While China was preparing to implement a new National Security Law in Hong Kong in the summer of 2020, Jennifer was planning to relocate her family to Britain.
Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers are expected to move to the United Kingdom in the coming years, where they are eligible to apply for British citizenship. Many of the thousands of newly arrived are now organizing initiatives to support others planning their move to Britain.
Like many others, Jennifer participated in the 2019 pro-democracy and anti-government demonstrations. But the law passed last summer has Jennifer and others worried their civil liberties could be undermined.
The National Security Law would prevent and punish what it calls acts of “secession, subversion or terrorism activities” that threaten national security. The law would also allow Chinese national security organizations to set up agencies in Hong Kong. Critics say it effectively curtails protests and freedom of speech; China says it is needed to restore order and stability.
Jennifer, who requested that her real name not be used, spent months online preparing to move her family:
“When I came, I was quite well-prepared because I could have everything for me settled by myself, through a lot of hard work in Hong Kong. So, I did a lot of online research and approaching different organization and departments in the U.K. to arrange my place to live and arrange school for my child and arrange my account and all that. Most of the families, they come here for the children's future,” Jennifer said.
Despite never having lived in Britain before, she holds a British National Overseas passport. Her family is eligible to apply for a new visa that offers a path to British residency and citizenship. The British government estimates nearly 3 million people are eligible along with about 2.3 million dependents. Applications opened January 31. So far 7,000 people with a BNO passport have arrived from Hong Kong since July 2020.
Hong Kong is a former British colony over which China regained control in 1997.
Jennifer now shares her knowledge about the moving process with other Hong Kongers through volunteer organizations. In recent months, several organizations were established in Britain to provide support to people arriving from Hong Kong and to those planning their move.
Simon Cheng is the co-founder and chairman of one such support group, Hongkongers in Britain. The volunteer-run organization hopes to fill information gaps and smooth the process for the 300,000 Hong Kongers believed to resettle in Britain over the next few years.
Cheng says that while there are a lot of questions about the practicality of relocating, such as finding employment and schools, there are deeper concerns regarding China’s ability to retaliate – even in Britain.
“About one month ago, we did the policy study to identify their needs and their concerns. The security would be the area of the concern. And they were a little bit worried that if they come here when they’ve been harassed, the Chinese authority would be very upset about it. We're not sure yet about the future and potential retaliation,” Cheng said.
There are dozens of YouTube channels, Facebook groups and other online platforms where relocated Hong Kongers are sharing information about the visa application and the resettling process.
Neil Jameson of UK Welcomes Refugees, an umbrella group helping people enter British society, says providing the right support and information to BNO holders will test British institutions:
“The problem would be landlords, the National Health Service, the police, and then they will suddenly see these papers they haven't seen before, which is BNO passports. The vast number of people who will be coming, will be coming legitimately, do need to be welcomed, do need ideally to have a trusted group to go to in the places they choose to settle,” Jameson said.
Britain announced the updated British National Overseas passports visa program after the ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy activists by Chinese authorities in Hong Kong. The Chinese government announced it would stop recognizing the BNO as a valid travel document from the moment the BNO application program opened to Hong Kong residents.