Residents fearing China’s tightening grip are departing in droves, not knowing if they will be back

It was a heartbreaking scene. A family get-together on a Sunday morning, not for a leisurely lunch at a traditional Chinese restaurant, but for a tearful farewell at the airport.

Amid the Covid pandemic, Hong Kong airport is quiet except for twice a day, when long queues form at airlines’ desks for London-bound flights. Friends and families turn out in droves to see them off – grandparents hand out “lucky money” in red envelopes to grandchildren, aunts and uncles joke with children to lighten the otherwise melancholic mood. With tearful eyes, many stop for a final hug and pose for one last photo with their loved ones before passing through the departure gates. The waving continues long after they have disappeared from view.

Wearing a yellow face mask – the color symbolizing resistance in the city’s 2019 pro-democracy movement – one young woman, who gave her name like Charlie, was among those waving goodbye to her friends. She said she was going to the UK to study to be a psychologist and was unlikely to return.

They are among the tens of thousands of people taking up the British government’s offer of a route to citizenship after China imposed the draconian national security law on its former colony a year ago. The Home Office expects up to 153,000 people with British national (overseas) status and their dependents to arrive in the UK in the first year, and up to 322,000 over five years. According to Home Office statistics, 34,300 people applied in the first two months after applications for BNO visas opened at the end of January, with 20,600 from outside the country.

Hong Kong’s population declined by 1.2% in the past year, including nearly 90,000 more residents departing than moving to the city, government figures released on Thursday showed. The population decrease to 7,394,700 continues the largest fall since the city began keeping comparable records in 1961.

A surge in withdrawals from the city’s mandatory pension fund due to permanent departure also suggested many were leaving for good. According to official figures, in the first quarter of this year, Hong Kong residents planning to leave permanently applied to withdraw HK$1.93bn (£180m) from their MPF accounts – a surge of 49% year-on-year.

-The Guardian