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Fleeing Hong Kong: British Visas Offer ‘Lifeboat’ for Pro-Democracy Activists

Supporters of pro-democracy activists hold flashlights as a prison van carrying some of the 47 pro-democracy activists charged under the national security law arrives at Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre, in Hong Kong, March 4, 2021.
Supporters of pro-democracy activists hold flashlights as a prison van carrying some of the 47 pro-democracy activists charged under the national security law arrives at Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre, in Hong Kong, March 4, 2021.

Britain is preparing for tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens to apply for special visas to settle in Britain after the government launched a new plan offering fast-track citizenship to some residents of the former British colony, in response to China’s crackdown on basic freedoms.

An online application process was launched last month, and Britain says it expects around 300,000 Hong Kong citizens to apply in the first five years.

Among them is Finn Lau, a 27-year-old exile who is now living in London and studying part time at a university.

As a student in 2014, Lau was a key player in the “umbrella” pro-democracy protests against interference from China. A new job took him to Britain in 2019, just weeks before protests reignited over Beijing’s attempt to impose an extradition bill on the territory that would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China.

Lau watched as the protests grew into a wider pro-democracy movement.

“I did go back to Hong Kong in late December 2019 because I wanted to participate. I wanted to witness the protests in Hong Kong,” he told VOA in a recent interview in London. “But then I was unfortunate to be arrested along with a few hundred others on this first day of 2020.”

Dozens of other pro-democracy activists have been jailed in recent months. Lau feared he would meet the same fate — but luck was on his side.

“I was quite fortunate that the Hong Kong police failed to figure out my identity as one of the key players of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. That’s why I narrowly escaped from the risk of being disappeared — being sent to mainland China,” Lau explained.

He was released after two days in jail.

“So, I just immediately flew back to the U.K. one or two days later after the arrest. And on the plane, the feeling was surreal,” he said. “Because at the time, I knew that this may be the last time that I could step on the soil of Hong Kong, my home country.”

Lau arrived safely back in Britain. A few months later, he was attacked on the street.

“Back in April 2020, there was a rumor that there has been a 10,000-pound [$14,000] bounty on my life, on my head. And then two months later, when I was walking in a normally safe neighborhood, I was suddenly ambushed or attacked by an unknown street gang,” said Lau. “They didn’t take away any of my personal belongings. They didn’t say a word.”

British police failed to identify his assailants.

Several other pro-democracy activists in London have also reported harassment. The Chinese Embassy in London denies any involvement.

National Security Law

In June 2020, Beijing imposed a new National Security Law on Hong Kong. Britain calls the legislation a breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration agreement, which stipulated that China would respect the territory's separate democratic system and rule of law for 50 years after the handover, until 2047. China denies the law breaches any international agreement and says it is necessary to restore order after years of protests.

In response, Britain launched the British Nationals Overseas visa project, or BN(O), which offers applicants and their close family members two periods of five years to live and work in Britain. After the first five years, BN(O) citizens can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR). One year later, they would be eligible to apply for full British citizenship.

Lau has just submitted his application.

“Some people may think that the BN(O) scheme is not a direct tool that could [be used as] leverage against the [Chinese Communist Party], because the CCP won’t be hurt by the BN(O) scheme,” Lau told VOA.

“But on the other hand, some people may think that this offers a kind of lifeboat to Hong Kongers. And perhaps there is a third group of people who may think that the BN(O) scheme or lifeboats could offer people [the chance] to carry capital out of Hong Kong, which is indirectly [antagonizing] ... Beijing.”

While grateful, Lau and other Hong Kong exiles want Britain to do more.

“We just think that maybe some more actions could be carried out by the U.K. government. For example, maybe some sort of Magnitsky-style sanctions under which the assets of some Hong Kong government officials, like Carrie Lam, could be frozen by the U.K. government.”

Britain has said it is considering such sanctions. Reacting to new legislation passed Thursday by Beijing, which will effectively allow China to choose candidates in Hong Kong’s elections, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, “This is the latest step by Beijing to hollow out the space for democratic debate in Hong Kong, contrary to the promises made by China itself.

“This can only further undermine confidence and trust in China living up to its international responsibilities and legal obligations as a leading member of the international community,” Raab said, adding that Britain was assessing the legislation for a possible breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Meanwhile, Lau and other exiles continue to fight for Hong Kong’s freedom — buoyed by Britain’s BN(O) visa. But Lau said that even on the streets of London, he does not feel safe from the long arm of China’s Communist Party.