Hong Kong Waits to See Reality of British Migration Pledge

So far, Johnson’s offer is symbolic but not much more

By: Joyce Chen

While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged last month that roughly three million Hong Kong residents could settle in the UK and seek British citizenship in the wake of China’s increasing hostility, the beleaguered territory’s residents are waiting for a policy that has yet to be finalized.

Those holding British National Overseas passports and their dependents, constituting more than a third of Hong Kong residents, are to be given the right to remain, work and study in the UK for five years, and will be able to apply for British citizenship a year later. But beyond that, no discernible plans have been made for what could potentially be a massive influx of Asians into a country where hostility towards Asians has been growing: a lack of action that is increasingly – and distressingly – emblematic of Johnson’s Tory government.

The measure was a direct response to the national security law imposed on Hong Kong on June 30 which criminalizes all political dissent. But while the UK government emphasized that the country would also be open to young people who are at the forefront of anti-China protests, many young activists were born after 1997 when the city was handed back to China after 156 years of British rule. Only older residents were granted special status in the 1980s during negotiations over the fate of the city.

A Hong Kong-born lawyer and British citizen named Carol - all those interviewed asked to be identified only by their first names – called the security law “a bombshell on the Hong Kong people… everyone knows that the Chinese government pays no real regard to the rule of law.”

Of Britain’s promise, she said that “Most Hong Kongers are very grateful to have an option so when things really worsen, they will have a lifeboat.” However, while moving to the UK is financially easier compared to Australia and Canada, “the younger generation may find it difficult to integrate into [the British] community, including getting job opportunities, which will greatly affect young families’ decisions to move.”

Carol added that her daughter, a student in the UK, originally “wanted to move back to Hong Kong and contribute to the community, but in the past two years, she has had second thoughts. She’s not the type to be submissive and follow orders from the government.”

Kevin, a BNO passport holder, believes that “it’s not safe to raise kids under the national security law… [which is] turning Hong Kong into another city in China. It kills freedom of speech and freedom of press.” When asked where he would move, he said that “the UK would be the best choice. Before, I was considering Canada, but [moving to the UK] would be cheaper and now there are enhanced BNO rights. I also think that education in the UK would be better for my kid.”

Stephen, a young estate agent and BNO holder, also said that “England is a good destination because there are many Chinese people there, and the living standard is very good. The rent and goods [in Hong Kong] are more expensive.” According to Ella, a student at the University of Hong Kong, for many students “the UK is best because their parents are likely to have BNOs, and the US is not a very stable place right now. They’re just looking for a safe haven; I’ve heard some are looking at Singapore too.”

Hong Kong students’ education has already been highly disrupted by protests and the coronavirus, with Ella only having three months of face-to-face lessons this entire year. “A few friends have left Hong Kong already. They were thinking about it anyway because of the Hong Kong education system and they have nationalities in Canada or the US, but [the new security law] was the final push for them to leave. Some are waiting to see if they can get a BNO, as they’ve heard [the UK] are looking to extend the offer to 18- to 23-year-olds.”

While all the interviewees considered the UK government’s promise generous, there are some with doubts. In recent years, protests in the streets of Hong Kong have often featured British and American flags. The former in particular calls to mind a humiliating colonial legacy in whose shadow the UK’s gesture may seem patronizingly magnanimous. Nevertheless, it is one of the few real options that the UK, weakened by Brexit and the coronavirus, can offer Hong Kong people.

There is a cloud of fear hanging over Hong Kong.

“Nobody dares to come out,” said Carol. “Some young protestors were arrested for just a potential breach – they haven’t done anything, only posted a Facebook page with their vision of Hong Kong, only a few likes and a few hundred seen. [Hong Kong] is becoming more and more just like a mainland city.”

Ella added that, “Before, the worst would be that you protest on the street, and maybe you’re arrested and get bailed after 48 hours. Now you can get arrested for anything.”

Despite all of this, according to a survey by Citi Hong Kong in the second quarter of 2020, “The percentage of respondents who considered it a good/excellent time to buy a home at this moment… remains the highest in nine years.”

“My work is quite good at the moment,” said Stephen. “Lots of people are not selling right now because they are waiting to see the impact [of the coronavirus and current political situation], but they are still buying more houses in Hong Kong. They currently have faith in the housing market.”

Even if China allows thousands of Hong Kongers to flee to the UK and other parts of the anglosphere, it is no small decision to uproot one’s home, family, and livelihood for a future of uncertainty. For now, Hong Kongers can only watch and wait for the next blow.

Joyce Chen is a UK-based student and an Asia Sentinel intern

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