Thousands of people in Hong Kong have applied for special visas to live in the UK: NPR

Children from Hong Kong sing at the Sutton Friendship Festival last month as the London borough welcomes new arrivals from the former British colony.

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Children from Hong Kong sing at the Sutton Friendship Festival last month as the London borough welcomes new arrivals from the former British colony.

Frank Langfitt/NPR

SUTTON, England — Hundreds of people, mostly from Hong Kong, turned out for a welcome home party last month at a public park in this leafy London suburb. Children, newly arrived from the former British colony, screamed as they slid down a giant inflatable slide, stood in long lines to have their faces painted and gathered to sing ‘It’s a small world after all’ for their beaming parents.

The rally, billed as the Sutton Friendship Festival, resembled a county fair for immigrants – an event that seemed at odds with a country that just five years ago voted to leave the Union European Union in order to limit immigration.

“I am so happy that you have chosen to come here and make it your home,” said Sutton Council leader Ruth Domby, speaking to some of the 400 Hong Kong families who have moved. here. “We want to help you in every way possible to feel part of the community.”

During the first half of this year, a huge 65,000 of Hong Kongers have applied for a special five-year visa to live in the UK. They are fleeing China’s grip on the Asian financial hub for the safety of the ancient empire that once ruled them. The UK has a generous visa program in place that opens the way to citizenship for potentially millions of Hong Kongers. The government estimates up to 475,000 will be moving here in the next few years.

Residents of Sutton and newcomers to Hong Kong exchange messages of welcome and calls for freedom using colorful sticky notes. The bulletin board is reminiscent of a similar bulletin board created along a wall in Hong Kong during its 2014 democracy protests.

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Some Hong Kongers feared their children would be brainwashed if they stayed

For couples like Eric and Shelly, who arrived earlier this year, the visa program is an escape. The couple fled Hong Kong after the Chinese government imposed a national security law that is being used to criminalize speech that was previously free.

As with nearly all Hong Kongers interviewed for this story, NPR is not using the couple’s full names to protect their loved ones back home from possible retaliation by authorities.

Shelly, a nurse, says she wrote freely on Facebook. But since the new 2020 law, she says few in the territory are posting anything political or controversial.

“Nobody wants to talk,” Shelly said. “Nobody wants to share.”

This is a dramatic change in Hong Kong, where people spoke as freely as in the United States.

Eric worked as a teacher in Hong Kong. Like other schools, it canceled a course on liberal studies, a subject designed to help students develop critical thinking. The school replaced it with another course built around a patriotic curriculum designed to instill support for the Chinese Communist Party.

The Hong Kong government has even set up a hotline where the public can anonymously report those they suspect of violating national security law.

Eric and Shelly feared that if they stayed in Hong Kong, the government would end up brainwashing their children.

“I was afraid that one day my children would report me via the hotline”, says Shelly. She laughs, but does not joke.

China reneged on its 1997 promise of 50 years of freedoms for Hong Kong

Britain took control of Hong Kong in 1842, after inflicting a humiliating defeat on China in First Opium War. The UK returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, but before that China committed itself in an international treaty to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy and relative freedoms for another 50 years.

“Now Hongkongers have to lead Hong Kong,” said Chris Patton, the last British governor of Hong Kong, during the handover ceremony. “That’s the promise and that’s the unshakeable fate.”

In the early years, it seemed possible. However, in 2003, the Hong Kong government drafted safety legislation which many feared would be used to restrict their freedoms. After hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated, the authorities abandoned the plan.

But the government has not given up. In 2019, he drafted legislation allowing Hong Kongers to be extradited to face trial in mainland China, where the conviction rate is around 99%. This sparked protests, which turned violent and paralyzed parts of the city.

China’s parliament responded by imposing the National Security Law, which authorities used to crush dissent, arresting dozens of pro-democracy activists, including Jimmy Lai, editor of the now closed newspaper Apple Daily, an aggressive newspaper that regularly criticized the Communist Party. The UK said the new law violated the treaty between the two countries. He responded by offering most Hong Kongers five-year visas, with the right to apply for permanent residency.

Hundreds of people fill Piccadilly Circus in London on October 1, China’s National Day, to protest the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of Hong Kong, Tibet and Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

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Despite Brexit, Britain has opened its doors to Hong Kongers

Anti-immigrant sentiment and some xenophobia drove the UK’s Brexit campaign in 2016, leading Britain to walk away from decades of economic and political integration with the European Union. Five years later, hardly anyone complains about the influx of Hong Kongers. Indeed, communities like Sutton are rolling out the red carpet. Steve Tsang, who heads the China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, says it comes down to the profile of immigrants and the power of colonial ties.

“Hong Kong immigrants are likely to come from middle-class, professional backgrounds, who would either bring in enough money to retire early, or they will arrive as very industrious and enterprising workers,” says Tsang, who grew up in Hong Kong.

The British government sees them as more valuable to the economy, he says, and less taxing on government resources than, say, the poorer, less-educated agricultural workers in Eastern Europe, who were among the targets of the Brexit campaign.

When China breached its commitment on Hong Kong, the British government had limited options. If it hit China with economic sanctions, China could have retaliated against British companies. Benedict Rogers, Managing Director of Hong Kong watchan advocacy group that monitors basic freedoms there says the visa program was “less provocative”.

For some, the transition to a new life in the UK is not so easy

On October 1, China’s National Day, hundreds of Hong Kongers descended on London’s Piccadilly Circus to protest the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of Hong Kong, Tibet and Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Among the crowd were young political activists who had fled Hong Kong this year to avoid arrest and imprisonment.

Edward, 32, boarded a plane for London last winter after learning Hong Kong police were planning to arrest people like him who had helped stage a primary election for pro-democracy parties, which China had deemed illegal. Edward only told a few friends and family that he was leaving.

Hundreds of protesters marched from London’s Piccadilly Circus towards the Chinese Embassy.

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“In Hong Kong, you have to protect them,” Edward said, pointing out that authorities are retaliating against family members of activists.

Like all Hong Kongers interviewed for this story, Edward is grateful to the UK government, but his transition has been shocking at times. He gave up a well-paid logistics job in Hong Kong and worked for a time as an import clearance clerk, earning minimum wage.

Compared to Hong Kong’s hectic corporate culture, Edward found his new British employer old-fashioned.

“I tried to write a program within the company just to spread their data processing, and I was able to reduce a two-man job to a one-man job,” he says.

The company wasn’t happy about that, he adds: “They said, ‘Edward, we don’t like you changing things. “”

Even those who fled Hong Kong did not completely leave China behind. Last year, friends in Hong Kong warned Finn Lau, a democracy activist, that he could be under attack, even in England.

Two months later, 27-year-old Lau was strolling one evening in otherwise safe west London. He spotted several men in hoodies following him. When he stopped to check, he recalled, “They rushed over and started hitting me, kicking me and hitting my head.”

He says the men didn’t take anything or say anything racist but kept beating him.

“There was a moment when I asked myself: ‘Is this the end of my life?'”, he says.

Lau fainted. When he came to, he went to the hospital, covered in blood. He was treated for facial cuts and head injuries, according to a medical report. The doctor referred the case to the police, who could not identify the men.

The attack did not deter Lau. He led the protest at Piccadilly Circus earlier this month and marched with hundreds of people to demonstrate outside the Chinese Embassy.

But when Lau wanders around London, the city where he sought refuge, he says he’s much more cautious now.

London producer Jessica Beck contributed to this report.

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