The city of Lviv, now in western Ukraine and said to be very beautiful, has had the misfortune of an interesting history. At various times in the past it has been called Lemberg, Lemberik, Lwow or Lvov.
A change of name usually signalled a change in political ownership. And this change, if there was time to think about it, posed a question to the inhabitants: to leave or to stay.
Unfortunately this usually involved a great deal of uncertainty about the practical prospects, and a range of subordinate questions, some of which had no obvious answer. Will people like me be killed, enslaved, or deported, will my religion still be acceptable, may I continue to speak my mother tongue and may my children be taught in it, will I still be able to work in my present job, will there be law and order and if there is will it be fair?
This sort of dilemma seems very alien to Hong Kong expats, most of whom come from stable democracies which have not been invaded for a century or two. It will be all too familiar to some locals; I used to know several musicians who had fled Indonesia at a time of anti-Chinese pogroms, only to land in the mainland just in time for the Cultural Revolution.
Well, if it seems alien to you it’s time to get used to it. Choices of this kind were familiar in the 20th century and one of their features was that delay was sometimes expensive or even fatal. Those who failed to make an early getaway from the then-Czechoslovakia in 1948 found themselves in the Soviet bloc for the next 40 years. Citizens of East Berlin could simply walk to freedom until the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. After that, attempted emigration could get you shot.
Similarly those who failed to make a timely exit from Shanghai in 1949 discovered (if they were not shot as counter-revolutionaries) that after liberation they were no longer free to leave, or were allowed to leave but could take no belongings with them.
I was talking the other day to a Hongkonger of Jewish ancestry, and he was acutely aware of the need for timely choices in this matter. Some of his ancestors paid with their lives for failing to read accurately the political tealeaves in Central Europe.
And this brings us to Hong Kong, where it is clear that great changes are in progress. It is of course far too early to say whether they will quickly, or ever, reach a stage where it becomes difficult to get away, or at least to take your winnings with you.
The thought that this is one possible destination, though, adds some urgency to the matter. This seems to be more recognised abroad than it is here. I was still digesting the new national security law when the first offers of a temporary home in the UK arrived, closely followed by a warm endorsement from my brother of the Malaysian government’s scheme for elderly immigrants.
You can choose between two theories about what is going on now. One holds that the heat is being turned up gradually so that the frog will stay in the pot until it is cooked. The other is that the softly, softly approach has been abandoned and our landlord would be quite happy if we all got BNOs and migrated to Scunthorpe, to be replaced by a similar number of loyal and well-behaved mainlanders.
What you cannot do, it seems to me, is seriously to argue that nothing is happening. There is a certain delightful irony in the fact that this manifest untruth is printed in newspapers which can barely squeeze the news in between full-page advertisements for properties in desirable destinations.
It was possible for some years to argue that “50 years without change” was a dynamic concept, in which a gradual and inevitable increase in the soft radiation from the Liaison Office would be balanced by a gradual increase in local democracy and control over our government. Well that is clearly not going to happen.
The change is naturally more evident in some areas than others. Journalism is in a precarious state. The future for lawyers looks murky. I am glad I am no longer working in the education business, which is clearly going to get the full Holy Inquisition treatment any time now.
Foreigners may feel that this has nothing to do with them. You can still be outspoken in English, as long as you are not a teacher. And they can go somewhere else at the drop of an alarming rumour.
On the other hand they are all potential hostages if their home government annoys our imperial authorities. I would personally be a bit concerned if I had an Australian passport just now.
So we all have to consider: will the end be quick or will it be slow, and at what point will it become difficult or impossible to leave?
There are no tempting choices in this situation. Emigration is always a painful wrench and happy landings are not guaranteed. Expats who have lived in Hong Kong for half their lives are regularly warned that they will not, if they return, recognise the place they came from.
On the other hand, in another year or two Hong Kong may itself be unrecognisable.
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