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Sensemaker: Farewell Hong Kong

Sensemaker: Farewell Hong Kong

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Afghan interpreters who worked for US forces were promised they would be evacuated, as the Taliban gained ground and seized a crossing point on the border with Pakistan.
  • The UK government said it would consider proposals for new taxes on foods high in salt and sugar.
  • Lionel Messi signed a new five-year deal with Barcelona.

Farewell Hong Kong

Is there an exodus? The Hong Kong and Beijing governments would rather not talk about it, much less give official numbers, but the answer appears to be yes. Net departures of long-term Hong Kong residents are running at about 1,000 a day, government figures collated by an activist investor suggest. Cue poignant stories of tearful goodbyes and long queues for flights to London and Canada. 

Why now? A new immigration law takes effect on 1 August that Hong Kongers fear could be used to prevent people leaving even if they have all the documents needed for their chosen destination – such as a British National (Overseas) passport, which confers the right to live, work and eventually apply for citizenship in the UK. Hong Kong authorities say the law will be used only to limit immigration, but they haven’t ruled out exit bans. 

There are of course other reasons people are leaving, notably:

  • the National Security Law that came into force last year empowering local authorities to make arrests, freeze accounts, force newspapers (like the Apple Daily) out of business and extradite people to mainland China for anything they deem subversive;
  • the violence that preceded passage of the law and was a pretext for it, including savage beatings of protesters by Triad gang members on the Hong Kong metro in July 2019;
  • electoral reforms also enforced last year that bar opposition politicians from holding public office; and
  • a new pro-Chinese “patriotic education” curriculum introduced in Hong Kong’s public schools in February, along with a “responsibility” imposed on 52 international schools to “acquire a correct and objective understanding” of the curriculum.

The Hong Kong government’s stance on the exodus is one of studied indifference even though it involves highly motivated young professionals and could turn into a full-blown brain-drain. Carrie Lam, the chief executive, said last weekend that leavers “will eventually realise how good Hong Kong is.”

They’re not counting on it. Withdrawals from Hong Kong’s main pension fund on grounds of permanent departure jumped 30 per cent after the national security law came into force and the number of children withdrawn from schools nearly doubled from 2019/20 to 2020/21. The number of new work visas issued to expats has meanwhile more than halved, from 41,000 in 2019 to 14,000 last year. 

Hong Kong is changing, and not even gradually. The Biden administration is to warn US companies this week of the growing dangers of doing business there because of yet another new law, empowering local authorities to punish Chinese and foreign firms for complying with US sanctions.

More than five million Hong Kongers are eligible for BN(O) passports. At least 320,000 are expected to try to use them to move to Britain. It will be interesting to see if the exodus grows between now and next month. It’s already a poignant echo of another one, exactly 60 years ago, in the last days before the building of the Berlin Wall.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Shaping America
Biden’s budget is the battleground on which an evenly divided Congress will fight through the summer for competing visions of America. The president enjoyed what one reporter called “a freaking love-fest” with Democratic senators on Wednesday after they agreed a $3.5 trillion package that, if passed, would expand medical cover for the poor, offer free childcare and community college and spend big for the first time in US history on climate change mitigation. These are potentially huge changes to the complexion of a country torn between fixing itself and its traditional worship of rugged individualism. Team Biden’s plan is to get it all through Congress with Vice President Harris’s casting vote, 51-50. But that won’t work if Joe Manchin of West Virginia declines to play ball for the sake of his local coal industry. And it could get complicated if Republicans opt to engage with the process rather than oppose it en bloc. The question then will be what spending Biden is willing to forego, even at the price of enraging the Left, for the sake of a bipartisan deal. And no one knows the answer. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Speech after stroke
American scientists have used electrodes implanted into the brain of a stroke patient to enable him to “speak” for the first time in 18 years. The electrodes pick up signals from the area of the brain that controls speech but that in this case no longer control the parts of the body – mouth, lips, tongue, larynx, etc – that produce it. Algorithms convert the signals into text; not always correctly, but more than half the time and certainly enough to be useful. The question for doctors was whether this part of the patient’s brain was permanently damaged or dormant and capable of waking up again. “This is farther than we’ve ever imagined we could go,” one researcher told the NYT. The patient, who goes by Pancho, says it’s been life-changing.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Pain control for birth control
Relief at last for women in the UK who suffer pain from IUD procedures: the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare has updated its guidance to say “women should always be offered pain relief in IUD procedures”. The change comes after a petition for more and better pain relief went viral and hundreds of women described the excruciating pain they went through getting the coil. Some said it was worse than childbirth. The BBC’s Naga Munchetty and the writer Caitlin Moran weighed in with their own accounts. Lucy Cohen, who started the petition, told us the updated guidance was “incredibly positive” but just the start of a journey: “Now that our voices have been heard, we need to keep making noise until women’s pain in healthcare and associated procedures are treated with the gravitas they deserve by default, and without question”.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Amazon sunk
Large parts of the Amazon rainforest have flipped. They’re now carbon sources rather than sinks. There are caveats: most of these emissions are from fires started by humans and therefore in principle could be curbed. Also, the damage is worse in the southeast than remoter parts of the Amazon. But the truly worrying finding of research published in Nature and carried on the front page of the Guardian is that the southeastern Amazon would now be a net source of emissions even without the fires. This region is in a disastrous cycle of burning, drying, death and warming, to produce more kindling for more burning. And President Bolsonaro, though in hospital for hiccups, remains an unrepentant friend of the ranchers doing the burning. 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Britney’s corner
Britney Spears, in a fight with her father for control of her $60 million fortune, has been told by a court she can use her own lawyer. He is Mathew Rosengart, described by former client Sean Penn as “a tough-as-nails street fighter with a big brain and bigger principles”. Rosengart has also represented the director Steven Spielberg and won’t come cheap, but he didn’t mince words outside the courthouse. He said of Spears’ father, who has sole charge of his daughter’s finances despite being a recovering alcoholic: “The question remains, why is he involved?” Why indeed? Britney Spears is 39.

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Giles Whittell

Phoebe Davis

Photographs Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock, Getty Images