Hong Kong, China – While teaching in Hong Kong in 2011, filmmaker Ying Liang was banned from going home to mainland China after making a documentary on a Beijing mother trying to save her son from the death penalty.
Ten years since becoming an accidental immigrant, Ying strives to take advantage of the city’s freedoms to the fullest, even as they have come under threat from the National Security Law and the ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy politicians and activists.
Just last month, Ying screened the offending film to two dozen viewers at an arts hub.
“We need to cherish our freedom while we still have it,” he told Al Jazeera.
For most Hong Kong-born residents, the law has put a damper on the liberties they have long taken for granted under “one country, two systems,” the framework under which the former British colony was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
China had promised the territory “a high degree of autonomy” for at least 50 years.
Before Beijing’s interference over the past year, residents in the territory were free to protest against the authorities and organise political parties to stand in elections.
But for mainland migrants who have embraced the freedoms they never enjoyed growing up, the backsliding into a more repressive form of governance is stirring fear and anxiety.
“I think the crackdown will come down harder and stronger than what you’d typically see in the mainland, better to scare everyone,” said Ying, the documentary filmmaker, who is 34.
“This wasn’t something I experienced growing up in Shanghai.”
As a father of three, including a two-month old baby, Ying says he is most concerned about the government’s push for patriotic education.
“What I find most unsettling is what’s going on in schools,” he said. “While I don’t think every kid would come out totally brainwashed, I know from my experience how this will mark you for life. It makes you fearful of caring about politics. When the students came out to protest, there was still hope for this city.”
For most of the past century, Hong Kong was hailed as the “promised land” for millions of Chinese, both from the mainland and the diaspora.
Even as China was torn asunder by countless cataclysms – regime change, military invasion, world war, civil war, famines and political purges – the British colony stood out as an island of relative calm and opportunity.
After successive waves of immigration from the mainland, only slightly over half of the city’s 7.5 million people are native-born.
And since the handover, more than one million mainland Chinese have migrated to Hong Kong under a family reunification scheme.
In a 2016 study on the new arrivals, Hong Kong’s political scientists found that “the immigrants from China are in general more politically conservative and more supportive of the pro-Beijing ruling coalition in elections.”
But not all.
This is why those "RIP Hong Kong" headlines annoy me.
It's because folks like @HongKongCTU's Mung Siu Tat are very much alive: "the best way to protect our rights is to exercise them as far as we can. The focus of 'save one breath; light one lamp' is to light the lamp" pic.twitter.com/2EjoyQj4BD
— Yuen Chan (@xinwenxiaojie) April 24, 2021
Flora Chen, 35, has spent the past 10 years outside her native China and had sworn off ever going back
A job at a university brought her to Hong Kong, which she saw as “as an alternative Chinese society where law and order and social norms are protected by institutions.
“For the generations of mainland Chinese liberals marked by Tiananmen, the vigil in Hong Kong [shone] like a beacon of hope,” said Chen, wistfully.
Nowhere else on Chinese soil was the commemoration of the 1989 crackdown permitted.
But last year, for the first time ever, the Hong Kong government banned the annual vigil citing COVID-19 risks. The organisers, as well as some of the thousands who defied the ban, now face prosecution.
After arriving in 2018, Chen took part in the anti-government protests a year later. As an academic in social sciences, Chen said her research is equally “socially engaged”.
What worries her the most is that shrinking academic freedom will stifle her scholarship.
“As mainlanders we know how real the fear is. We learned to be cautious and watch what we say,” Chen told Al Jazeera.
“But now I can start noticing fear on my students’ face. Their faces are marked with anger and hurt, by power.”
Even as China’s economy has taken off over the past quarter of a century, Hong Kong has retained its allure for many mainland residents as a land of opportunity, undergirded by a rules-based system that is fairer than the one that they are used to.
Outside the family visa scheme, the largest contingent of mainland migrants has come for higher education.
Postgraduate programmes at all local universities are now dominated by mainland students who take advantage of the opportunities on offer in the territory once they graduate.
When leaving her native city just 300 kilometres (186 miles) away to pursue a master’s degree in media studies in Hong Kong, Jacqueline Zhang, thought she would be away for only a couple of years.
But nearly 10 years later, 32-year-old Zhang says she enjoys living in a society where fair play and transparency are the norm. In the mainland, she says, it is “guanxi” – a network of connections and family ties – that matter and accountability is rare.
As Hong Kong has come under the thumb of Beijing, Zhang says the “fear is compounded” for mainland residents who have family and friends north of the border.
Authorities are known to harass the relatives of mainland Chinese who are politically active, hoping to use the leverage of family pressure to rein in these “troublemakers.”
Zhang says she knows a good number of fellow mainland Chinese in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong, fearing their political participation has landed them on a watch list. They worry any trip home might trigger an exit ban that might bar them from ever travelling out of the country again.
A former journalist, Zhang is not sure if she is on any watch list but says she does not want to take the chance.
For now, she has found comfort and camaraderie in the “tribe” she has found in Hong Kong – people who are not afraid to discuss so-called taboo subjects and recoil at the idea of censorship.
“Freedom and the rule of law are like air. You don’t feel it as much while it’s there,” said Zhang.
“You feel it only after it’s taken away from you.”
*Names have been changed for security reasons.