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Fleeing China, Hong Kongers flock to Britain. ‘We are not emigrating — we are escaping’

Police take away a person.
Hong Kong democracy activist Alexandra Wong is taken away by police July 1 at a protest on the anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain to China.
(Isaac Lawrence / AFP/Getty Images)

He has no job, he’s still grappling with English and the climate is often cold and wet, but Dennis Chan is still grateful to be setting up his life in Britain.

The 34-year-old arrived in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, alone in April after quitting his job as a cargo officer for Cathay Pacific airlines in Hong Kong.

He had never set foot in Britain before. But he also felt he didn’t recognize his own homeland any longer amid China’s relentless crackdown on political dissent and civic freedoms. After Beijing imposed a sweeping new national security law on Hong Kong in July of last year, he felt an urgency to leave.

“It is such a great change to me. The culture is very different,” he said of his newly adopted country, adding: “But the people of Hong Kong can no longer criticize government or police anymore. Hong Kong is no more the place that I know.”

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With his mother’s blessing, Chan packed his bags and took advantage of a special visa Britain is extending to residents of its former colony. The program, which politicians on all sides call a historical and moral obligation, offers Hong Kong citizens the right to live and work in the United Kingdom for up to five years, as well as a path to citizenship.

Within two months of making the British National Overseas visa available in January, the British government received 34,000 applications. It estimates that about 300,000 people could take up the offer within five years; others say the figure could wind up being closer to 500,000.

Biden’s order allowing some Hong Kong residents to stay temporarily in the U.S. comes as China cracks down on political freedoms in the city.

For many new arrivals like Chan, who is still living in a rented room and finding his bearings, the transition has not been easy. Although Britain boasts a well-established Chinese community, many of the Hong Kongers who have immigrated in recent months have found it difficult to land a job and make connections, especially in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. They miss — or even fear for — loved ones left behind, and they sometimes feel the sting of racism here in the land that ruled Hong Kong for 156 years as part of its globe-straddling empire.

“I don’t really know anybody,” said Reese, 25, who arrived in Britain with two friends and little else. He asked that only his first name be used for fear of reprisal.

After China’s draconian national security law took effect, he began looking for a way to escape the only life he’d ever known for the chance to determine his own future. His family didn’t approve — “we are not really on the same page on these decisions,” he lamented — but he couldn’t imagine staying put.

“I felt like I couldn’t breathe at all,” said Reese. “We couldn’t speak freely or do what we want to do.”

Police making an arrest
Pro-democracy activist Simon Leung Kam-wai is arrested by police in Hong Kong on Wednesday under China’s stringent national security law.
(Kin Cheung / Associated Press)

He made his way to Britain last October under a dispensation that allowed him entry before the special visa program formally began. He eventually secured the visa, found an administrative job in a hospital in north London and is trying to assimilate.

“I was lucky to get a job,” Reese said. “Right now, people are not finding it easy to get jobs. I do hope that I can start planning a life here while trying to find ways to speak for Hong Kong.”

Born in 1995, he squeaked through the application process for the special visa, which is being offered only to Hong Kong residents born before July 1, 1997, the date Britain handed back control of Hong Kong to China. That restriction has been condemned by rights groups for leaving younger people in the lurch, even though many of them were at the forefront of the massive pro-democracy protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019.

Since those demonstrations, the city’s pro-Beijing government has virtually silenced political opposition, arrested democracy campaigners and tightened its grip on wider society, in sectors such as education and the arts, to make sure it kowtows to the ruling Communist Party’s vision.

When I was a young man in the 1970s, I joined hundreds of thousands of desperate Chinese to swim miles across the sea to Hong Kong, our beacon of freedom.

“We are not emigrating — we are escaping,” said one 44-year-old woman who moved with her husband to London in July 2020 and asked that only her last name, Chan, be used.

She was last in the British capital 10 years ago as a tourist and arrived this time to find a city that was slowly opening back up from a coronavirus lockdown but that also seemed dangerous and hostile.

At her new home, she watched news reports about stabbings and gun crimes. In a shopping mall, she was nearly mugged by a group of teenagers who wanted her phone. While out one day, she was verbally abused and told to “go back where you came from.”

“I was so shocked,” she said. “I never thought it would be easy. But when I came, I just found it is much worse than what I expected.”

Panorama of Hong Kong
A visitor sets up his camera in the Victoria Peak area to photograph Hong Kong’s skyline.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The history of British attitudes toward the Chinese community is a checkered one. David Tang, a lawyer in London’s Chinatown and first vice president of the London Chinatown Chinese Assn., recalled that, as a young man arriving from Hong Kong in the late 1970s, he routinely faced name calling.

After joining London’s Metropolitan Police, also known as Scotland Yard, he was nicknamed “Charlie Chan” by other officers, and encountered incidents where the owners of Chinese restaurants called the police on customers who refused to pay, only to find “the police listened to the customer’s side and arrested the Chinese,” Tang said.

In 2001, when foot-and-mouth disease swept across Britain, causing millions of farm animals to be slaughtered, the Chinese food industry was widely, and wrongly, blamed. The Daily Mirror tabloid stoked racist stereotypes about Chinese food practices with the headline “Sheep and Sow Source” — a pun on “sweet and sour sauce.”

The scapegoating led to protests and a growing political awareness among the Chinese British community. Six years ago, voters in southern England elected the country’s first ethnic Chinese member of Parliament.

China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, sees himself as a savior, anointed to steer the Communist Party and China away from corruption and foreign influence, into a ‘new era’ of prosperity, power and political devotion. Whether his vision matches reality is another question.

There are now more than 400,000 people of Chinese descent living in the U.K., according to 2011 census data, and Tang thinks the path to integrating in Britain will be easier because community relations have improved significantly.

But he fears for anyone arriving without financial security. The pandemic and Britain’s exit from the European Union have added to economic strains here. The divisive campaign over Brexit in recent years also fanned a xenophobia that some blame for a rise in racial abuse and attacks.

For new arrivals, some solace and assistance has been found in connecting with support organizations like Hongkongers in Britain. Up in Scotland, Dennis Chan, the former airline cargo officer, has attended local meetings of the group to learn about government resources, make friends and attend rallies to raise awareness about the situation of those left behind in Hong Kong.

There, tearful goodbyes at the international airport have become the norm amid the escalating crackdown on the freedoms Hong Kong was supposed to enjoy for 50 years after its reversion to Chinese control under the treaty signed by China and Britain.

On a recent August evening, a young couple and their 6-year-old son said a final farewell to their loved ones before boarding a flight to Britain.

Wearing a yellow face mask and black T-shirt with “Hong Kong” printed on it in Chinese, 35-year-old James hugged his family, including his elderly grandmother, who asked him where he was going.

“Grandma, I’m going to the U.K. to study,” James said, leaning forward and shouting in his grandmother’s ear. They embraced for perhaps the last time.

“With the uncertainties of the national security law, I don’t think we will come back in the near future,” he said afterward.

A year after China imposed its repressive National Security Law on Hong Kong, the chances of citizens’ winning back their freedoms are slim.

Sadness dogs those who leave, even if they appreciate the chance of a future in democratic Britain — an opportunity won at the possible price of never seeing loved ones again.

“I don’t know if I will really have any opportunity to go back to Hong Kong in the future — or before I die,” said Chan, the woman who moved with her husband to London in July of last year.

“We don’t know what will happen if we go back there. It’s really hard,” she said, fighting back tears.

Boyle is a special correspondent in London. Special correspondent Hsiuwen Liu in Hong Kong contributed to this report.


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