Hong Kongers have said they feel torn between the life-changing decision to leave their homes and take up the UK’s citizenship offer – or staying to fight for their freedom.
Boris Johnson’s government has offered almost three million residents eligible for British National Overseas (BNO) passports the chance to settle in the UK and ultimately apply for citizenship after China imposed a new security law on the former UK colony.
But leaving behind homes, jobs and loved ones to move almost 6,000 miles across the world is not an easy decision to make, said some of those considering the move.
Other Hong Kongers currently abroad said they were fearful of returning home after the law – which makes it easier to punish protesters and reduces the territory’s autonomy from Beijing – came into effect on Tuesday.
Theodore*, who did not want to give his real name for security reasons, is currently studying in Europe.
His parents had already urged him not to return home after he became a vocal critic of the Beijing government last year, even appearing on local television. With the passing of the new security law, they are even more fearful for his safety.
“It’s soul-crushing to think I can’t return to Hong Kong,” he told The Independent.
“I can’t imagine not speaking out for Hong Kong, or against the very obvious threat the Chinese government poses to the entire world,” he said.
“Even if I settled in the UK and went back to Hong Kong occasionally, I could still be arrested. And the idea of not going back for years, if not decades, is soul-crushing.”
The detail of the new law means that if he discussed the threat China poses to the UK while in Britain that would also be a crime in Hong Kong.
Theodore says he has “complicated feelings” towards the British move to extend citizenship rights to Hong Kongers since the UK government “took away our rights to live in the UK back in the 1970s-80s with a string of nationality laws”.
English literature student Ben* dreams of one day becoming a journalist – but he fears potential media censorship in Hong Kong could now make it more difficult.
He said he would like to continue his studies in the UK – but he was born in 1997 and his parents aren’t from Hong Kong so he doesn’t qualify for a BNO passport.
His older sister, on the other hand, is eligible – but has a four-year-old child and doesn’t want to move across the world to an unfamiliar place.
Ben said many Hong Kongers now fear China, or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), will “send them to concentration camps in the future”.
“I’m afraid but I’m still fighting for the freedom to the last minute,” he said.
“Most of the young people in Hong Kong believe we can win this war. I have friends who have BNOs but Hong Kong is our home.”
For now, he said, they will stay and fight while preparing for the “worst-case scenario”.
Sam* has campaigned for greater rights for BNO holders for years. While he welcomed the UK’s offer, he never envisioned making such a big move during retirement.
He said he would like to rent – and maybe one day even own – a house in a big city like Liverpool or Birmingham once he and his family “learn the UK way of life”.
“It’s very sad about the changes in Hong Kong,” he told The Independent. “I was born in Hong Kong, I live in Hong Kong, I married and have a child in Hong Kong and I’m feeling so sad that I have to make a decision during my retirement – it’s a big move.
“We really fear the CCP and we are very afraid that Hong Kong will be a second version of Xinjiang and will be made to be an open prison
“We see the Hong Kong police will be turned into something like the police state. We are very fearful walking on the streets now because they can stop and search anyone.”
Sam said if you ask people in Hong Kong for their “status” now “I think they will say they are Hong Kongers”.
He added many will stay and fight to see “who will be stronger, who will die first – China or Hong Kong”, but if he moves to the UK he doesn’t plan on looking back.
“Hong Kong is our roots,” said Eunice, who has just graduated from Imperial College London with a master’s degree in science.
She moved to the UK for boarding school as a child but her once-frequent trips home to see her parents have become less and less as she is fearful of returning.
“It’s very difficult to know that you are not able at the moment to go back to your home,” she said.
“The younger generation do get targeted so maybe that is something I have to be very careful about.”
Eunice, who hopes to stay in the UK and contribute back to society, said she noticed the changes in Hong Kong when she last visited more than a year ago.
“Just, like, casually going out on a Sunday to do some shopping in the tube station you see armed police standing there – that’s something shocking for me,” she said.
She added her parents have BNO passports but they are waiting for further details to be released by the Home Office before making such a big decision.
Johnny Patterson, director of the Hong Kong Watch campaign group, said the security law has “really terrified people”.
“I had one message from a friend who works in a civil society group who said their daughter had been having nightmares about them getting arrested so she stepped back from working for the organisation,” he told The Independent.
“It’s a very sobering, serious change that we are seeing in Hong Kong.
“It’s not yet clear how many people will move to the UK – I think it will depend on what happens in terms of how China applies the law.
“There probably is no going back to the Hong Kong we knew before but what the new Hong Kong looks like is an unknown.”
John Hu, founder of John Hu Migration Consulting, based in Hong Kong, said English-speaking countries are the top choices for Hong Kongers looking to move – and that he has received 10 calls today, some from existing clients, applying to move to the UK.
“I think the Hong Kongers are more determined now,” he told The Independent. “They will see they will have less freedom of speech and democracy and values of Hong Kong people.”
*Some names have been changed to protect identities.