A Polarized City, Mirrored in Its Diaspora

Hong Kong’s protests have pitted relatives and friends against one another, including those who no longer live in the city.

Supporters of the Hong Kong protests hold signs reading "Macau stands with Hong Kong" and "Tear gas only makes Hong Kong cry harder."
Supporters of the Hong Kong protests demonstrate in central London. (Henry Nicholls / Reuters)

HONG KONG—When Andrew Sia was 9, his adopted mother packed what they could carry and the pair fled Shanghai to join Sia’s father in the then–British colony of Hong Kong. It was 1958, and the family, successful traders before the Communist revolution, had been relentlessly persecuted in the years since, with Sia’s father taken for nightly interrogations and eventually declared an enemy of the state.

Five and a half decades later, Sia embarked on another exodus. He had gone from an orphan given to a church at birth to the head of a garment empire making lingerie for international brands such as Calvin Klein. But by 2012, the China he had escaped was catching up with him in Hong Kong, with Beijing’s heavy-handed policies having eroded freedoms in the city. Though he was not in immediate danger, he felt the need to leave.

“I’ve been running from the Communists my whole life,” he told me from New Jersey, where he now lives. When Sia moved to the United States, the mantra his father had said to him from a young age echoed in his head: Leave Hong Kong. If you want real freedom and opportunity, leave Hong Kong. There’s no hope in China.

Hong Kong’s protests are now in their fifth month, initially sparked by a law that would allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China, but having since expanded to calls for police accountability and political reform. And while the demonstrations have captured international attention on their own, diaspora populations have served as a crucial amplifier, raising awareness and support, leading, for example, to more than 40 rallies on a single day in September in cities across the globe, from Washington, D.C., to Paris to Sydney.

The displays of solidarity have lifted the spirits of protesters squaring off with police on the streets of Hong Kong. But Hong Kongers outside the city are far from a monolith, and political divisions have caused fights among friends and relatives. Many also struggle to reconcile their memories of the territory with the seismic shift that has seen weekly confrontations with police ending in clouds of tear gas, fires, and vandalism. It is a battle mirrored in diaspora populations hailing from elsewhere: Elements of the Turkish diaspora in the United States are often blamed by Turkey’s leader for unrest back home; activists of Palestinian descent regularly organize protests around the world; and Cubans in Florida have long lobbied Congress on policy toward the island. Yet in the case of Hong Kong, the city’s diaspora often also comes into contact with a growing overseas population from mainland China, two communities that, while home to diverse views, are often in tension with each other.

The modern Hong Kong diaspora was defined by a fear of Beijing. In the years before it was handed back to China from Britain in 1997, an estimated 800,000 people, or one-sixth of the population, left for the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, the United States, and elsewhere, with emigration rising particularly sharply after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The exodus bolstered an already robust diaspora community. When the calamity many feared did not come to pass after the handover, thousands returned to Hong Kong after acquiring foreign citizenship. Canada alone estimates that it has 300,000 citizens living in the city, and the territory has long been home to a sizable expatriate community, owing to its status first as a major trading hub and now as a financial center.

These days, it is hard for Sia to escape what’s happening on the other side of the world. He often wakes up in the middle of the night to watch the latest footage of the protests, crying and unable to sleep. He has lost friendships as divisions in the diaspora community fissure along political lines, frustrated by others’ lack of concern for Hong Kong’s young protesters and the contradiction of critiquing a democracy movement while living freely in the West.

Sia’s links to the U.S. began while Hong Kong was still a British colony. He sent his youngest daughter, Tiffany, to New York in 1996, when she was 8 years old, over fears of the impending handover. Twenty years later, after popularly elected lawmakers were removed from their seats due to how they took their oath of office, she chose to return to Hong Kong. “I knew Hong Kong would become increasingly unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t want to experience that shift through news articles,” she told me.

These days, Sia messages Tiffany every week, asking her to move back to New York, saying that now is “the most dangerous time for Hong Kong.” But she resists, drawing inspiration from the current crisis to write a series of publications in which she declares Hong Kong “the world’s first postmodern city to die.”

But she is in the minority as someone who returned—many here have instead been looking for a way out. The Hong Kong–born population in Canada increased from 2011 to 2016 by a significant amount for the first time since 1996, and 42 percent of respondents in a survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong this month said they would emigrate if given the chance, with the top two reasons cited as political disputes or social conflict and “no democracy in Hong Kong.”

Some who have moved overseas have been instrumental in building support for the protests globally. Shu Yan Chan co-founded the group Democracy for Hong Kong in London after the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests. Since the recent demonstrations against the extradition bill heated up in June, Chan has been spending about five hours a day on campaigning. One June march in London, he said, drew as many as 4,000 people, who walked a mile from China’s embassy to the Hong Kong trade mission. (Some protests abroad have sparked conflict with pro-China counterdemonstrations, many of which have reportedly been orchestrated by Chinese diplomats. Lennon walls—makeshift boards to which people stick Post-it Notes with messages of support—have been vandalized and scuffles have broken out among groups, requiring police intervention.)

“It’s important for the diaspora to show solidarity so that the people on the streets in Hong Kong see they are not alone,” Chan said. “When I speak to people visiting from Hong Kong, they say it’s a big boost to morale.”

Chan and his group have also been lobbying British politicians to do more to support Hong Kong, and he sees the chaos of Brexit as an opportunity: Once Britain begins renegotiating trade deals, human-rights protections must be included in any such agreements, Chan argues.

Democracy for Hong Kong has also pushed media outlets such as the BBC to update stories, pointing to one instance in which the broadcaster removed quotes in a story attributed to the Global Times, a bombastic Communist Party tabloid. (The BBC said the quote was removed in the course of a regular update.) Most of the group’s efforts are focused on the fairness of stories, and it says it has successfully gotten publications to remove information from the Global Times in particular and give more context to government and police statements.

The Hong Kong diaspora has also, to an extent, mirrored the city’s polarized politics. Many who support the protesters have cut off communication with pro-government relatives and friends. Family group chats have descended into abusive language, mostly from old members, or complete silence, as the protests increase generational and spatial divides. Those who support the government bombard others with highly edited clips from Chinese state media portraying the protesters as a violent mob. One Hong Konger I spoke with, who asked not to be identified, told me that he no longer speaks to his parents as a result.

Adrian Lo left Hong Kong for Britain when he was 11 and did not return to live in Hong Kong for more than a decade. A musician and sound designer who now lives in Berlin, he told me how he has quarreled with relatives and bristled at their condemnation of the protesters’ tactics. Some family members raised abroad did not understand the stakes in Hong Kong, and focused only on scenes of fires or vandalism, he said, pointing the finger at Chinese-government propaganda efforts on social-media platforms. Both Facebook and Twitter have taken down more than 1,000 accounts that the companies say were spreading disinformation about the protests in Chinese. Both sites are blocked in China, meaning their audience is clearly people living abroad.

“Chinese propaganda doesn’t have to win people over; it just needs confuse people enough and create enough noise to make people question the protesters,” Lo said. “It’s really important to have an identity and not be accused of separatism for being proud of your culture, your language, and your city.”

The protests have, however, had a clarifying effect for diaspora Hong Kongers like himself, Lo added. Previously, he found it difficult to explain what he sees as the unique character of his home city to Western friends who often struggle to differentiate between natives of the city and the growing number of mainland Chinese nationals moving overseas. These demonstrations have made that easier, helping to define Hong Kong, and Hong Kongers, to the outside world.

“In the past 20 years, with lots of mainland Chinese migration, the line between us and them was blurred, but now it has become clearly defined,” he said. “Hong Kong is a city where 95 percent of the people are ethnically Chinese, but the culture is still radically different compared to China.”