Many Hongkongers who moved to the U.K. after China cracked down on their home city are concerned about their safety while protesting Beijing's policies or visiting Chinese diplomatic offices to extend travel documents, according to a recent survey.
Initiative SAFE, a research project founded by the group Hongkongers in Britain, conducted an online survey between April 22 and May 7, and released the results on Aug. 17.
Of 458 people who responded, more than 40% had children, and over 50% of all respondents planned to travel to Hong Kong within the next two years. This may require them to obtain travel documents from Chinese diplomatic offices.
The survey found that more than 80% of the respondents had participated in events organized by Hongkonger groups in the U.K. Of this cohort, nearly 90% said that they would check the background of the organizers before participating in any event.
However, only about 40% of the immigrants from Hong Kong in the U.K. said they had participated in rallies or protests related to Hong Kong. Of all the respondents, 37% considered such activities "quite unsafe" or "very unsafe." A fifth of the 458 survey participants cited concerns about their safety upon returning to Hong Kong as a reason for not participating in Hong Kong-related activities in the U.K.
Among those who had participated in such events, 34% mentioned being photographed by strangers, 8% reported experiencing verbal violence, and 7% felt they were being followed.
VOA Cantonese contacted the Chinese Embassy in London for comment but received no response.
Almost 80% of the respondents expressed a lack of confidence in the U.K. government's ability to effectively respond if a foreign government threatened the safety of Hongkongers in the U.K. More than 70% of the respondents believed that the U.K. government had not taken sufficient measures to protect the civic participation and freedom of expression of Hongkongers in the U.K.
"Attempts by foreign governments to coerce, intimidate, harass or harm their critics overseas, undermining democracy and the rule of law, are unacceptable," said a spokesperson for the U.K. Home Office. "The Defending Democracy Taskforce is reviewing our approach to transnational repression to help tackle these challenges wherever they originate."
The Home Office describes itself as "the lead U.K. government department for immigration and passports, drugs policy, crime, fire, counterterrorism and police."
The survey indicated that a vast majority of respondents were aware of an incident last October when diplomats at the Chinese Consulate-General in Manchester assaulted a Hong Kong protester outside the consulate. Six Chinese consular officials allegedly involved left the U.K. voluntarily.
About 90% of respondents said they found it unsafe to apply for documents at Chinese diplomatic facilities. They were concerned about the risks of personal data leakage, application hindrances and potential harm to personal safety.
"A large proportion of respondents in our survey were concerned about data leaks as they would have to provide their addresses in the U.K. when extending their passports," said Jason Chao, a director of Hongkongers in Britain, the organization behind the survey.
"Of course, the data may not be leaked elsewhere, but what would the Hong Kong and Chinese governments do after they collected the addresses? Would there be surveillance? It would be an act of state and you would not know."
More than 80% of the survey respondents indicated that they felt safe in their residential communities, and that the crime situation was not severe. However, a fifth of the respondents mentioned experiencing verbal harassment on the streets; one tenth reported instances of a stranger insulting or shouting at them in public; and one tenth mentioned feeling physically threatened by a stranger in a public space.
Around 70% of the respondents indicated that anti-burglary measures in their neighborhoods made them feel secure, and more than half believed that their relationships with friends, colleagues and affinity groups were helpful. Two-thirds of the respondents expressed interest in participating in engagement activities organized by the local police, but 7% of respondents expressed a lack of trust in the police.
Chao, a 36-year-old activist who arrived in the U.K. in 2017 for graduate school, suggested that authorities should actively monitor suspicious behavior, such as taking photos of Hong Kong protesters during demonstrations in the U.K.
"There are two elements that are important to us under the U.K.'s new National Security Act. First, it is a criminal offense if someone assists a foreign intelligence service," he told VOA Cantonese in an Aug. 18 telephone interview.
"Secondly, even if someone is not assisting a foreign intelligence service, if there is evidence showing that a crime, for example a hate-related assault, was instigated by a foreign country, it would be a factor for handing a heavier punishment," he said.
The new law came into force on July 11. "Russia remains the most acute threat to the UK's security, though we have seen interference from China including to communities here in the UK, and Iran has made concerted efforts to kill or kidnap British or UK-based individuals," according to a government release.
Hongkongers living in the U.K. are often unaware of the new law or that the U.K. has a legal weapon to deter the Chinese, Chao said. He would like the U.K. government to promote awareness of the law.
During job searches in the U.K., potential employers may ask Hongkongers to provide a Certificate of No Criminal Conviction. There are safety concerns as they must apply for this document through the Hong Kong Police Force.
The U.K. government should consider measures to reduce the need for Hong Kong residents to rely on Chinese or Hong Kong government services, such as providing a letter for job seekers to address relevant issues with potential employers, said Chao.
The U.K. has issued more than 166,000 visas on the British National (Overseas) visa route to Hongkongers "who are making significant contributions to our economy and local communities," said the Home Office spokesperson.
This type of British travel document was created in 1987 as a result of the Hong Kong Act of 1985, which made provisions for handing over Hong Kong to China as negotiated in 1984.
Before Hong Kong's handover to China in July 1997, Hongkongers could apply for a BN(O) passport, which did not grant U.K. citizenship. China stopped recognizing the BN(O) passport as a valid travel document or proof of identity as of January 31, 2021.
After the enactment of the National Security Law in Hong Kong on June 30, 2020, Britain provided a "pathway to citizenship" via the BN(O) visa beginning January 31, 2021. This allows Hongkongers to live in the U.K. for up to five years before applying for permanent residency. They can apply for citizenship a year after gaining permanent residency.