100,000 people apply to live in the United Kingdom.

Hong Kongers held demonstrations in ten different cities in the UK to protest the anniversary of the promulgation of the Hong Kong National Security Act and the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party.

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LONDON. It has been nine months since Adrian Leung and his family packed up in Hong Kong in search of a brighter future in Britain.

The 51-year-old teacher was about to move to Canada with his wife and son, fleeing the political turmoil at home. But when Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government announced a new visa program giving Hong Kong citizens the right to reside and eventually citizenship in the UK, he said his choice was clear.

“Compared to the Canadian scheme, the criteria for the UK scheme are much lower: we just need to live in the country for five years. It’s a lot easier for me,” Leung told CNBC.

Many in Hong Kong are outraged that they believe China is encroaching on the semi-autonomous region following a new national security law passed in June 2020.

A law aimed at prohibiting secession and undermining state power was widely condemned Western governments as well as human rights monitors as an undermining of the “one country, two systems” principle, under which the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997.

This prompted the UK to grant asylum to those born in Hong Kong prior to its transfer. While it is not clear how many left because of the security law, the British offer of asylum was made for this very purpose and was timed accordingly. The UK said it would help those born in Hong Kong prior to its handover. “China’s failure to meet its international obligations regarding Hong Kong”.

I thought that for the sake of my son’s future, we would have to part.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong Information Services Department said he “regrets and opposes” the launch of the UK visa, while the Chinese Embassy in London said the scheme “interferes in Hong Kong affairs, which are China’s internal affairs.”

China has separately dismissed claims that the law undermines local freedoms, saying it was a necessary measure to crack down on the chaotic mass protests that plagued Hong Kong in 2019.

Leung, some of whose students have been prosecuted and in some cases jailed for the demonstration, is one of the tens of thousands of Hong Kongers who emigrated to the UK last year.

“After June 2019, it seemed to me that there would be no rule of law in Hong Kong,” Leung said, referring to the beginning of the protests. “I thought that for the sake of my son’s future, we would have to separate,” he told CNBC.

UK welcomes over 97,000 Hong Kongers

Adrian Leung moved to Durham, UK with his wife and son in June 2021, shortly after the government opened the BNO visa scheme for Hong Kong citizens.

Adrian Leung

In the 12 months since then, the UK has received 103,900 applications for a visa that entitles owners and their dependents to five years of residency with the possibility of citizenship. According to figures released on Thursday by the UK Home Office.

Most of these applicants are highly qualified and work in professional or managerial positions.

In a survey of 500 people who received a visa, home office found seven out of ten (69%) had higher education, and three-quarters (76%) had professional activities. Nearly all (96%) were of working age, with two in five (21%) under the age of 35.

The findings suggest a victory for the UK government as it seeks to position itself as a magnet for international talent, even as it closes its doors to EU workers after Brexit. However, the experience of the Hong Kong expats who spoke to CNBC was much more subtle.

Personal and financial cost

While BNO visa holders praised the speed and ease of processing applications (usually around six weeks), some said that personal travel expenses were high, not least financially.

A five-year visa costs £250 ($340) in addition to the mandatory NHS co-payment of £3,120 for adults and £2,350 for children. A family of four can fork out £11,940 before they even enter the UK.

It comes at a time when Britain is facing its worst cost-of-living crisis in decades, amid skyrocketing housing, food and energy prices.

Leung and his wife sold their flat, cashed out their pensions and used their savings to fund their move to the UK. They recently bought a house in Durham, in the North East of England, but not everyone is so lucky.

KT, a nurse from Hong Kong, moved to Nottingham, England in December 2020 at the height of the UK coronavirus lockdown.


One BNO visa holder, who spoke anonymously to CNBC for fear of backlash or being identified by new colleagues in the UK, arrived in Nottingham, England in December 2020 – in the midst of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown.

The source was quickly trapped in 22; cannot rent a house without a bank account and cannot open a bank account without a home address.

After six weeks on Airbnb, the 45-year-old finally found a landlord who provided accommodation for him and his family in exchange for six months’ advance payment. Meanwhile, his pension is still held in Hong Kong.

“Money or salary is not our top priority,” said the source, who, along with his wife, left his full-time job as a nurse in Hong Kong in search of “democracy, the rule of law, civil liberties and respect.”

The Chinese Embassy in London and the Hong Kong Information Services Department did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

Replacing occupational security with political stability

Like many other highly skilled Hong Kong migrants in the UK, the source found himself sacrificing financial and professional stability for political security. Now he works under a contract in a hospital, and his wife works part-time in a warehouse.

“A year later, I had a gap in my life,” he said, adding that he and his family use the savings to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, CNBC’s second source proved too qualified for most of the jobs available. The university teacher with a doctoral degree decided to leave Hong Kong when “the human rights situation deteriorated” to the point, he said, that it threatened the future of his children and his own mental health.

After a ‘nightmarish’ six-month job search, the 51-year-old took a part-time job at a popular fast food chain in central London, where he works nights.

“If I didn’t have children, my opinion might be different, because when I came here, I had to give up everything – work, money, friends, status,” said a second source, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Entering the community

BNO visa holders are not eligible for social benefits except in exceptional circumstances. Instead, the government stated that set aside £43m for integration projects for the Hong Kong diaspora, including supporting access to housing, work and education.

Although a second anonymous source said that better measures could have been taken in the event of a sudden influx of Hong Kong workers, he still considers himself “lucky”.

Weeks after arriving in June 2021, he secured a place for his 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter at a “very good public school” on the outskirts of London, where he and his wife live with a friend.

Adrian Leung, who left Hong Kong in hopes of a brighter future, said his 10-year-old son enjoys more freedom in the UK.

Adrian Leung

“My initial task was to help children adapt. It turned out that they actually adapted better than I did,” noting that his children quickly settled into local friendship groups.

A year into the program, competition for school places is heating up. Reports suggest that some schools in particular Britain’s elite public schools, were forced to turn down Hong Kong students due to record enrollment and interest. About three-quarters of BNO visa holders arriving in the UK are married or have long-term partners, and two-thirds have children.

“We were lucky that we settled a little earlier,” agreed the first anonymous source of CNBC. “It can be more difficult for newcomers – especially to get places at the school.”

Hope for a bright future

Definitely, our ultimate goal is British citizenship, as I share the values ​​of this country.

“Definitely our ultimate goal is to become a British citizen because I share the values ​​of this country,” Leung said, noting that elderly relatives are one of his few remaining ties to Hong Kong. “If I could choose, I would live here permanently.”

This potentially spells bad news for Hong Kong, which, in addition to losing many skilled locals, is also faces an exodus of expats as foreign workers grow weary of Beijing’s anti-coronavirus policies.

“I don’t think it will get better,” a second source told CNBC. “The Hong Kong space is now closely tied to politics in China. This means strengthening authoritarianism.”

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