Britain opens its doors to 5m Hongkongers

The real Mulan: Agnes Chow, who was jailed last year, became an activist aged just 15. © Getty

Do Western democracies need a dose of Hong Kong’s energy? It is a city known for its unique and vibrant spirit. And today a new visa gives 70% of its citizens the right to live in the UK.

When Simon Cheng was arrested at Hong Kong’s West Kowloon train station, he knew immediately he was in danger.

For months Cheng, an officer at the UK consulate, had attended peaceful protests, marching alongside millions to preserve Hong Kong’s increasingly precarious democracy. In China’s eyes, it made him a target.

For 15 days, Cheng says, he was tortured and beaten. The guards made him stand still for hours on end; if he began to fall asleep, they forced him to sing the Chinese national anthem.

Upon his release in August 2019, Cheng fled to the UK. Now, it is on the streets of London, not Hong Kong, that he fights for his freedoms. Last year, he became the first British National (Overseas) passport holder to be granted asylum in the UK since Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.

Simon Cheng left his community, his job and his beloved city behind to start a new life in the UK. But he will not be alone for long.

Today, the British government introduced a new visa giving 5.4 million Hongkongers, an incredible 70% of the territory’s population, the right to live in the UK.

Estimates vary as to how many will take up the offer. The December jailing of Agnes Chow may convince some to make the move. UK authorities expect that 300,000 people will arrive in the first five years, but others put the figure at up to a million.

One thing is clear: for those who choose to make the journey, Hong Kong will be a hard place to say goodbye to.

When Prince Charles gave a speech marking the end of 156 years of colonial rule in 1997, he made a stunning declaration: “Hong Kong has created one of the most successful societies on Earth.”

In the years that followed, few would regard it as an exaggeration. Hong Kong is known worldwide for its energy and spirit.

With more than 16,000 people squashed into every square mile, it is a city that is always on the go. It has the world’s tallest skyline and largest subway system. One of the four Asian Tiger economies, it even has the world’s highest average IQ.

Every June, thousands squeeze onto the iconic double-decker trams, known to locals as “ding dings”, to attend the Dragon boat festival, where they gorge on festive rice dumplings and watch paddlers compete in three thrilling days of racing.

Today, many Hongkongers say they have a “Lion Rock spirit”. The phrase, which refers to the city’s perseverance, has become a call to arms for young activists.

Now, some are preparing to bring this “Lion Rock spirit” to the UK. P, a qualified engineer in his mid-20s, fled to Britain last June when a friend was suddenly arrested. He is optimistic: “Hong Kong is filled with youths who can contribute to society.”

Many economists agree. One group of analysts estimates that Hongkongers could boost the UK economy by up to £40bn, equivalent to a full year of economic growth. It would be, they say, a “ray of sunshine” for the West.

So, do Western democracies need a dose of Hong Kong’s energy?

Mass exodus

Yes, say some. The UK, US, Canada and Australia are all popular destinations for Hong Kong’s emigrants, and all benefit from their sense of spirit, optimism and entrepreneurialism. Hong Kong, a fusion of East and West, has a unique history and culture. Now, its young pro-democracy activists could bring the buzz of Hong Kong with them to the West.

No, say others. Hongkongers are not unique. Youth, passion and entrepreneurial energy are common traits in almost all migrant groups, economic or otherwise. Many Western countries already have thriving, open and multicultural societies. A sudden rise in the number of migrants from Hong Kong in particular is unlikely to alter life in the UK significantly.

You Decide

  1. What makes a country a good place to live?
  2. Is it worth risking jail to fight for democracy?

Activities

  1. Make a poster explaining five things someone from Hong Kong would need to know if they decided to move to your country.
  2. In groups, come up with definitions for the terms “migrant” and “refugee”. Which do you think best applies to people leaving Hong Kong for Britain?

Some People Say...

“It is the people of Hong Kong, standing up for their city on the streets, who make it truly great.”

Joshua Wong (1996 - ), Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the “one country, two systems” model, which came into force in Hong Kong when British rule ended in 1997, is breaking down. The UK government announced the new visa system last year in response to a new security law, which gives police the power to arrest anyone they accuse of subversive behaviour. Yet despite increasing Chinese rule, a 2019 survey found that 90% of Hongkongers aged 18-29 are not proud of being a Chinese citizen.
What do we not know?
One area of debate surrounds how many Hongkongers will come to Britain. The Centre for Economic Business Research, which suggested Hongkongers will boost the British economy by £40bn, based their calculations on an estimate of one million arrivals. The UK government has published reports suggesting the figure could be anywhere between 10,000 and one million people. And Hongkongers in Britain, a new group set up by Simon Cheng, thinks that 600,000 people will migrate in the first three years.

Word Watch

West Kowloon train station
The border post in the station, set up in 2018, is controversial. Pro-democracy activists are unhappy about the presence of Chinese border police in Hong Kong.
Precarious
Not securely held or in position. Dangerously likely to fall or collapse.
British National (Overseas)
Often abbreviated to BN(O), a class of nationality granted to people in Hong Kong before the transfer of power in 1997. It does not equate to citizenship, nor can it be passed on to children.
New visa
The new visa allows anyone eligible for a BN(O) passport to live in the UK, along with their dependents. After five years, they can apply for settlement, and then citizenship after a further year.
Agnes Chow
The protest leader and politician, born in 1996, gave up her UK citizenship to stand for election in Hong Kong in 2018. Last December, she was sentenced to ten months in prison.
Asian Tiger economies
The four Asian tiger economies are Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. All underwent rapid industrialisation and huge economic growth in the late 20th Century.
IQ
A 2016 survey found that Hong Kongers have an average IQ of 107, probably due to the city’s relentless focus on education. South Korea ranked second, with an average of 106.
Lion Rock spirit
Lion Rock is a mountain which Hong Kongers can climb to overlook the city. The saying “Lion Rock spirit” comes from the theme tune of a 1970s television series called “Below the Lion Rock.”

Subjects

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