London (AFP) – Cindy was living a comfortable life in Hong Kong: She owned several properties with her husband, and they had a good job. But last year she decided to leave everything behind and move her family to Britain, and not even a global pandemic would affect her decision.
“Uprooting ourselves like this is not easy. The businesswoman and mother of two young children, who did not mention her family name because she feared the repercussions of speaking out against the Chinese government,” said, “But things got worse in the past year, the government was really pushing us away.” “All we appreciate – freedom. Expression, fair elections, freedoms – may erode. Hong Kong is no longer that we knew it, and it was no longer a place we could call home. “
Cindy, who landed in London last week, is one of thousands of Hong Kong residents who have fled their hometowns since Beijing imposed strict national security law on the territory last summer.
Some are leaving because they fear punishment for supporting the pro-democracy protests. But many others, like her, say that China’s encroachment on their way of life and civil liberties has become unbearable, and they want to seek a better future for their children abroad. Most of them say they never plan to return.
Many confirmed their exit plans after Britain announced in July that it would open a special immigration pathway for up to 5 million Hong Kong residents eligible to live, work and eventually settle in the UK.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week that the offer shows that Britain respects its “deep historical ties” with Hong Kong, the former colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997 on the grounds that it would preserve Western-style freedoms and a lot of political autonomy not seen in mainland China. .
British visa applications abroad officially open on Sunday, although many like Cindy have already made it onto British soil to get a head start. Eligible Hong Kong residents can currently come to the UK for six months, but from Sunday they can apply for the right to live and work in the country for five years. After that, they can apply for settled status and then British citizenship.
The British government said about 7,000 people with British overseas status had arrived since July. It estimates that more than 300,000 people will accept the offer of extended residence rights in the next five years.
Cindy said she wants to leave as soon as possible because she fears Beijing will move soon to stop the mass migration.
“The Chinese government has said it has not ruled out more severe tactics,” she said. “I think they could criticize them if tens of thousands of young professionals start leaving, because that would definitely bother Hong Kong’s economy and they wouldn’t like it at all.”
On Friday, Beijing said it would no longer recognize the BNO passport as a travel document or form of identity, and criticized the offer of British citizenship as a move that “seriously violated” China’s sovereignty. The impact of the announcement was unclear, as many Hong Kong residents held multiple passports.
Beijing has drastically hardened its stance on Hong Kong after massive anti-government protests in 2019 turned violent and plunged the city into months-long crisis. Since the enactment of the Security Law, dozens of pro-democracy activists have been arrested, and al-Shabaab leaders have been imprisoned or have fled abroad.
As the new law broadly defines acts of sabotage, separatism, foreign collusion and terrorism, many in Hong Kong fear that expressing any form of political opposition – even posting messages on social media – could get them into trouble.
“I think if you know when to shut up, it’s okay to stay in Hong Kong,” said Fan, 39, who recently arrived in London. Like Cindy, his full name was not mentioned. “But I don’t want to do that. I can complain to the Queen if I want to – I can say anything here.”
Fan, the animator, has sold his apartment in Hong Kong and plans to slowly build a new life in Britain – a country he has never visited before. He will not be alone in starting from scratch.
“This is a truly unique immigration wave – some people just didn’t have time to visit the country they are moving to.” Miriam Law, who runs Excelsior UK, a resettlement agency, said: “Many have no experience living abroad.” Because of the pandemic, They couldn’t come to see a house before they decided to buy. “
The British government estimates there are 2.9 million eligible BNO dependents to move to the UK, with 2.3 million other eligible dependents. The United Kingdom introduced BNO passports in the 1980s to people who were “British citizens of the territories of Hong Kong”. Until recently, passport benefits were limited because they did not confer citizenship or the right to live and work in Britain.
Cindy, the businesswoman, was still recovering from the travel difference, but she is optimistic about her future.
“We want to bring Hong Kong’s energy, our resources and our money here,” she said. “This is a step for our children for sure. But we want to build a whole new life here for ourselves too.”