On December 2, prominent activists Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam, and Agnes Chow were sentenced to between seven and 13-and-a-half months in prison on protest-related charges. The next day, pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui announced that he has gone into exile in Europe.

In his public statement, Hui insisted: “Going into exile is not emigration. I will never emigrate. Hong Kong is my home and I can never put down roots anywhere else. This is also a reason why I have not applied for asylum in any country.”

Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam unauthorised assembly
Photo: Studio Incendo.

While asylum and emigration implies the desire to create a new home, Hui’s insistence on going into exile without seeking asylum expresses his longing for a home he cannot return to.

Groups of activists before Hui have sought asylum or become political refugees in Taiwan, Germany, Britain, the US and other places. Others have tried in vain to escape.

Student activist Tony Chung was arrested and charged with secession after failing to enter the US Consulate to seek asylum. Twelve Hongkongers trying to flee to Taiwan by sea were apprehended by Chinese authorities and remain in detention on the mainland without due process.

These stories are not unique to prominent activists. Rather, they represent the different futures in store for Hongkongers who supported last year’s pro-democracy movement. All of these outcomes reveal that under the National Security Law, home can no longer be taken for granted, as for many Hongkongers, it is elusive and deeply contested. 


Between June 2019 and early November of this year, 10,148 people were arrested for protest-related reasons. More than 2,300 of them have been charged and over 500 have been sentenced to jail terms — some as long as six years. A large number of Hongkongers, in other words, have either sacrificed their freedom for last year’s pro-democracy struggle or know someone who has.

October 1 Police cordon causeway bay
Photo: Tam Ming Keung/HKFP.

The banner unfurled by protesters on the first day after the National Security Law (NSL) came into force encapsulates why so many Hongkongers have chosen to put their bodies and futures on the line: “We Really Fucking Love Hong Kong.” Last year protesters, especially young frontliners, repeatedly articulated the need to protect and defend their only home. Their vision of home, unfortunately, does not align with the political agenda of Beijing and the Hong Kong government. Their acts of love are rendered criminal.

Emigration and exile

Since the security law abruptly went into force on June 30, Taiwan and Western countries have begun discussing or implementing asylum policies and citizenship pathways for Hongkongers who face imminent persecution or find their city no longer livable.

In July British Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced a path to citizenship for holders of the British National (Overseas) passport. The number of BNO passport-holders jumped from 169,000 last year to a projected 733,000 by the end of 2020.

BNO passport
File photo: Jimmy Lam/United Social Press.

While immigration and asylum policies offer Hongkongers a chance to resettle, those who flee may still struggle without a stable home. In addition to a deep sense of isolation, loneliness, and guilt, dissidents who are in exile can continue to face harassment from Chinese nationalists.

In addition, Covid-19 has heightened existing anti-Asian and anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK, Australia, the US, and other European countries. As they flee political persecution, Hong Kong immigrants and refugees may have to contend with racism.

Those who stay

Emigration and political asylum are options for a relatively small number of Hong Kong movement supporters, given the complexity and demands of both. The asylum, refugee and immigration processes in the US and Canada, for example, are notoriously complex and difficult.

For those who do not qualify for asylum, most emigration policies are designed to attract mainly middle-upper-class or educated Hongkongers with university degrees. Working-class youth activists who have yet to complete high school, in other words, will be left behind.

Dissidents who do not qualify for asylum and lack the means to emigrate will have to endure the constant fear of being apprehended and charged by a judicial system that no longer delivers justice. Despite remaining in Hong Kong they can never truly relax in their own home.

arrested protesters causeway bay 1 July 2020
Photo: inmedia.net via CC2.0.

While there are Hongkongers who want to leave but can’t, there are also those who make the conscious decision to stay. As Karen Cheung wrote, “We will continue to make a home out of an imperfect place. To wipe down the mould, repaint the walls. One day we could be forcibly evicted, or this could all burn to the ground. But for now, we’re still here. Maybe we can still try to make this place beautiful.”

An always elusive home

This is not the first time Hong Kong has experienced an exodus. After the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre shattered hopes for a democratised China, Hongkongers were eager to emigrate or acquire passports to countries they had barely heard of. If things went sour after the handover in 1997, they would at least have another home to go to.

Now the National Security Law has changed the socio-political and cultural landscape of Hong Kong.

For Hongkongers, home has always been elusive — contingent not on our collective will and desire but on the whims and political vision of those in power.

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Shui-yin Sharon Yam is an Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Inconvenient Strangers: Transnational Subjects and the Politics of Citizenship.