‘I Arrived, Having Lost Everything’ – Hong Kong's Young Protesters Hope for Safety in Britain

A newly created UK visa offers an escape from draconian laws imposed by Beijing. But for some young people in Hong Kong, it also means leaving everything behind.
​Simon Cheng, who was detained by police officers during a trip to mainland China in 2019
Simon Cheng, CEO of Hong Kongers in Britain, who was detained by police officers during a trip to mainland China in 2019.

Last summer, Daniel was sitting at his desk at his well-paying job in Hong Kong, on course for a big promotion, with an engagement ring for his girlfriend of five years burning a hole in his pocket. Then his phone pinged with a Telegram notification, and his life tipped sideways. A friend and fellow protester had just been arrested by undercover police officers and faced a life sentence. “Stay safe and good luck,” the text said, before the messenger’s account was swiftly deleted.


This was the summer his friends started vanishing. 

Daniel, who asked not to be identified by his real name, worried that he could be next, and bought a plane ticket to London. It left him 40 hours to flee. He told his parents he’d been headhunted for a job in Britain, pretended that everything was fine over dinner and quietly packed his belongings. His heart raced; he couldn’t sleep. Fortunately, he was able to board the flight without being stopped by customs officers. His girlfriend, who was unaware of his front-line involvement in mass pro-democracy protests that took place in 2019-20, still doesn’t know where he is.  

“Everything happened so sudden,” Daniel says. “Weather is always hot in Hong Kong, but that summer was filled with so much fear that I was cold. Like I was dead already. I am lucky enough to have a BN(O) passport, that’s why I am here. I arrived, having lost everything, and hid my background.”

The British National (Overseas) status is a form of British nationality created while Hong Kong was still under colonial rule, initially only intended to allow people from Hong Kong to visit the UK for six months. But since the 31st of January 2021, this status has become the basis for a new visa that allows BN(O) citizens to live, work and study in the UK for two periods of up to five years, with a route to full British citizenship. 


There are 2.9 million BN(O) passport holders, with a further 2.3 million dependants, eligible to move to the UK – accounting, in total, for about 72 percent of Hong Kong’s population. Those born after 1997 – when Britain handed over Hong Kong to China – do not qualify for a BN(O) passport but are still able to apply for the visa if they’re part of a family unit, or alternatively migrate through work and graduate visas. The Home Office anticipates between 123,000 and 153,700 BN(O) passport holders and their dependants will arrive in 2021, with an estimated 322,400 to migrate over the course of the next five years. If forecasts are accurate, this would be the largest-ever mass migration of non-Europeans into Britain. 

The scheme, which China has furiously denounced as gross interference in “domestic issues”, is an expedited response to the draconian national security law imposed by Beijing. The law criminalises dissent in what critics have dubbed “the end of Hong Kong”. 


Daniel remembers the protests vividly: the smog of tear gas filling the air, makeshift wooden shields struck by round after round of police bullets, and a teenager blocking a baton blow meant for him. “The national security law has sentenced Hong Kong’s future, silenced most of us, suppressed our freedom,” the 26-year-old says. “I have been branded as a ‘rioter’ because I tried to protect what was remaining, the last of the autonomy guaranteed in the Sino British Joint Declaration.”

Pro-democracy demonstrators, seen wearing masks depicting former British consulate worker Simon Cheng, gather outside the British Consulate-General building in Hong Kong in November 2019.

Pro-democracy demonstrators, seen wearing masks depicting former British consulate worker Simon Cheng, gather outside the British Consulate-General building in Hong Kong in November 2019. Photo: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

Simon Cheng, CEO of Hong Kongers in Britain which provides legal referrals, immigration aid and lobbying for the community, says: “Under the national security law, people in Hong Kong can face the accusation of vaguely and arbitrarily defined crimes. The definition of the law is loosening and loosening. Not only behaviour but even thought, slogans and expression can be criminalised. The people not on the frontline still feel a threat. They just want to leave because they feel suffocated.” 

Formerly a worker at the British Consulate-General Hong Kong and an avid participant in the pro-democracy protests, Cheng was detained by police officers during a trip to mainland China in 2019. He says that he was interrogated for hours about his involvement in the protests with his wrists and ankles shackled onto a steel “tiger chair” (a torture device designed to restrain detainees), and that he was forced to confess to a fabricated claim about him soliciting prostitution. What followed, Cheng says, was two unending weeks of torture. He was put into solitary confinement, blindfolded, hooded and beaten, deprived of sleep and made to do stress tests (holding hands above his head for hours) while singing the Chinese national anthem. 


“I saw ten young ‘criminal suspects’ being interrogated in the centre,” Cheng alleges. “I heard a voice shout out from one of the questioning rooms: ‘raise your hands higher! Didn’t you raise your hands and wave the flags in the protest?’” 

British government sources say that they believe Cheng’s claims are credible. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson told the BBC they “absolutely cannot accept the UK government's interference in this case”.

Adam, 30, has just settled in Liverpool with his BN(O) passport. He talks of a deeply divided Hong Kong but is wary to not say too much in fear of the national security law, even here. “Most people in Hong Kong are aware of tightened control. They feel hopelessness towards the future, especially the youth. The older generation is infatuated with their ‘glorious’ past,” says Adam, who also asked not to use his real name. “For those who are indifferent, either they are benefitting from the situation or they enjoy their own delusion that nothing is wrong with Hong Kong.” 

Liam (not his real name).

Liam (not his real name).

This generational tension has wreaked rifts across families in Hong Kong. Liam, 26, moved to London for his master’s degree, but now hopes to settle down with the BN(O) visa. He would watch TV news with his father, who works for the Hong Kong government, in complete silence. 

“He has the absolute opposite view, he would never leave Hong Kong. I understand him, though,” says Liam, also an assumed name. “For people living under the colonial era, they built a very strong identity within themselves at the time. They want to get rid of the colonial government and become part of China again.” 

Liam marched in the protests and watched in shock as Molotov cocktails were thrown past him. He says: “It’s not very Hong Kong. We’re not used to these kind of scenes, Hong Kongers are a very peace-loving people. Even five years ago, we were still peaceful with the police, we could talk to each other. But now you can see, the tensions and the sentiment towards the government is brewing.” 

The Hong Kong identity is rooted in a strong sense of pride. “There’s a huge social stigma about being called a refugee. Mostly because of self-esteem. Hong Kongers are very proud of their identity, coming from such rich cities,” Cheng says. “Some people are worried that if they applied for asylum, their family members in Hong Kong will be targeted by the police. Mainland Chinese might see us as not loyal to the ‘motherland’ of China, and as lackies of the West.” 

Cheng hopes his organisation can reaffirm to other people from Hong Kong that their identity will be preserved overseas. “We need to keep alive the flame and faith that, although we are now living here, we never, ever forget why we’re here, and the sacrifices we made for freedom and democracy,” he says. “Hong Kong is not a place, it’s a people.”