Hongkongers marched across Chinatown, London holding the Hong Kong Independence flag in August 2021
By KaLong Tung
As a new visa scheme grants Hongkongers to live in the UK, how do they use the newly gained freedom to keep the movement alive?
A dozen volunteers are looking for strangers to talk to in Southbank, London, aiming to spread messages - not about any brand-new products - but stories of their home country that they just left.
Photos placed on the ground show how tear gas filled the city as police brutality was the government response to the demonstrators. This photo exhibit took place last November.
Hayden, who at that time had left Hong Kong for three months, is one of the volunteers.
He thinks the bottom-up approach to raising awareness among ordinary people is important to Hong Kong. "I believe in a western democratic society, administrative actions have to be backed by the will of the public,” says Hayden. “I believe doing events to raise awareness among the locals can directly help Hong Kong.”
Since the UK government launched the British National Oversea (BNO) visa in January 2021, 123,400 applications have been filed. A total of 47 community projects supporting Hong Kong immigrants were awarded over £2.6 million of the UK government funding in February – Hayden believes these policies are possible only if they have enough public support. Sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese officials, Hayden says, also need to be supported by the voters.
While the UK government condemned the Hong Kong authorities for targeting pro-democracy figures, it hasn’t sanctioned related officials as the US did. “We carefully consider sanctions designations,” the UK government in response to a petition.
Justitia Hong Kong held the photo exhibit in London last November. (photo: Justitia Hong Kong)
In 2019, the Hong Kong government proposed an extradition bill, which would allow the extradition of suspects to prosecute in Chinese courts. Hongkongers went to the street to demand the withdrawal of the bill, as the Chinese Communist Party has a poor history of human rights violations. The protest later expanded to demand equal right to vote to protect the autonomy of the city.
The authorities responded to the millions of demonstrators with the police force and narrated the protest as a plot by Western countries. Over ten thousand people have since been arrested.
As the authorities continue to suppress dissent, the fear has prompted Hongkongers to start to think about leaving for good, taking advantage of the offers from different countries.
Hayden has never been arrested, but he would be worried about being arrested and jailed if he would have stayed in Hong Kong because the police had jotted down his personal details in the protest scenes.
“I didn’t join anything like the Dragon Slaying Brigade,” says Hayden, referring to one of the most violent groups of protesters. "But I was beyond the 'peaceful, rational and non-violent,'” those who support the protest but would only attend rallies and didn’t commit violence.
Thomas, who emigrates to the UK with his wife and son, on the other hand, was one of the peaceful protesters. He went to rallies back in Hong Kong saying he could only go that far because of family concerns. For Thomas, the future of his son was what pushed the family to leave. "I want him to have a decent education," says Thomas. “The UK has the best education among all English-speaking countries.”
Students had come to the street in support of the pro-democracy movement in 2019. (photo: Studio Incendo)
The education system in Hong Kong is under scrutiny to emphasize more patriotic values while primary and secondary schools started holding weekly ceremonies for raising the Chinese flag last year. Hong Kong government ordered school libraries to remove books that endanger national security.
Some refuse to have their kids nurtured under this circumstance. Emigrating with children is not common: A Home Office and IFF Research survey of 500 BNO visa holders finds that 60% have children and 93% of them have all children living in the UK.
The phenomenon is also seen in the dropouts, as a survey of 150 secondary school principals shows that last year saw a 60% increase in dropouts compared to the previous year. Among the 4,460 students who dropped out, 59% were leaving Hong Kong.
Local councils say there is unusual pressure on the school system as the increasing number of Hong Kong students. An estimated 8,500 pupils have applied for school places in Britain since September 2021.
In these two years, rallies have been held to raise awareness about Hong Kong. Some cities have rallied with people chanting "fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong" about every month thanks to the increased population of Hongkongers.
However, Thomas hasn’t gone to a single demonstration in the UK. “It’s hard to leave the kid and go to a rally,” he says. The family had a domestic worker and grandparents to take care of their son back in Hong Kong, while they have to bear the care work in the UK.
Not joining the rally, the family can still go to other events related to the democracy movement, like exhibits. Visiting exhibits featuring the 2019 protest, according to Thomas, is a sort of education to his son but also a reminder to himself.
Hayden has spread the word about the pro-democracy movement with the organisation, but the effort comes down to daily life. With his newly gained freedom of speech, Thomas says he can talk about something that may be deemed illegal in Hong Kong.
“In the UK, you can talk to your colleagues, friends, and even a stranger about your viewpoints, says Thomas. “I think it is what I own here.” While Hongkongers will not be arrested for what they say in the UK, some may still worry about the consequence of speaking against the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. When it comes to rallies, Hayden, among many Hongkongers, chooses to protect their personal identity by wearing a mask to prevent being photographed.
“Wearing a mask and sunglasses are certain things,” says Hayden whose family may go back to Hong Kong sometime in the future.
An exhibition about the Hong Kong protest was held in the town of Warrington in February
Now Hayden is an active volunteer at Justitia Hong Kong, a Hongkonger organisation in the UK that says preserving the spirits of the movement oversea is the way out. He thinks it is next to impossible to protest in Hong Kong. “I think the space left to resist is poorly small,” says Hayden. As for Thomas, he is also pessimistic about the situation in Hong Kong since the government doesn’t seem to be responsive to the public will. He said he was disappointed to see the aftermath of a win of the pro-democracy camp in the district council election.
In November 2019, the pro-democracy candidates won a landslide of about 80% of the 452 seats in the District Council election. However, until July 2021, at least 230 councillors had resigned because of growing political pressure.
“A lot of people paid a lot of effort in the last District Council election, but you can see how the authorities did to respond to the public opinion in the end,” says Thomas. “People had shown how they thought, and the government also showed her stance.”
Hayden doesn't think there is a prospect for Hong Kong in the foreseeable future, though he's not opting out to speak out for Hong Kong. "The Chinese Community Party will not collapse in these few months, or these few years. I think a lot of things are to be done bit by bit,” says Hayden.
While he acknowledges that his effort is not going to bring any immediate changes to Hong Kong, he says it is still something meaningful to do. “It may sound like a cliché, but as Milan Kundera writes, 'the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,'” says Hayden. Keeping the memory and attitudes of the movement per se, for Hayden, is a form of protest.
Milan Kundera, a Czech writer who went to exile under communist rule, published The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in France in the year of 1979. Hongkongers may find Kundera's life of leaving his home country relates to theirs and so does the importance of continuing a memory under restrictive governance.
In 1989, a decade after the book was published, the Velvet Revolution occurred, resulting at the end of 41 years of one-party rule in Czechoslovakia, and Kundera's works were no longer banned in the country. It is uncertain, though, whether Hongkongers will keep the memory alive until the day of the change happening in their home country.
Thomas says he will consider attending rallies and taking part in more events about Hong Kong when his son is older.
“At that time, I have first to see how Hong Kong is to decide what to do. Because three years ago, I wouldn’t have expected Hong Kong would become the Hong Kong now,” he says. “Indeed, I don’t think a single Hongkonger would have expected that.”
For now, he thinks there is something he can do. “I think every Hongkonger oversea can help Hong Kong. First, do not forget our identity as Hongkongers,” says Thomas. “Do not forget what happened three years ago and teach the children about it.”
About the Author:
KaLong Tung is a freelance journalist based in the UK.