Tens of thousands of people from Hong Kong emigrate to the UK. From afar, they continue to fight for democracy in their homeland.
I just went to the border guard and showed my BNO passport, the officer walked away briefly and when he came back said I was very welcome. ”Ruth Lee, 54, traveled by plane from Hong Kong to London last September. Heathrow. To talk to the taz, she sits via zoom at her living room window in her rather sparsely furnished apartment in Liverpool. A park can be seen behind the window.
For Lee, as for many others, the arrival in Great Britain was the last step in a permanent and long-planned departure from her hometown. How long it was planned is a matter of opinion, because back in 1997, when Hong Kong was a British crown colony, it applied for British Nationals Overseas status, which is what the letters BNO stand for.
The BNO is a special status that the British government negotiated with China for Hong Kong citizens in the 1980s. In order to receive it, all that was required at the time was registration, which was possible until Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997. Initially, the status only allowed for slightly less complicated short stays in the UK. “We thought it might be useful for other things, too,” says Lee.
She then reports how the situation in Hong Kong has worsened since the suppressed protests. Finally came the National Security Law passed by China , which criminalized the protests and further undermined Hong Kong’s special status. The logistics expert at the time, Lee, was well acquainted with the conditions in the People’s Republic due to business trips. She came to the conclusion that Hong Kong would soon be indistinguishable from China – with severely restricted freedom of expression and the increasing power of the Communist Party.
In July 2020, she decided not to wait any longer and to emigrate after British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced that the British government would accept Hong Kong citizens in the United Kingdom and pave the way for them to obtain full British citizenship. This is the United Kingdom’s historic commitment to Hong Kong and also a step towards preserving democracy and freedom said Raab.
Easier entry to Great Britain
Specifically, the offer means that the United Kingdom gives all Hong Kong residents with BNO status the opportunity to move to Great Britain without much bureaucratic back and forth – including the option of permanent residence. The children and grandchildren of people with BNO status and people who are directly dependent on them are also given easier entry.
Upon arrival, there is initially a 36-month visa, which can then be extended to up to five years. However, these rights are by no means in vain. Entrants must pay a registration fee and the cost of their health care to the UK government. For a family of three, this costs no less than 23,600 euros over five years.
Only after the end of a five-year stay can a permanent right of residence be applied for by further registration, which incurs additional expenses. This route theoretically enables almost three-quarters of all Hong Kong residents to immigrate, a total of 5.4 million people.
It is not a real refugee program, says Peter Walsh from the Observatory for Migration at Oxford University. Walsh describes it more as an immigration program built on pre-existing residency rights for people from Hong Kong. “There are few real asylum applications,” he says. Walsh checked an immigration register and was surprised at the low numbers himself. In 2019 there were only 13, last year only 76 people from Hong Kong were granted asylum in Great Britain. “Most of the people who come now are well-off, educated, and able to support themselves,” said Walsh. After all, there is now a new exception regulation with which immigrants from Hong Kong can apply for social assistance if they run out of money. However, according to Walsh, this procedure is paradoxically associated with additional costs for those affected.
Will many people follow Ruth Lee’s path? The Migration Observatory estimates that between 257,000 and 322,000 Hong Kong residents are likely to seek entry into the UK over the next five years. A new offer from the US government could keep that number a little lower.
For some, fleeing in dire need
Ruth Lee tells how she planned her entry in advance. She chose her new place of residence, Liverpool, on the basis of a previous trip through Great Britain and Ireland. Here she works today as a teacher for students in Hong Kong via Zoom. “It was my pre-departure job done online because of the pandemic and I was lucky that I could just keep doing that in the UK,” says Ruth Lee. Everything is fine in Liverpool, the people are friendly and uncomplicated, she describes her situation, even if she admits that she dreams of a nice apartment and a driver’s license. “I would then continue to explore Great Britain with a car,” she says. That too may be a symbol of their new freedom. In Hong Kong she was only used to the microcosm of 1,106 square kilometers.
For other people, moving to the UK is more than an attempt to escape the inconvenience, it is actually an escape. “Five” is the name of a 17-year-old young man who is currently living in the London borough of Osterley near Heathrow. “Five” is his pseudonym, he doesn’t want to give his real name. He said he had been active in the Hong Kong democracy movement since he was 15 years old. He had suffered both physical and psychological damage from members of the Chinese state apparatus. He doesn’t want to reveal any more details about it, says “Five” at a meeting in a London café.
Because the young man entered the country without his parents, who do not share his political stance, “Five” is one of the few Hong Kong residents who have applied for asylum in Great Britain. He has not yet had any big plans in London, admits the slim young man clad in black. “Black, just like the color of the democracy movement,” he says. He would have considered different places to leave, but in the end it was London because there were regular flights there. So far, he has not given any thought to a job or further training. Only one thing is clear to him: to continue helping the democracy movement in Hong Kong, says “Five” with a serious expression.
The meeting with Simon Cheng takes place in a pub in London’s Docklands. The high-rise district reminds him of Hong Kong, says Cheng. He came to the UK back in November 2019 after being tortured by the Chinese on charges of espionage, he says. The 30-year-old activist of the Hong Kong democracy movement was able to travel to London with his BNO status but has since received asylum on top of his political persecution. Since then, he has spent most of his time helping other Hong Kong residents both before and after they arrive. For this purpose, he founded an independent organization called “Hong Kongers in Britain” (HKB).
“It is important that we manage the aid we recieve ourselves because it is possible that among organizations in the UK that help Chinese people are those that are acting on behalf of the Chinese state,” says Cheng. He’s not suspicious out of the blue and is sure that the Chinese state apparatus will track him down. “I’ve noticed quite a few times that people are chasing me here in London,” he says. Cheng suspects that conversations with his parents would most likely be overheard. That’s why he keeps contact with his family to a minimum.
The big question, says Cheng, is whether China is ready to not only spy on people like him abroad. “I’m now afraid to book flights that go through countries that could extradite me to China,” admits Cheng, recalling the kidnapping of activist Roman Protassevich by the Belarusian secret service in May this year. Political activities are of course allowed in the UK for people like Cheng and “Five”.
The Chinese community in London is helping
On top of the state comes practical help. Local authorities across the country have been prepared for the arrival of people from Hong Kong in good time. The British government provided the equivalent of around 50 million euros in aid. Numerous churches across the country support the newcomers.
The Chinese Methodist Church in London’s Kings Cross is one of the few religious institutions that has always cared for people from China and Hong Kong. Pastor Kong Hii Ching has little time on the phone as he has to hold three services in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin and also advise newcomers. “In addition to helping young families, one of the challenges for us is to reduce the resentment between Hong Kongers and Chinese from the mainland in order to establish a comprehensive community in exile here,” says the pastor. Ching also has its own history of migration. The 55-year-old immigrated to Great Britain from Malaysia 13 years ago. In his old homeland, his family was a member of the Chinese minority.
London’s Chinese community counted 120,000 people in the last census in 2011. The Hong Kong residents who have lived here for some time also welcome the newcomers. However, Simon Cheng was repeatedly recommended by the long-time residents that he should stop his political activities. Cheng believes there is a generation difference here. The older ones could not understand the new ones that freedom is very important to them – like in Cheng’s own family. Even before he was born, his father swam illegally from mainland China to Hong Kong in the 1980s to find work. It is therefore in Cheng’s nature to continue to stand up for democracy. “Not to do it would be simply hypocrisy,” he says, dressed in a T-shirt.
The immigrant from back then
Muriel Harman sits in her apartment near the Thames in the London borough of Teddington. Painted portraits of two Chinese young women hang in their living room on one side, while Thai hand-painted porcelain is on the other. The now 71-year-old married an Englishman in the early 1970s and ended up in Eltham in south-east London in 1971. At that time people stared at her for her appearance, they only addressed her in simplified English, although her language skills were perfect even then. “Staring was nothing new to me,” says Harman. “As a Euro-Asian”, as she describes herself and means the fact that her grandmother was a Catholic Irish woman who married a Chinese immigrant in Australia,
Upon arrival, Muriel Harman automatically received the British passport, something that changed for citizens of the former Empire with the accession of the United Kingdom to the European Community, parallel to the end of the British colonial era. Since her husband worked in international banking, she traveled extensively around the world after arriving in London and only moved permanently to England in 1996.
Harman believes Hong Kongers have one thing ahead of the British. “Anyone who grew up in Hong Kong was trained to survive the best,” she says. She believes it is this attitude that Britain values so much in the Hong Kong people, rather than the interest in the Hong Kong democracy movement or the historical responsibility.
The Observatory for Migration at Oxford University estimates that the UK will earn the equivalent of around € 3 billion from Hong Kong immigrants over the next five years. However, rampant racism stands in the way of this objective benefit.
All interviewees with whom the media was in contact with this research stated that they experienced racism in Great Britain, even 17-year-old “Five”, who has only been in the country for three months. Immigrants are particularly often accused of causing the coronavirus to spread.
This is also confirmed by Muriel Harman. Only her son arrived correctly in Great Britain. What the 71-year-old particularly notices is how much the newcomers would be ripped off, for example when buying a flat in London. Many of them had already tried to do their thing in Hong Kong and bought apartments before they arrived. “I heard about a woman who recently bought an apartment in a completely remote part of London for a lot of money. I think some of the newcomers have no idea and can be talked into a bit, ”says Harman.
It remains to be seen how many Hong Kong residents will eventually move to the UK. “Five” and Ruth Lee believe that it will soon be more difficult to leave the country, for example because the flights will no longer be easy to book. That is one of the reasons why they both came without a long lead time. Migration expert Peter Walsh sees this as a great privilege for Hong Kong residents compared to refugees from other parts of the world. The latter are subject to algorithms of risk when booking a flight. “Organizations dealing with refugees here have long wanted direct routes to apply for asylum in the UK, and there are none. On the contrary, contrary to the rules for Hong Kong people, the UK government intends to introduce a two-tier system whereby those who
Are the British prepared for the new arrivals from Hong Kong? According to Walsh, apart from the official announcements and the churches’ welcome initiative, there are no major programs that bring Britain closer to its new neighbors. Ruth Lee has no British friends yet, and Simon Cheng and “Five” ‘s contacts are more of a political nature. “But,” said Simon Cheng when asked what he was doing as a new citizen of Great Britain, “I will take part in the elections.”