National security law: tears, fears, but a new life? HK early birds who have taken BN(O) path to Britain

27-Jan-2021 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 7:22 AM Print This Post

With a job that paid HK$2 million (US$258,000) a year, investment banker Tom Chan* never thought of leaving his comfortable life in Hong Kong, not even at the height of anti-government protests in 2019.

The high-flyer had taken years to rise to his managerial position at a renowned bank. Married with two daughters aged 12 and 14, he just did not bother with politics.

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“I never protested. I never posted anything considered pro-democracy on my Facebook page, but only about eating, drinking, and enjoying my life,” said Chan, in his 40s. “I am not a radical person. I was just a slick banker in Central.”

Everything changed for him after Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong last June, outlawing acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and interference by foreign forces in the city’s affairs. And as dozens of activists were arrested in the months that followed, he found himself fearing for the future of the city and his daughters.

He resigned from his job last September, sold the family’s flat and car and moved last month with his homemaker wife and children to Kent, in southeast England, arriving at a time when Britain was reporting more than 30,000 Covid-19 infections a day.

Chan, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, took about HK$10 million to start afresh in their new home.

“This time, I wasn’t leaving Hong Kong on holiday for two weeks. I left for good. That day had come,” he said.

The Chans are among thousands from Hong Kong who have moved in recent months to Britain, which has opened its doors to those from its former colony eager to escape what it regards as Beijing’s tightening grip.

Before returning Hong Kong to China in 1997, Britain granted Hongkongers born before the handover British National (Overseas) passports which allowed them to visit the country for up to six months without automatically letting them work there.

According to British Home Office estimates, there were 167,000 BN(O) passports in circulation as of July last year. That figure was estimated to have risen to 733,000 by the end of 2020 an increase of more than 300 per cent.

After the national security law was imposed last year, Britain announced a new BN(O) visa that would allow everyone with BN(O) status and their dependents to stay in the country for up to five years, with the right to work and study, and to apply for citizenship after six years.

From January 31, an estimated 5.4 million people out of Hong Kong’s population of 7.5 million will be eligible to apply for these new visas.

Since the middle of last year, however, thousands of Hongkongers already began making their way there, including professionals like Chan as well as young people, activists and some who took part in the 2019 protests.

Britain has also been granting Leave Outside the Rules (LOTR) status to arriving Hongkongers with BN(O) status and their dependents, allowing them to remain and work in the country for six months, with no access to public funds.

Between July 15 and October 14, a total of 2,116 BN(O) passport holders and their dependants were granted LOTR status, according to official figures from the British authorities. The Home Office would not provide updated figures when asked.

Beijing is said to be considering retaliatory measures against the British scheme, with sources saying there are suggestions to bar those with BN(O) status from public office or even the right to vote. The city’s former security minister, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, has urged Beijing to forbid citizens from holding dual nationality.

In interviews with the Post, 10 Hongkongers who have already moved to Britain said they were undeterred by the talk of retaliation by Beijing or Ip’s suggestion.

They described their sadness at leaving their loved ones and the familiarity of Hong Kong for a country some had never visited, and admitted being worried over the uncertainties of what lay ahead.

With Britain reporting tens of thousands of new Covid-19 infections every day amid rising unemployment, some of the new arrivals admitted they were struggling to find jobs and worried that their life savings would dry up.

Still, all those interviewed said, for now, they had no regrets about leaving.

Long journey to Britain

Chan recalled that on his Uber ride to Hong Kong International Airport with his wife and daughters to catch their flight to London, he felt overwhelmed as he took in a final view of Beacon Hill and Lung Cheung Road, places he had been to countless times.

“I saw the skyline and felt quite emotional,” he said.

Arriving at London’s Heathrow airport early the next morning, the family went to the immigration counter to request the LOTR status. There were about 20 Hong Kong families there, he said.

The family presented their Hong Kong and British residential documents, Hong Kong identity cards and bank statements showing they had enough savings to support themselves in Britain. They received the LOTR stamp in just 10 minutes, he said.

They spent HK$400,000 to settle down, including buying a second-hand car and paying HK$200,000 for a year’s rent on a spacious three-storey house.

His daughters were admitted to a British state school before the family left Hong Kong. This means big savings compared to putting them in an expensive boarding school.

Chan, who hopes to find a job in finance, is clear that the drastic move was mostly for his girls, as he was worried about raising them in Hong Kong.

“The government is arresting so many people who hold different views than its own,” he said.

Referring to an agreement between Britain and China at Hong Kong’s handover, that the city’s high degree of autonomy would remain until 2047, Chan asked: “Can we still trust that the way of life will remain for 50 years?”

Frustrating search for jobs

With the pandemic raging, there could not be a worse time to emigrate to Britain.

The jobless rate reached 4.9 per cent for the period from August to October last year, which meant there were 1.69 million unemployed people. The rate is expected to worsen and hit 7.5 per cent in the middle of this year, according to the British government’s economic watchdog.

Over three months after arriving in London last October, Cherry Yeung* sent out more than 100 job applications. She landed only one interview, but that did not take place as she could not provide proof of a residential address due to the delay in opening a British bank account.

“I am definitely frustrated. I keep applying and am constantly getting rejected,” said Yeung, 30. “I worked in the advertising industry in Hong Kong, so I can use my skills in any country. But the economy here is really bad and I don’t know much about British culture.”

She moved to London with her female partner, who has enrolled in a university there. She said she was frustrated with the political status quo in Hong Kong, and had always wanted to live abroad.

“Living in Hong Kong is suffocating,” she said. “I just wanted to get away from the city.”

Aby Wong, 28, also arrived in London last October and, like Yeung, struggled to find work.

She went there with her boyfriend, Billy Tung, 29, and both used to work as insurance underwriters in Hong Kong,

She applied for 50 jobs and the only offer came from a Chinese supermarket, but she did not take up the sales manager’s position, which required her to travel around the country.

“I was so naive to think that I could work as a waitress or sales assistant in the supermarket, but I just could not put aside my pride,” Wong said.

Then a start-up developing English language learning applications for children invited her to an interview for a customer service job, and she did all she could to prepare, scrutinising the firm’s website and social media pages.

She landed the role.

“In Britain, employers look more at your enthusiasm and commitment rather than your qualifications. You have to show your passion. They want to find an employee who can click with them,” she said.

Protesters leave their past behind

Among those who left Hong Kong because of their involvement in the 2019 unrest was Samson Chen, 51, previously the assistant of former lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung, who fled for Britain last month as he faced a raft of criminal charges stemming from the protests.

Chen, who is unmarried, said he decided to leave this month, after he felt he was being followed for weeks.

“It was such a tough decision,” he said. “I was born and raised in Hong Kong and I felt I had no choice but to separate from my family.”

Recalling how his 93-year-old father broke down at the airport, Chen said: “He cried and his last words to me were to take care of myself, and goodbye. My father is quite old, so if I cannot go back to Hong Kong I might never see him again.”

He is in Manchester, where he has about 20 friends helping him settle in. He hopes to find a job in the city’s Chinatown as he does not speak much English.

Lisette Chiu* was on her plane to London when her mother’s text message arrived, saying: “I will miss you. I really love you. I want you to always remember that.”

The 23-year-old struggled to hold back her tears. Her mother had begged her not to leave, but eventually accepted her decision.

Chiu, who has a degree in hotel management, said she feared for her safety after the national security law was introduced as she had taken part in the protests and waved the British flag during demonstrations.

She holds a BN(O) passport as her mother obtained it for her after she was born in 1997. Her parents will support her in Britain until she is able to work there.

She now shares a 700 sq ft flat with two others from Hong Kong, splitting the monthly rent of about 1,500 pounds (HK$16,000).

Bella Ho*, 24, and her boyfriend Peter Tsui*, 28, were regulars at the 2019 protests, and left for Britain last month because they believed Hong Kong had become just another Chinese city without the freedoms it used to enjoy.

Both had BN(O) passports, used the LOTR scheme to enter Britain and now live rent-free in a spacious four-bedroom house in Birmingham, owned by Ho’s family.

Tsui is relying on his savings, while Ho is receiving financial support from her parents.

Ho, 24, said they are prepared to help Hongkongers who move to Britain. “We can help others who do not have a place to stay,” she said.

She scoffed at Regina Ip’s suggestion to ban dual citizenship, saying that would probably hurt senior Hong Kong officials believed to have British citizenship.

“There’s not a big chance that I’ll go back to Hong Kong to stay permanently or work there,” she said.

Peony Lee* and her husband Nick Cheung*, who also arrived in Britain last month, felt Ip’s suggestion was just an attempt to scare people into not leaving Hong Kong.

“It does not affect us that much as we have already moved all of our belongings to Britain. Those who still have business and property in Hong Kong may have more concerns,” said Cheung, adding he planned to start a trading business.

The couple, in their 40s, have two young sons and live in Surrey.

Lee, who was a senior administrator at a tertiary education institution before leaving Hong Kong, said the 2019 social unrest proved a turning point.

“I was a ‘Hong Kong pig’ for many years,” she said, using the Cantonese term “gong zyu”, which refers to those who are indifferent to politics. “Like many other Hong Kong people, I was making a living, dating, getting married and giving birth over the past decade.”

Then she found herself breaking down many times watching live broadcasts of the protests. She began to feel frustrated when the government refused to listen to the demands of protesters, and that set her worrying about her sons’ future.

As for fears about a future in a new country, not one said they were worried. Bella Ho, however, quipped: “But ask me again in six months. If I cannot find a job by then maybe I would regret it.”


Category: Hong Kong

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