persecutions in the city.
"I was really stressed about staying in Hong Kong since August , a place I usually call home but [it] didn't feel like one in recent months. It's no longer the Hong Kong I was proud of in terms of its unique democracy and international status," said Susie. "It's really scary."
Susie's fears were justified. Within a month of the national security law coming into effect on July 1, the Hong Kong Government issued arrest warrants for six pro-democracy activists for breaching the national security law, stating that there was evidence that they were colluding with foreign forces. It is believed that these people were wanted because they advocated for Hong Kong's independence from mainland China in the past.
A disheartened Lily described the arrests as "a big hit to Hong Kong's democracy and Hong Kongers' determination to fight for liberty". She hopes the Australian Government will be lenient when considering refugee and humanitarian applications from Hong Kongers. It is too early to know how many will apply to come to Australia in 2021 to study and work. For now, the international borders remain closed to all but returning Australians.
However, no matter how things develop in Hong Kong, for existing Hong Kong visa holders in Australia, the offer to extend those visas to five years is a silver lining which gives them hope.
*Names have been changed to allow interviewees to speak openly on a sensitive issue.