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Here comes Hong Kong

Tuesday 4 May 2021

Thousands of Hong Kongers will soon arrive in the UK, prompting fears they will be ill-treated, or that there may be a second Windrush scandal. But, in one London suburb, a model of civic integration is emerging as a beacon of hope


“We all need to pay a price to earn democracy. When I was young, people always said Hong Kong people are cool. Hong Kong is not China yet.”

The words come from a Hong Kong protester, filmed for the Oscar-nominated documentary Do Not Split.  

A combination of security restrictions and Covid regulations – conveniently preventing social gatherings – have silenced the protests since December 2019. Recently, a 16-year-old school pupil was punished for playing ‘Glory to Hong Kong’ on a flute. 

Last week, Hong Kong passed its controversial immigration bill, which includes powers to prevent people from leaving, as well as entering, the island. The immigration authorities are now empowered to stop a passenger boarding a departing plane. When the Hong Kong politician Nathan Law sought asylum in the UK last year, he took the precaution of getting on a plane carrying only a rucksack.

The immigration bill becomes law in August, which is concentrating the minds of British National Overseas passport holders. These are the residents of Hong Kong who chose to remain British after sovereignty was handed over to China in 1997 – allowed, as a consequence, to live and work in the UK and to apply for settled status after five years. 

Should they stay or should they try to make a new life in the UK? Hong Kong is divided between the trademark yellow of the democracy activists and blue for those who have made their accommodation with mainland China and just want stability. 

Out of the 5.4 million potentially eligible, including dependants, the UK government publicly expects around 300,000 people to use the visa scheme over the next five years. Of course, the immigration authorities won’t get a clear sense of the likely numbers until they start arriving – which worries those concerned with the practicalities of resettlement. 

Luke de Pulford is a human rights campaigner and founding member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China. He claims that the government’s internal advice is actually to expect about three quarters of a million people – and says it could be even more. 

“The immigration rules come into force in August, and the idea is to turn Hong Kong into a kind of prison. I would expect a flood before that. If I had to predict numbers after last year’s security law [which criminalises secession and subversion], I would have thought about 100,000 people would want to come.  Now it is hard to tell, as Hong Kong has become more authoritarian. Tens of thousands will want to arrive before the iron curtain comes down. What was illuminating for me was that the government really had no clue.”

It is a misapprehension, de Pulford continues, to assume that all the incomers will be rich and English speaking: “Last week I had to help out two homeless Hong Kongers on the streets of Hammersmith. This could be the largest migration of people since the EU accession, it could be many times the number of the Ugandan Asian arrivals, and yet we have no plan.”

The precedent to which he refers is half a century old. In 1972, Idi Amin announced that God had told him to expel 80,000 Asians with British passports from Uganda. 

There were fears about the impact on the UK. Some cities such as Leicester warned that there were neither jobs nor housing for the incomers. But the Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, was firm about the country’s moral duty. Around 28,000 arrived in Britain that summer. 

What will happen when the Hong Kong Chinese arrive in greater numbers this summer? Campaigners such as de Pulford worry about the support infrastructure. 

For its part, the government is setting up a £43 million support package and giving extra funding to schools and councils. And since it is a stipulation of entry that Hong Kong arrivals must have six months worth of savings, they should not be destitute. 

Indeed, the demographic of likely incomers is not straightforward. There is a natural assumption that the youthful protesters familiar from our television screens over the past two or three years will be the first arrivals. 

But you need to have been born before 1997, when the British transferred sovereignty to China, or to have parents with BNO status. Those student protesters, almost all of them born after the cut-off date, are also unlikely to have the required six months’ worth of savings.

A much larger group of potential arrivals is composed of professionals in their thirties with early-school-age children. Suddenly, parents worry about what their children will be taught in school. What will be left of the Hong Kong values – freedom and democracy?

So are we doing enough to help those who are sacrificing family and homeland to start anew in Britain? At the end of February, Stephen Kinnock, shadow minister for Asia and the Pacific, and Holly Lynch, shadow minister for immigration, wrote to Lord Greenhalgh, minister for housing, communities and local government, with their concerns about the visa for British nationals.

What, they asked, was being done to address “the financial barriers many Hong Kongers may face in accessing the scheme, as well as the preparatory work being undertaken to prepare for the arrival and transition into life in the UK. At present, a family of two adults and two children would need almost £16,000 upfront to meet the costs of the five-year visa, including application fees and NHS surcharges, as well as the requirement to demonstrate sufficient funds for six months. The current minimum wage to Hong Kong is (equivalent) to £3.45 per hour. For two parents working full time on the minimum wage, the upfront costs would be more than their combined annual salaries.”

Kinnock and Lynch also raised the questions of integration posed by the influx – given that the UK government itself estimates that between 123,000 and 153,700 people may make use of the visa in the first year, and between 258,000 and 322,400 in the first five years. 

Lord Greenhalgh responded that applicants were “expected to be self-sufficient and will need to show that they can accommodate and sustain themselves and their dependants for at least six months upon arrival in the UK”. The same logic, he continued, applied to the Immigration Health Surcharge: “[I]t is only right that BNO status holders contribute to the health care system they will be using. Income from this goes directly into the NHS.” 

And as for integration: “I will continue to work with my colleagues across Government with local areas, civil society groups and importantly the Hong Kong status holders themselves to ensure all those who do take advantage of the Government’s generous offer are made to feel at home here and given every opportunity to thrive…”

So far, all this is fairly theoretical – a policy debate among politicians and bureaucrats. But who is actually coming and where are they heading? Hong Kongers are sophisticated people and the first thing they look for is a school, followed by transport. 

London, Manchester and Birmingham seem to be the most popular destinations. Where I live in White City in London, high-end flats are already being snapped up by Hong Kong Chinese. 

But for all the talk of Hong Kong island being transplanted to the City of London and high-profile locations like it, the outstanding destination so far seems to be the south London suburb of Sutton. It has the advantage of good schools and transport links. But it has also established itself, perhaps, as a model of immigration planning, a pilot for future practice. And it has done so through a combination of social media networks and churches.

A pivotal figure in Sutton is Richard Choi, aged 39, who moved there from central London more than a decade ago. Choi is a phone designer from Hong Kong who came to the UK when he was offered a job by Nokia. He is also a churchgoer and a data analyst, and the combination of the two has been essential to the fortunes of the BNO passport holders.

Choi heard through his church last December that six Hong Kong families had moved into the area, and he wanted to help. He set up a Facebook page specifically for Hong Kongers considering moving to Sutton and rapidly acquired 1,500 people on the site. As he observes: “Hong Kongers, they learn it is a good area.”

He cold-called some local churches who all offered to help welcome incoming Hong Kongers. (“I was touched,” he says, “it was quite overwhelming actually.”)  He also picked up a LinkedIn message from Jason Swan Clark, pastor of Sutton Vineyard Church, who suggested greater community involvement. What about school children making paper dragons and lanterns? How about a buddy system to integrate local families with the newcomers?

Choi then sought to match resources to demand. He checked how many vacant places there were at local secondary schools and found there were none. “That worried me,” he says. “I want to avoid conflict which could lead to racism – you have to plan immigration. Otherwise it can be dangerous.”

So he contacted the council and offered to share the information from his Facebook page in return for council feedback: “I told the council that they had to feel comfortable.” If the council should warn that school or medical infrastructure might come under strain, Choi would tell Hong Kongers that they must try other towns apart from Sutton.

Thus far, it has worked harmoniously. When I spoke to Choi, he had been on a call to the local authority education department, armed with his spreadsheet. It might be a good idea, he thinks, for central government to match demand and resources nationally, as is happening informally in Sutton. He fears that Whitehall does not seem to have adequate data, and thus may not be planning accordingly.  

It helps, of course, that 85 per cent of those arriving in Sutton are university-educated and eager to start new businesses, or to fill the job vacancies in London opened up by those who have decided during the pandemic to leave the capital and do other work from home. The Home Office already estimates that Hong Kong arrivals could contribute between £2.4 billion and £2.9 billion to the Exchequer in the next five years. 

Savings and professional skills offer a measure of reassurance to Hong Kongers. But it is still a big step for them to leave, knowing they are unlikely to be able to return. 

They need to find homes, schools, set up bank accounts, start afresh. Without credit ratings, it is hard to rent, so many are either starting in Airbnb accommodation, or paying a year’s rent in advance up front. In addition, Hong Kongers are vaccinating themselves not only against Covid but against TB.

Then, they have to get to know their new neighbourhood. While Sutton is a safe, green and prosperous borough, its population is one of the four most uniformly white in London – so Hong Kongers attract attention. Alarmed by the spikes in racist crime against those of Asian appearance during the early pandemic, Swan Clark and Choi agreed that integration must be their top priority.

In this respect, the churches’ network has been all-important. Krish Kandiah, an Oxfordshire based director of the Evangelical Alliance, has been active in linking up churches as welcoming sanctuaries for the Hong Kongers. He started to think practically about the potential 130,000 arrivals this summer, and became fearful of a repeat of the Windrush scandal (in which British subjects from the Caribbean who arrived here quite legally after 1948 were subsequently and wrongly detained, deported and otherwise denied their rights).

“Migration has not always been handled well,” Kandiah says, with understatement. “This is the largest migration outside Europe for a generation. The Ugandan Asians were 70,000 over 12 years. This is twice that, in months.”

He is compassionate about the sacrifices Hong Kongers are making, leaving relatives behind to cross continents in a time of pandemic. “One said to me: ‘I have to choose now between a good father, or a good son.’”

He began mobilising the churches, talking to the office of the Bishop of London, and then joining forces with Manchester and Birmingham. UKHK.org was set up as a “Hong Kong Ready Church”. Churches were asked to commit to welcoming Hong Kongers – the logo appears both in English and in Cantonese. Around 400 are already signed up to the network and there is a particularly vibrant cluster of these around the blessed Sutton. 

Swan Clark has thrown himself into organising Cantonese music and food evenings and offering help to the new arrivals to find their feet. He is also keen that the people of Sutton should learn some words of Cantonese and be sensitive to some basic cultural information – including the fact that Hong Kongers do not consider themselves to be Chinese. 

In this London suburb, there are cautious signs of a new model of integration, driven by civic society and faith. The incomers are seen as contributors and are keen to become part of the community they join. Most speak English, and those who don’t are keen to learn. There is a class of 40 already in Sutton. They regard themselves, proudly, as British Hong Kongers. 

And, in return, the people of Sutton are sampling Cantonese food at church events and already preparing for one of the first great post-Covid community events in June. This will be a floating of the lanterns and the paper dragons down the river. 

There may even be a verse sung of ‘Glory to Hong Kong’. 

We pledge: No more tears on our land

In wrath, doubts dispell’d we make our stand

Arise! Ye who would not be slaves again

For Hong Kong, may Freedom reign. 

In spirit and substance, it is not so very far from ‘Rule Britannia’. 

Sarah Sands is a British journalist and author. Her book, The Interior Silence: 10 Lessons from Monastic Life, is published by Short Books. She is chair of the think tank Bright Blue and a board member of Index on Censorship.

Photograph by Dale De La Rey/AFP via Getty Images