Simon Cheng’s family has fragmented since he left Hong Kong for Britain. He no longer has direct contact with his parents for fear that it could put them at risk of repercussions from the Chinese authorities. He misses them. 

Cheng, a former UK consulate worker in Hong Kong and supporter of the city’s democracy movement, was detained on public security grounds for 15 days last year on a trip to mainland China. His case made headlines around the world at a time when the city was engulfed by anti-government protests. China’s state media alleged he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. Cheng later claimed that he was tortured during interrogation. 

Simon Cheng
Simon Cheng in London, where he now lives after fleeing Hong Kong. Photo: Facebook.

In late June, just before Beijing imposed national security legislation on Hong Kong, he became the first British National (Overseas) passport holder to be granted asylum in Britain since the UK handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997. Last month, Beijing upped the pressure on him once more, when Chinese state media reported that Hong Kong police had ordered his arrest. They said he was among six pro-democracy activists in exile who were now on a wanted list. Among the others was prominent campaigner Nathan Law, also now living in Britain.

Cheng, 29, told HKFP he was worried for his security and feared he was being monitored and followed. But he is determined not to let it affect him. “I did nothing wrong, so I should not be afraid,” he said, although he admitted that seeking a safe haven has come at a heavy personal price. “I’m quite used to leaving my hometown because I’ve travelled around the world, but there’s a huge difference,” he said. “Previously I thought ‘I’ll buy a ticket back’. Now I can’t. I feel sad and homesick.”

He is focusing on building a wider, stronger Hong Kong community in the UK and hopes his new group, Hongkongers in Britain, will bridge the gap between established residents and new arrivals. An online network, for now, Cheng said the organisation’s ultimate aim is to have a place that would serve as a focal point.

“It could be like Chinatown in central London – somewhere where people can set up their new business and that could be a showcase,” Cheng said. “The main goal is to help Hongkongers easily integrate and assimilate with British society while maintaining their Hong Kong identity.”

HongKongers in Britain
Cheng has set up Hongkongers in Britain to forge a new community in the UK. Photo: Facebook.

Interest in moving to Britain has surged since the government announced a new route to UK citizenship for around three million Hongkongers with BN (O) status on July 1. Those who are already settled in Britain say they have been inundated with questions about the best places to live, jobs and education. Facebook pages have sprung up offering advice. But the function of these groups is not only pragmatic — it is to preserve a sense of belonging. 

Cheng’s organisation offers a range of guidance, from data on living costs in different cities to a concise version of the visa policy, translated into Chinese. He believes the group’s long-term aim of building a strong expat community in Britain will also bolster people back home.

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“We don’t want to see Hongkongers go around the world and lose their voice. We want to maintain that connection, not only so we can speak for Hong Kong people on Hong Kong issues but so we can solidify the power of the people – so we can do something for people staying in Hong Kong,” Cheng said.  

Community support

Britain’s BN(O) upgrade was a response to Beijing’s unilateral imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong, which has already led to the arrests of young activists. Home Secretary Priti Patel said China’s legislation had undermined the One Country, Two Systems framework, agreed before the 1997 handover, which guarantees a high degree of autonomy for the city.

“Now that China, through its actions, has changed the circumstances that BN(O) citizens find themselves in, it is right that we should change the entitlements which are attached to BN(O) status,” she said. 

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The new visa allows Hongkongers with BN(O) status to live and work in the UK. After five years they can apply for settled status and after a further year, they can apply for citizenship. 

Previously the passports, which were offered to residents by Britain before the city’s return to China, only permitted a six-month stay and were viewed by many as second-rate. 

The UK’s foreign office estimates that around 200,000 might take up the visa in the next five years, according to the Financial Times, a huge boost to the current population of Hongkongers in Britain. Figures from the most recent UK census in 2011 put the current number at 112,000.

London’s skyline and the River Thames at Tower Bridge. Photo: Wikicommons.

A BN(O) holder in his mid-20s who gave his name as “P” is among those waiting to apply when the new visas become available in January. He is a former protester and fled to Britain from Hong Kong in June after his friend was arrested in connection with last year’s demonstrations. He believed that he too could be at risk of being detained.

“I think that if I stay half a year, until January 2021, things will change and I may have a second life,” he told HKFP. 

P is a qualified engineer and hopes to find a job in Britain. Like Simon Cheng, he believes the network of Hongkongers in the UK will grow. “Hong Kong is filled with youth who can contribute to society,” he added, listing fluency in English and Cantonese, creativity in problem-solving and adaptability as among the skills they have to offer.

He currently shares a flat with another young BN(O) holder and said he had already benefited from the existing Hong Kong community in Britain: “Hongkongers here who know my situation are friendly and willing to help, which is the lucky part.” 

Uncertainty remains

However, while P hopes to open a new chapter in Britain, his case illustrates the practical and emotional challenges that some Hongkongers will face. 

liberate Hong Kong BNO
P brought a protest banner with him to London as a memento, pictured here with his BN(O) and Hong Kong passports. Photo: P.

Because the new visa is not yet available, he currently only holds visitor status, so cannot work and is living off savings. At the same time, he must conserve money to meet future visa fees and the stipulation that applicants must show they can support themselves for six months. 

He is also anxious about friends in Hong Kong who do not have the financial resources to meet the visa requirements or do not hold BN(O) status. 

Anyone who did not apply for the passport before 1997 and those born after the handover cannot acquire BN(O) status, which is not passed down from parents to children. The new policy says that in “compassionate and compelling circumstances” dependants of a BN(O) holder could be eligible, even if they are over 18, but usually only as part of a family application. For those who do not qualify, it suggests other visa routes into the UK.

P said he felt guilty for leaving people behind. Among the possessions he brought with him to Britain were a protest flag and posters. He referred to the mementoes as “a symbol of our will.” He believes that some former protesters he knows, particularly those without BN(O) status, are now applying for asylum in the UK. 

UK poster mementos
Mementos P bought with him to the UK included a T-shirt given to him during the CUHK siege and protest posters. P is not a CUHK student. Photos: P.

Author Devyani Prabhat, associate professor in law at Bristol University, who specialises in migration, citizenship and nationality, said they faced a difficult path involving long processing times and no right to work.

“Asylum seekers will have to establish and reestablish political context for why they are seeking asylum with evidence and if the situation changes, their status may change too,” she added. 

While Prabhat described the new BN(O) visa as a “positive step,” she emphasised that too was not an easy route, as it requires at least five years’ residency to be on track for citizenship and does not include all Hongkongers. 

A degree of uncertainty remains even for those already working towards settlement. A 26-year-old BN(O) holder who gave the pseudonym George said that he was unsure whether the time he had accumulated on study and youth mobility visas in the UK would count under the new scheme, or whether he should remain on his current path to citizenship. 

“This new policy is very generous, but we don’t know yet whether it will benefit people already in the UK,” he said. He hopes that, as more details emerge, the scheme will bring an end to his ongoing stress over his status.

“We know that we are not settled yet, we know that we don’t have full rights. So as much as I feel British myself, I know there’s always an opportunity to get deported.”

Britain’s gamble

The UK had long resisted upgrading BN(O) status but persistent lobbying by Conservative peers and backbenchers, NGOs and civil society groups, coupled with Beijing’s crackdown, brought change.

Some analysts say Britain was influenced by US President Donald Trump’s aggressive stance on China. The move also comes at a time when the UK is repositioning itself globally after leaving the European Union, including reshaping immigration policy.

london solidarity protest
Protest supporting Hong Kong pro-democracy movement in Trafalgar Square, London. Photo: Darcy Miller.

What happens next is unpredictable. “No one – not [British Prime Minister] Johnson, the Home Office, or Hong Kong people – can be sure how the BN(O) scheme will work out in the coming years,” said Mark Chi-kwan, senior lecturer in International History at Royal Holloway, University of London.

A large influx of Hongkongers could trigger a political backlash and young arrivals may struggle to find jobs as the UK economy suffers the impact of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, he added. 

However, finance worker Denis, 25, who only wanted to give his first name, remained optimistic. He has lived in the UK for two years and said new arrivals would add to a network already brought closer by last year’s protests, during which support rallies were held across the UK. 

“If Hongkongers come over here and have a strong community, we could help the UK to develop its economy, restaurants, shops, businesses,” said Denis, who already holds a British passport but campaigned for better rights for BN(O) holders as a way to help those back home.

Fellow campaigner, Rita, an IT worker in her 50s, sees the new visa policy as “the British government righting a wrong.” Already a British citizen, she is now advising Hongkongers planning to move to the UK who have contacted her via social media. “I try to help out, telling people how to prepare and what kind of skills are in demand. So, I can see myself playing a part in that. Being useful in that sense.”

UK masks
Cloth masks made by Rita as part of a network of Hongkongers in the UK helping with the coronavirus response. Photo: Rita.

She is also part of a network of Hongkongers in the UK who came together on Facebook in response to the coronavirus crisis, another example of strengthening ties. The sewing enthusiasts make masks for hospital workers, care homes and community groups, using designs from Hong Kong. 

“I’ve got to know a lot of Hongkongers who live as far away as Scotland and Newcastle. The group was set up by a lady living in Cornwall,” said Rita, who is based in the south of England.

The only thing off the menu is politics. “Although we all want Hongkongers to live a happy life, we have different views as to how to go about it.”

Rita said her relatives remain in Hong Kong and do not want to leave their home. But for those who do choose to move away, the building blocks for a new community in Britain are in place. 

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Laura Mannering has 20 years of experience as a journalist. She was previously AFP’s bureau chief for Hong Kong and Taiwan where she covered major international stories including the Umbrella Movement. She is now based in Europe focusing on politics, human rights and social issues.