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

LONDON —

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 been to Britain before. He felt that he couldn’t recognize his homeland anymore because of the relentless crackdown China’s on political dissent and civic freedoms. He felt compelled to leave Hong Kong after Beijing had imposed a new, comprehensive national security law in July last year.

“It has been a huge change for me. He said that the culture was very different in his new country. He added: “But Hong Kong citizens can no longer criticize police or government.” Hong Kong is not the same place I used to know .

Chan left Hong Kong with his mother’s blessing and used a special visa that Britain was offering to former colonists. This program, which all sides consider a moral and historical obligation, allows Hong Kong citizens to work and live in the United Kingdom for up five years. It also offers a pathway 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.

For many newcomers like Chan, who still lives in a rented apartment and is struggling to get his bearings, it has been difficult to make the transition. 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. For fear of reprisal, he requested that his first name not be used.

After China’s new, harsh national security law came into effect, he started to look for ways to escape the life he had known and to control his future. Although his family did not approve, he said that “we aren’t really on the same page about these decisions” — but he couldn’t imagine remaining put.

” I felt like my breathing was impossible,” Reese said. “We couldn’t speak freely or do what we want to do.”

Police making an arrest

Protest activist Simon Leung Kamwai was detained by Hong Kong police on Wednesday, under China’s strict 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 was granted the visa and found a job as an administrator in a London hospital. Now he is trying to integrate.

” I was fortunate to get a job,” Reese stated. It is not easy for people to find jobs right now. 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.

“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. She watched news reports about gun crimes and stabbings at her new home. A group of teens nearly robbed her in a shopping center. She was out on a day and verbally abused by a group of teenagers who wanted her phone.

” I was so shocked,” she stated. It was not something I expected to be so easy. But when I came, I just found it is much worse than what I expected.”

Panorama of Hong Kong

A visitor set up his camera at the Victoria Peak area in Hong Kong to capture Hong Kong’s skyline.

(Jae Hong / Associated Press )

The history of British attitudes towards the Chinese community has been a mixed bag. 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. Tang stated that he joined the London Metropolitan Police (also known as Scotland Yard) and was nicknamed “Charlie Chan”. He encountered instances where Chinese restaurant owners called the police to demand payment. Tang claimed that the police responded to the customer and arrested the Chinese.

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, the first ever ethnic Chinese member of Parliament was elected by voters in southern England.

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 is concerned about anyone who arrives without financial security. Economic strains have been exacerbated by the pandemic and Britain’s departure from the European Union. 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, there is some help and solace in connecting with support groups like the Hongkongers in Britain. Dennis Chan, a former airline cargo officer, attended local meetings to find out about government resources, make new friends, and participate in rallies to raise awareness of the situation 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.

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A young couple and their 6-year old son bid farewell to all their family members before they boarded 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. Perhaps for the last time, they hugged.

” “With all the uncertainties in the national security law,” he stated afterward.

Sadness is a trait that plagues those who leave.

” I don’t know whether I will have the chance to return to Hong Kong in future — or before my death,” Chan, the woman who moved to London with her husband in July last year.

” We don’t know what might happen if we return there. She cried, and said that it was really difficult.

Boyle is a special correspondent in London. This report was contributed by Hsiuwen Luu, a special correspondent from Hong Kong.

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