The Old Continent enjoys a generally good image in Hong Kong. International schools are prestigious and highly sought after, the brightest students often wish to study in Europe, positions in large European companies are sought after… In short, Europe is very attractive. Consequently, a large community of Hong Kong lives in Europe. Through the British National Overseas (BNO) passport, around 200,000 of them are studying, working or retired in the UK.
Long before the great wave of emigration that hit the Chinese city this year, many Hong Kongers settled temporarily or permanently in Europe. The reasons were many; whether to study, work or simply the desire to discover new horizons. From now on, exits are more often forced or unwanted.
The last few years have been difficult for the Chinese city. Social movements for political reform have greatly divided and polarized Hong Kong society. Families argued at every meal; Older people tend to be more conservative than younger people. Companies were categorized according to the owner’s political leanings; blue (pro-police), red (Chinese Communist Party) or yellow (protesters). Significant violence plagued the debates and demonstrations. Dialogue was getting difficult.
a disturbing reaction
The solution adopted by Chinese and local authorities to alleviate these tensions was legal. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China imposed the now famous National Security Law. Article 23 of the aforementioned law now punishes “any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the central popular government”. The terms are therefore quite vague and can cover different actions. In response, foreign states, international organizations or local associations have vigorously criticized this new law, which they believe threatens freedoms.
Local media had to shut down, and journalists found themselves behind bars. The Hong Kong government denies censoring the opposition. Carrie Lam, Chief Executive at the time of law enforcement, told a news conference: “I have read reports that, due to the shutdown of online media, press freedom in Hong Kong will be threatened with extinction and the local free press will be threatened with extinction. I simply cannot accept that kind of claim.”
Hong Kong government flags raised for the 25th anniversary of the handover, touting recent reforms. Photo credit: Justin Horchler
This very scary law encouraged some Hong Kongers to pack up and move abroad. These include political opponents, journalists or artists fleeing current or potential lawsuits. Their families and/or individuals are also pessimistic about the fate of the special administrative region. Finally, companies were also affected by the effects of this law. The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong reports that 80% of companies contacted say they are affected by the legislation, and 60% of them feel that the law has harmed their business.
Sanitary restrictions undermine Hong Kong’s attractiveness
Added to the political climate is a health crisis and draconian restrictions. In March, when the epidemic peaked in Hong Kong, nearly half of European companies considered leaving the city; one room partially and the other fully. Indeed, the restrictions have minimized one of Hong Kong’s main assets: its position as a global city. Business travel was next to impossible, talent was getting fed up with restrictions, and investors weren’t rushing to do 21 days of quarantine.
Hong Kong Airport, one of the largest airport hubs in the world, was left almost empty. Photo credit: Justin Horchler
This exodus is sometimes described as massive. The government relativizes and explains that it is not the first wave of departure that hits the city; this was the case during major periods of uncertainty (pre-retrocession; 2003 sars, etc.). But this is just the first time the numbers have approached 70,000 net departures.
Often, it is the middle or rich classes with cultural and economic capital that immigrate. Europe, and more specifically the UK, attracts most Hong Kongers.
The UK acclaimed by Hong Kongers
Hong Kong was a British colony until July 1, 1997. Upon handover, the United Kingdom granted Hong Kongers the so-called British Passport Abroad (BNO). Thus, any Hong Konger born before July 1, 1997 can obtain this document that allows them to travel and work recently in their territory. Eventually, a procedure to obtain nationality is opened.
So, thanks to this precious document, of which more than 600,000 pieces are said to be in circulation, immigration to the United Kingdom becomes easy. Many Hong Kongers therefore choose this country. In addition, the large community already present assists the facilities of newcomers. In just a few months since the BNO reform, which allowed more Hong Kong citizens to apply, more than 110,000 applications have been accepted by the British government. And of those who have settled in the UK, 96% of them do not plan to return to Hong Kong, according to official figures.
Photo credit: Joseph Chan
According to these same figures, 80% of people in the UK with a BNO are aged between 25 and 54. 72% are married. More than 60% already have children, the rest are likely to have them in the next few years. Consequently, it is mainly families that move.
Many of them have a lower standard of living, cannot find a job with equal pay or qualifications. In fact, taxation is higher and wages are lower. Also, professional opportunities for Hong Kong newcomers are not as exciting as in their hometown.
Hong Kongers based in the UK also encounter some recurring difficulties. Not only do you have to adapt to the British climate, which is not as pleasant as in Southeast Asia, but you also have to overcome human obstacles.
Sutton as Little Hong Kong
Sutton is a city in Greater London with a large Hong Kong community. In this southwest London suburb, it is common to hear Cantonese spoken on the streets. Some real estate signs are written in Traditional Chinese. And on Sundays in a church in this city, Mass is even held in Cantonese.
Photo credit: Wikicommons
The large number of Hong Kong immigrants in Sutton encourages others to settle there. The “old” help the “new” to settle in and remove their marks. Associations and groups were created especially to encourage solidarity among Hong Kongers.
“It is difficult to find accommodation or work when we arrive” explains Kenneth, installed several years ago. “Families also need to find a good school for their children. Sutton’s advantage is that the schools here are very good, but the demand is high.”
During the year to May 2022, 515 applications were filed for school enrollment in Sutton for children newly arrived from Hong Kong, according to The Telegraph.
“It’s not easy and it’s very stressful. Everyday life is very different, and the distance from Hong Kong and our families is hard to bear.” Nearly half of Hong Kong immigrants to the UK experience symptoms related to depression or anxiety, according to a study this year.
A wish from another place
Studying abroad, especially in Europe, is highly encouraged in Hong Kong. Universities encourage their students to do a semester or a year of exchange thanks to scholarships. Still others have partnerships that offer a degree from Hong Kong and a degree from a foreign university. This is the case, for example, of the Baptist University of Hong Kong.
Photo credit: Justin Horchler
For several years, this university has been linked to Sciences Po Bordeaux and Lyon, as well as a Polish business school. The objective is to meet the strong demand and open new horizons for students.
The university also offers a program of French studies and a program of German studies. In four years, students learn the culture of these two European states and have an almost perfect command of the language by the time they graduate. They are required to study for one to three years at a university in the country in which they are studying. For those on the French programme, it is often one of the institutes of political studies, Inalco or Sorbonne.
Europe by choice or by default
Thus, Europe is a continent that offers great opportunities and a standard destination for leaving Hong Kong. Migration to the Old Continent and particularly to the UK is likely to increase in the coming months and years. Many Hong Kongers are pessimistic about the political and economic situation in their city. Anti-covid restrictions persist and, even though the local government has announced that it wants to relax them, it has discarded the idea of passively living with Covid. At the same time, the UK has extended access to its territory for Hong Kongers through various reforms of the BNO and entry visas.