Let’s leave this town, for they are hare-brain’d slaves… (Shakespeare, Henry VI)
Since 31 January 2021, a new BNO visa has been available to Hong Kong residents holding Hong Kong British National (Overseas) passports. The BNO allows such people to come to the UK with their close family members and stay for five years. After five years of residence in the UK, they will be entitled to apply for settlement (also known as ‘indefinite leave to remain’), and after one further year of residence, to apply for British citizenship.
Oliver and his wife, Jenny, applied for the new visa immediately in July 2021 after getting all the documents and money ready. Oliver was an engineer and Jenny was a primary school teacher. Both were born and educated in Hong Kong.
The cost of applying for a visa to stay for five years is £250. In order to use the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, applicants each need to pay the healthcare surcharge. It costs £3,120 if one is staying for 5 years. For each child under 18 it costs £2,350.
‘We had to get quite a large sum of money ready,’ Oliver says. ‘Apart from the application costs and flight tickets, we also needed to prove we had enough money to pay for our housing and to support ourselves and our family for 6 months.’
‘We have two boys,’ Jenny adds, ‘Adam was six and Bobby was four. You can imagine how much money we needed to get hold of before we start our journey.’
‘But it’s all worth it,’ Oliver continues with a sigh. ‘We are now safe. We didn’t want to see our kids continue with their schooling in Hong Kong, where they have changed the whole curriculum – including all sorts of misinformation trying to brainwash children into believing that Communist China is a “progressive, selfless and united regime”, while denouncing democratic government as a “fierce inter-party rivalry that makes the people suffer”.’
The Chinese Communist Party-backed National Education curriculum required schools to spend up to one quarter of their study time during six years of primary education on activities and talks about patriotism. Oliver was worried that, with this in force, his children would succumb to the negative effects of brainwashing.
Back in May 2011, the Hong Kong Education Bureau announced the introduction of a ‘Moral and National Education’ (MNE) as a compulsory school subject in primary and secondary schools. ‘National identity’ was one of the priority values that the curriculum reforms proposed should be promoted. The whole MNE programme aimed at instilling in the students a ‘blind patriotism’. Assessment examples included students’ reporting on whether their peers showed emotions, such as tears in their eyes when singing the national anthem and watching the hoisting of the national flag.
‘The learning of the national situations emphasises “affection”, focuses on “feeling” and is based on “emotion”.’ (MNE Curriculum Guide)
Realising the danger of the many elements of indoctrination in the MNE, in 2012, parents, teachers and students formed a ‘Civil Alliance Against the National Education’. They organised protest marches and occupied the Hong Kong government headquarters, where they staged a hunger strike and other demonstration events. Tens of thousands of supporters joined in the occupation, and the Hong Kong Government had to shelve the MNE and proposed a revised version – which, however, included elements similar to the MNE.
‘We know the Communist China Regime and the Hong Kong Government would not give up on controlling what is taught in schools and what to censor,’ says Jenny. ‘So for the sake of our boys, we had to come here to provide them with a more objective style of education. The boys are happy here in local schools, and I don’t have to worry about their getting brainwashed and not being able to develop critical thinking with an open mind.’
Oliver and Jenny are amongst the many young couples with children who have realised that Hong Kong is no longer the city with civil liberties they were promised by the CCP’s regime, as stipulated in the Hong Kong’s Basic Law. The ‘one-country-two-systems’ promise has been nothing but empty words, and the city has very quickly developed into an authoritarian state, just like any other Chinese city on the mainland. Worst of all, freedom of expression has been suppressed and any voices of dissent stifled.
Eva, an accountant clerk, came to reside in the UK all alone because she could not endure the stifling atmosphere in Hong Kong. ‘I felt suffocated in Hong Kong,’ she explains. ‘Every day when I opened the newspapers or turn on the television, I couldn’t help but feel despair. Sometimes my anger was so intense I wanted to smash the TV screen.’
News of political dissenters being arrested and jailed has never ceased since actions to curb civil liberties began in 2015. In that year, five booksellers disappeared and later found out that they had been ‘arbitrarily detained’. They were ‘ill-treated and forced to confess’ by the CCP’s special forces.
In the past, there were protest marches every year on special days. Millions used to take to Hong Kong’s streets to voice their frustration and anger with government policies, and to shout out their demands for freedoms and democracy. Slogans were always chanted asking the Chief Executives, Leung Chun Ying (2012-2017) and Carrie Lam (2017-2022) to step down. The history of these protests is well documented in Antony Dapiran’s A City of Protest, published in 2017. But when the protests and demands fell on deaf ears, Hong Kong escalated into a City On Fire, as Dapiran chronicled, taking us to the 2019 scenarios when violence surged, and injuries and deaths become more horrifying.
‘By the end of 2019, over the course of seven months, Hong Kong police had fired over 16,000 rounds of tear gas onto the streets of Hong Kong.’ (Dapiran, City On Fire, 2019)
‘I could smell the tear gas even in my flat three storeys high above the street,’ says Eva, recalling the battles between the protesters and the police. ‘When a protester died after falling off a building, when a young girl died mysteriously and her naked body was found floating in Hong Kong waters, and when another young student protester died during a demonstration, I made up my mind to leave this city.’
Like Eva, many young people in Hong Kong have been pondering the options for leaving this city where civil liberties are diminishing, where control of the citizens is the government’s top priority, and where the separation of powers – legislative, executive and judicial – is quickly being eroded.
Hong Kong used to be called the ‘Pearl of the Orient’, a vibrant and lively city in which Chinese and Western cultures merged harmoniously. It was one of the most successful capitalist economies in the world, staying consistently near the top of global economic rankings. Hong Kong people could enjoy freedom of expression, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, assembly, procession and demonstration; and the right and freedom to form and join trade unions, and to strike. Although all these freedoms are still enshrined in the Basic Law of Hong Kong, most of them have gradually become empty words.
Similarly, Article 35 of the Constitution of People’s Republic of China states that ‘Citizens of the People’s Republic of China shall enjoy freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, procession and demonstration.’ This sounds grand and democratic. But we all know these are just slogans, if not blatant lies, to deceive the people.
Nowadays Hong Kong citizens, who have experienced the erosion of civil liberties in their beloved city, can no longer see the magnificent glow of the ‘Pearl of the Orient’.
Another vital blow to stifle dissent and silence pro-democracy activists was struck only last year.
On 6 January 2021, 53 Hong Kong activists including former legislators, social workers and academics were arrested by the National Security Department of the Hong Kong Police Force under the National Security Law. The charges concerned their organisation and participation in the primaries for the subsequently postponed Legislative Council election. This was the largest crackdown under the National Security Law. Its effect was to leave the Legislative Council completely controlled by pro-government legislative councillors.
‘What do you expect of these “hare-brain’d slaves” who have now infested the Legislative Council ?’ says Leo. ‘They all behave after an “undressed, unpolished, uneducated, unpruned, untrained, or rather, unlettered, or ratherest, unconfirmed fashion” – and they know nothing but kowtowing to their leaders.’
Leo was until recently a professor at a Hong Kong university, teaching English Literature. In 2018, before the 2022 mass exodus to the UK, he already knew he would no longer be able to call Hong Kong home. Together with his wife, Mary, he came to the UK to pay a visit to a close friend of his and to search for possibilities for emigrating. The couple eventually decided to buy a house here for their retirement. They both hold British passports which they attained by way of the Right of Abode arrangement, an agreement offered to some Hong Kong citizens after its handover to China in 1997.
‘We decided to stay here for good,’ Leo continues. ‘My wife is worried that I might be arrested if I return to Hong Kong.’
‘Almost one hundred percent!’ Mary says with confidence. ‘You will be arrested right at the airport. Look at all those publications of yours! Criticising government policies, condemning the Communist China regime, establishing Non-Governmental Organisations, participating in protests and demonstration marches. They can easily charge you with crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign organisations.’
‘Yes, I can’t disagree with you, Mary,’ Leo sighs. ‘Most of my activist friends have been arrested and are now detained awaiting trials.’ He points out that the largest pro-democracy paper, Apple Daily, announced closure on 24 June, 2021 and the chief editor and five other executives were detained. All vociferous pro-democracy NGOs were disbanded. ‘Where else can we publish any criticism or voice our opinions? Who else dares to take to the streets and risk being dumped into the ocean or thrown off buildings?’
Leo and Mary have academic friends who have also migrated to the UK. Some have found jobs and many are trying to settle in, looking for a place to live, getting their children integrated into local schools, and adapting to British culture. In short, starting a new life here.
Up till now, statistics from the Hong Kong Immigration Department have recorded the daily statistics on Passenger traffic. In the UK, government figures published in March 2022 by the Home Office have revealed that since the introduction of the BNO visa scheme, 113,742 Hongkongers have been granted visas to the UK. The daily reports of Hong Kong citizens leaving for the UK from the Hong Kong International Airport have clearly indicated that a mass exodus is taking place. There must have been and will be many Olivers, Jennys, Evas, Leos and Marys amongst them. Hopefully, many children too will be able to escape the brutal brainwashing education system and enjoy their liberties and schooling here in the UK.
The Hong Kong diaspora to the UK is most likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Other residents may consider other free countries, with other reasons for emigration. (As to the effect of the Covid lockdowns, their absurdity and disruption to people’s lives, that would require a whole article of its own.) Wherever they plan to go, for many Hongkongers, the exhortation, ‘Let’s leave this town,’ will long be in their thoughts and dreams, awaiting realisation.
The names of some of the people mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their identities.
More on China’s creeping totalitarianism: Jackboots in Manchester 暴政踐踏之下的曼徹斯特, by Simon Cheng
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