This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Hong Kong residents wishing to escape months of protest-related violence and tear gas, or fleeing potential persecution under China’s “national security” crackdown on dissent in the city, are increasingly viewing the U.K. as a safe haven.
Once dismissed by many in Hong Kong as not worth the hassle of applying for it, the U.K.’s British National Overseas (BNO) passport — under a recent change in immigration rules — now offers some three million Hongkongers a longer visa-free residency and a pathway to eventual citizenship.
The U.K. changed the rules in response to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s imposition of a draconian National Security Law for Hong Kong banning words or deeds deemed to be secessionist, subversive, or involving terrorism or collusion with foreign powers.
The law, which was imposed by decree, bypassing the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo), criminalizes anyone holding a protest banner or speaking out against the loss of Hong Kong’s promised freedoms, anywhere in the world.
One of the emigrants, identified here only by the letters YM, said she had been on tenterhooks when she left Hong Kong International Airport on Aug. 5, for fear she and her family would be stopped at the border.
“We were on a British Airways flight that day, and at the boarding gate we saw several police officers in plain clothes, all wearing police badges, keeping a close eye on the people boarding the plane, and I was worried that we might be stopped from leaving the country,” YM told RFA in a recent interview.
After waiting in line on arrival in London, they were relieved to receive their six-month residency permits.
Several other families and young people from Hong Kong stood in line with them, YM recalled.
YM left behind her a good job in marketing, family property, and a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle.
But she said witnessing the extent of police violence against mostly unarmed protesters last year had changed her mind about the city she called home, and prompted her to renew her long-expired BNO passport “for a rainy day.”
That rainy day was soon to arrive in the form of China’s national security law, which took effect in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020.
Change in the rules
Under new immigration rules announced by U.K. foreign secretary Dominic Raab soon afterwards, BNO passport holders and their immediate family were granted the right to extend their residency in the country, previously limited to six months, for the five years necessary to qualify for citizenship.
YM and her family are now living in short-term rented accommodation in Liverpool on savings that should last them about a year, and are permitted to work, although she expects to have to take up low-paid jobs at first to make ends meet.
But she said the move was worth it to enjoy freedom.
“You don’t have to worry about being arrested for singing a song, here,” YM said. “You don’t have to think about that, you don’t have anyone trying to control your thoughts; you don’t have to be afraid of being arrested just for saying something.”
Hong Kong resident Si-kei, also a pseudonym, said she is also planning to leave her home city after witnessing violence, including mob attacks on train passengers in Yuen Long on July 21, 2019, by attacks on passengers by riot police at Prince Edward MTR on Aug. 31 that year, and by riot police sieges of the campuses of Polytechnic University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong later in the fall.
“I was worried that I would be one step too late and have to stay [in Hong Kong] forever,” Si-kei told RFA. “I was also worried about whether I would be able to find a job, whether I would be discriminated against, and many other aspects of emigrating.”
She eventually settled on the BNO route to British citizenship as her escape route, partly due to cultural familiarity from growing up in colonial-era Hong Kong. She and her family are planning to leave soon, as they are worried that the rules could change and leave them stranded.
When they do, they will likely exit the city on their China-issued Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passports to avoid trouble at the border.
Hundreds of people lined up in Hong Kong to apply for BNO passports ahead of the 1997 handover to Chinese rule, and similar scenes were replayed ahead of the national security law.
Still, only 10 percent of the 2.9 million Hong Kong residents eligible for the passport have current passports issued to them, according to government figures.
A valuable asset
A manager at immigration consultants UK Connect HK surnamed Chan said the BNO has suddenly become a valuable asset in a city where it was once the butt of jokes suggesting its usefulness as a doorstop or table wedge.
“It’s exactly the same as during the wave of applications for BNO passports [in 1997],” Chan said. “[Except that this time], most of my clients have lost or mislaid their BNO passports.”
Chan said he has received around 300 people enquiring about BNO renewals in the past month, and has so far successfully renewed the passports of around 80 clients.
He says passport renewals are likely to peak next month after the U.K. steps up production to meet demand.
As well as the BNO, younger Hong Kong residents are already taking advantage of working holiday visas under the Youth Mobility Scheme.
“Sonia,” a former reporter with a Hong Kong travel magazine, first headed out to the U.K. in November 2019, taking a job in a backpackers’ hostel bar, which fired her for not knowing how to serve drinks correctly.
Later, she landed a job in IT, and makes a similar amount to her salary back in Hong Kong, and frequently posts videos to Facebook about her new life in the U.K.
Photographer “Kyle” also joined the working holiday scheme, and was struck by a change in his parents’ attitude on a trip back home this summer.
“[My parents told me] not to say anything stupid while I was out and about,” he said, recalling his sharp sense of fear at the sight of plainclothes police officers stationed at the airport, watching everyone who left the city.
“Even in Hong Kong, the police were searching the contents of people’s mobile phones before they could board a plane,” he told RFA. “When I looked at one of the police officers, he started looking at me, but I don’t know how much surveillance was going on.”