Hong Kong, China – While teaching in Hong Kong in 2011, filmmaker Ying Liang was banned from returning home to mainland China after making a documentary about a Beijing mother trying to save her son from the death penalty.

Ten years since he became an accidental immigrant, Ying strives to make the most of the city’s freedoms, even though they have been threatened by the National security law and the ongoing repression against pro-democracy politicians and activists.

Last month, Ying screened the offensive film to two dozen viewers at an arts center.

“We must value our freedom while we still have it,” he told Al Jazeera.

For most Hong Kong-born residents, the law has put a brake on the freedoms they have taken for granted for a long time under “one country, two systems,” the framework under which the former British colony returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

China had promised the territory “a high degree of autonomy” for at least 50 years.

Prior to Beijing’s interference last year, residents in the territory were free to protest against the authorities and organize political parties to run in the elections.

But for continental migrants who have adopted the freedoms they never enjoyed growing up, the setback in a more repressive form of governance is causing fear and anxiety.

“I think the repression will go down harder and harder than you’d normally see on the mainland, better scare everyone,” said Ying, the 34-year-old documentary filmmaker.

“That wasn’t something I lived growing up in Shanghai.”

As a father of three, including a two-month-old baby, Ying says he is more concerned about the government’s push patriotic education.

“What I find most disturbing is what happens in schools,” he said. “Although I don’t think all children will be completely brainwashed, I know from my experience how this will mark you for life. It’s scary to worry about politics. When the students came out to protest, there was still hope for this city. “

‘Promised Land’

For most of the last century, Hong Kong was hailed as the “promised land” for millions of Chinese, both from the mainland and the diaspora.

Although China was broken 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 the continent’s successive waves of immigration, just over half of the city’s 7.5 million people are native.

And since delivery, more than a million mainland Chinese have migrated to Hong Kong under a family reunification plan.

In a 2016 study of newcomers, Hong Kong political scientists found that “Chinese immigrants are generally more politically conservative and more in favor of the pro-Beijing ruling coalition in elections.”

But not all.

Flora Chen, 35, has spent the last ten years outside her native China and has vowed never to return.

A job at a university took her to Hong Kong, which she considered “an alternative Chinese society where law and order and social norms are protected by institutions.

“For the generations of liberals in mainland China marked by Tiananmen, the vigil in Hong Kong [shone] like a beacon of hope, ”Chen said melancholy.

Nowhere else in Chinese territory was the 1989 repression commemorated.

But last year, for the first time, the Hong Kong government banned the annual vigil citing COVID-19 risks. Organizers, as well as some of the thousands who defied the ban, are on trial.

After arriving in 2018, Chen participated in anti-government protests a year later. As an academic in social sciences, Chen said her research is equally “socially engaged.”

Hong Kong has long expelled migrants from the continent, whether to join the family, make money or enjoy the freedoms that are now disappearing from the territory. [File: Anthony Wallace/AFP]

What worries her most is that the reduction in academic freedom will stifle her scholarship.

“As continents, we know how real fear is. We have learned to be prudent and to observe what we say, ”Chen told Al Jazeera.

“But now I can start to feel fear in the faces of my students. Their faces are marked by anger and pain, by power.

Although China’s economy has hardened over the last quarter of a century, Hong Kong has maintained its appeal to many mainland residents as a land of opportunity, subject to a fairer rules-based system than what they were used to.

Outside of the family visa plan, the largest contingent of continental immigrants has reached higher education.

The graduate programs of all local universities are now dominated by continental students who take advantage of the opportunities offered in the territory once they graduate.

When she left her hometown just 300 kilometers (186 miles) away to pursue a master’s degree in media studies in Hong Kong, Jacqueline Zhang thought she would only be out for a couple of years.

But almost ten years later, Zhang, 32, says he enjoys living in a society where fair play and transparency are the norm. On the mainland, she says, it is the “guanxi” (a network of connections and family ties) that issue and accountability are rare.

Because Hong Kong has been under the weight of Beijing, Zhang says “fear worsens” for mainland residents who have family and friends north of the border.

Authorities are known to harass relatives of politically active mainland Chinese, hoping to use the pressure of family pressure to curb these “cause problems.”

Zhang says he knows a good number of mainland Chinese comrades in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong, for fear their political involvement has put them on a watch list. They worry that any trip home could result in a departure ban that could prevent them from traveling abroad again.

Zhang, a former journalist, is not sure if she is on any watch list, but says she does not want to take advantage of her.

For now, he has found comfort and camaraderie in the “tribe” he has found in Hong Kong, people who are not afraid to discuss issues called taboos and back down from the idea of ​​censorship.

“Freedom and the rule of law are like air. It doesn’t feel so much while it’s there, ”Zhang said.

“You only feel it after they take it away from you.”


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