Hong Kong, China – After spending half his life building his career as an art director at a Hong Kong magazine, Edmond Kwok never thought he would have to start over in England toiling in manual labour jobs.
Like most of the 50,000 people who left Hong Kong last year for a new life in a new land, 39-year-old Kwok says he had no choice but to make the sacrifices necessary to keep his family safe.
Ever since last June, when Beijing imposed a national security law that criminalised protests and other forms of anti-government organising, many Hong Kong people have been on tenterhooks. Dozens of prominent dissidents and other vocal critics have since been charged, in some cases based on what they posted online or said in public.
Kwok’s elder son, not even eight years old, had a close call. Once, when he saw a group of police officers, he blurted out “corrupt cops”. Their heads turned.
“In Hong Kong these days, policy can change on a whim. You never know when you’ll cross the line,” Kwok said, reliving the fear that his boy would be hauled off to jail.
Last year, the British government announced a visa scheme for all Hong Kong people with British National (Overseas) status, which includes some three million people born in the then-British colony before it was handed back to China in 1997. Under the new policy, they can enter the United Kingdom with their families to work or study for five years before becoming eligible to seek the right of abode and, eventually, citizenship.
Kwok leapt at this opportunity. Last September, he and his wife and their two little boys packed up their lives and settled in Bath, a city in western England famed for its Roman baths and Georgian architecture.
While the visa offer was hailed by some Hong Kong people as a victory – in that it restored a birthright they should have had as people born in a British colony – those who have studied changes in nationality laws across the last half-century of decolonisation said the British promise to Hong Kong is too narrowly defined.
“Why is that the UK takes responsibility only for those who registered for [the passport] before 1997? This is not an unconditional offer,” Zoe Bantleman, a barrister in London who specialises in UK nationality and immigration laws, told Al Jazeera. “If you can pay, the door is more open.”
Crackdowns open door
The door to the UK has long been closed to generations of Hong Kong people.
The UK’s Nationality Act 1948 conferred the right of abode in the UK on all those born in British colonies, including Hong Kong, but this came to an end with changes to the act in the 1960s and 1970s.
By 1981, just as negotiations with Beijing on Hong Kong’s future were about to start, the nationality act was amended to downgrade all Hong Kong citizens with no British parentage to overseas nationals. They were issued a special class of passport, the BN(O), which would allow them to visit the UK for six months at a time, but not to work or apply for public benefits.
To Chi-kwan Mark, a historian at the University of London, the timing was no coincidence.
“[T]he Thatcher government was influenced by a racial prejudice against Hong Kong Chinese … Racist thinking about ethnic Chinese as being inferior, alien, and economically menacing had a long tradition within British society,” Mark wrote in a 2019 paper.
And as the most populous colony at the time with a population of five million, “Hong Kong was affected more than any other colonies,” he told Al Jazeera.
It was only after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, that London relented slightly and granted visas to 50,000 families of senior civil servants, business elites and managerial professionals.
Then as now, it has taken Beijing’s clampdown on civil liberties, this time in Hong Kong, to open the door a little wider for Hong Kong people to settle in the UK.
“We have been clear we won’t look the other way when it comes to Hong Kong,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said last month. “We will live up to our historic responsibility to its people.”
Kwok viewed the visa scheme not so much as a humanitarian offer, but as a calibrated move to capture brains and the economic gains that tend to accompany the well-educated. The new policy officially came into force on January 31.
“The Brits are very calculating and good at weighing costs against benefits,” said Kwok. “The UK is an ageing society. They can use new taxpayers, and the BN(O) holders will form a solid tax base.”
British authorities estimate in the next five years about 300,000 Hong Kong residents may arrive, making this the largest resettlement of former colonial subjects since the Windrush wave of immigrants from the Caribbean colonies tapered off by 1970. And they forecast the scheme will generate “a net benefit of between 2.4 and 2.9 billion pounds over five years.”
Price worth paying
To qualify for the visa, the BN(O) holders must demonstrate sufficient financial resources to support themselves and their dependents for the first six months after their arrival in the UK. They must find work and also pay an immigration health surcharge to cover their medical care.
All told, Kwok paid the UK government more than 2,700 British pounds ($3,900) for his family of four.
Trapped in the lockdown, Kwok and his family have been living off their savings. The family opted to live in Bath because they were worried about the levels of COVID-19 in Birmingham, the UK’s second-biggest city and the place they initially planned to settle. With only a secondary school education and limited English, Kwok is looking to work as a chef or a delivery man.
About 7,000 people have taken up the offer so far, according to the UK government.
Soon after arriving in London late last year, Judy Wong beat out more than 100 candidates to land a job at a startup. The 28-year-old UI/UX designer who had gone to university in the city did not expect to be heading back to the country in just a few short years.
“Our parents are very worried, hurrying us to pack up. They don’t trust the government,” said Wong.
Eight months after their wedding, she and her husband Chan Hei-wa started their life together in a foreign land. The couple spent their honeymoon bouncing between Airbnb rentals. Now, having settled into a leased studio, Wong is charged with scouting for good schools for Chan’s nephews. Chan’s sister’s family is set to leave in the middle of this year.
Their new life abroad still entails sacrifice, but the couple thinks it is worth it.
“We’re looking for freedom and justice,” said Wong. “We should be prepared to pay the price.”
Chan is giving up his budding career in design and branding and planning to turn his hobby into his next livelihood. The couple is looking to operate a food stall as Chan is adept at cooking Chinese and Japanese dishes.
As for Kwok, even though he is prepared to start over at the bottom he says he has no regrets.
“At least now I won’t have to worry my sons would be taken away for saying the wrong thing,” said Kwok. “So long as due process and justice are upheld I feel protected, and to me, that is the most important thing.”