Thousands in Hong Kong have applied for special visas to live in the U.K. Migrants from Hong Kong are looking to escape Beijing's grip for the safety of Great Britain, which ruled Hong Kong until the handover to China in 1997. The U.K. has set up a generous visa program.

The U.K. is welcoming tens of thousands from Hong Kong on a new path to citizenship

The U.K. is welcoming tens of thousands from Hong Kong on a new path to citizenship

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Children from Hong Kong sing at the Sutton Friendship Festival last month as the London borough welcomed new arrivals from the former British colony. Frank Langfitt/NPR hide caption

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Frank Langfitt/NPR

Children from Hong Kong sing at the Sutton Friendship Festival last month as the London borough welcomed new arrivals from the former British colony.

Frank Langfitt/NPR

SUTTON, England — Hundreds of people, mostly from Hong Kong, turned out for a welcome party last month at a public park in this leafy London suburb. Children, newly arrived from the former British colony, squealed as they slid down a giant inflatable slide, stood in long lines to have their faces painted and joined together to sing "It's a Small World After All" for their beaming parents.

The gathering, billed as the Sutton Friendship Festival, felt like a county fair for immigrants — an event that seemed at odds with a country that just five years ago voted to leave the European Union to limit immigration.

"I am so pleased that you've chosen to come here and make your home here," said Ruth Domby, leader of the Sutton Council, addressing some of the 400 Hong Kong families who've moved here. "We want to help you in any way that we can to feel part of the community."

In the first half of this year, a whopping 65,000 people from Hong Kong applied for a special five-year visa to live in the United Kingdom. They're fleeing China's tightening grip on the Asian financial hub for the safety of the former empire that once ruled them. The United Kingdom has set up a generous visa program that opens a path to citizenship for potentially millions of Hong Kongers. The government estimates as many as 475,000 will move here over the next few years.

Sutton residents and newcomers from Hong Kong trade messages of welcome and calls for freedom using colored sticky notes. The message board recalls a similar one created along a wall in Hong Kong during its 2014 democracy protests. Frank Langfitt/NPR hide caption

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Some Hong Kongers feared their kids would be brainwashed if they stayed

For couples such as Eric and Shelly, who arrived earlier this year, the visa program is an escape hatch. The couple fled Hong Kong after the Chinese government imposed a national security law which is being used to criminalize speech that had previously been free.

As with nearly all the Hong Kongers interviewed for this story, NPR is not using the couple's full names to protect their relatives back home from possible retaliation by authorities.

Shelly, a nurse, says that she used to write freely on Facebook. But since the new law in 2020, she says few in the territory post anything political or controversial.

"Nobody wants to talk," says Shelly. "Nobody wants to share."

This is a sea change in Hong Kong, where people used to speak about as freely as they do in the United States.

Eric worked as a teacher in Hong Kong. Like other schools, his canceled a course on liberal studies, a subject designed to help students develop critical thinking skills. The school replaced it with another course built around a patriotic curriculum designed to instill support for the Chinese Communist Party.

The Hong Kong government even set up a hotline where the public can anonymously report those whom they suspect of having violated the national security law.

Eric and Shelly feared that if they stayed in Hong Kong, the government would eventually brainwash their children.

"I was afraid one day my children will report me through the hotline," says Shelly. She laughs, but isn't kidding.

China has reneged on its 1997 promise of 50 years of freedoms for Hong Kong

Britain took control of Hong Kong in 1842, after dealing a humiliating defeat to China in the First Opium War. The U.K. handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, but before doing so, China pledged in an international treaty to preserve Hong Kong's relative autonomy and freedoms for another 50 years.

"Now, Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong," said Chris Patten, Hong Kong's last British governor, during the handover ceremony. "That is the promise and that is the unshakeable destiny."

For the first few years, that seemed possible. However, in 2003, Hong Kong's government drafted security legislation that many feared would be used to restrict their freedoms. After hundreds of thousands protested, authorities shelved the plan.

But the government didn't give up. In 2019, it drafted legislation to allow extradition of Hong Kongers to stand trial in mainland China, where the conviction rate is about 99%. That provoked protests, which turned violent and paralyzed parts of city.

China's parliament responded by imposing the national security law, which authorities have used to crush dissent, arresting dozens of pro-democracy activists including Jimmy Lai, the editor of the now-shuttered Apple Daily, an aggressive newspaper that routinely criticized the Communist Party. The U.K. said the new law violated the treaty between the two countries. It responded by offering most Hong Kongers five-year visas, with the right to apply for permanent residency.

Hundreds fill London's Piccadilly Circus on Oct. 1, China's National Day, to protest the Chinese Communist Party's treatment of Hong Kong, Tibet and the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Frank Langfitt/NPR hide caption

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Despite Brexit, Britain has opened its doors to Hong Kongers

Anti-immigrant sentiment and some xenophobia drove the U.K.'s Brexit campaign in 2016, leading Britain to walk away from decades of economic and political integration with the European Union. Five years later, hardly anyone is complaining about the influx of Hong Kongers. In fact, communities such as Sutton are rolling out the red carpet. Steve Tsang, who runs the China Institute at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, says it comes down to the profile of the immigrants and the power of colonial ties.

"Hong Kong immigrants are likely to be from the middle-class, professional background, who would either be bringing in enough money to have early retirement or they will be coming in as very industrious, entrepreneurial workers," says Tsang, who grew up in Hong Kong.

The British government sees them as more valuable to the economy, he says, and less of a strain on government resources than, say, poorer, less-educated farm workers from Eastern Europe, who were among the targets of the Brexit campaign.

When China violated its pledge over Hong Kong, the British government had limited options. If it hit China with economic sanctions, China could have retaliated against British businesses. Benedict Rogers, chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, an advocacy group that monitors basic freedoms there, says the visa program was "less provocative."

For some, the transition to a new life in the U.K. isn't so easy

On Oct. 1, China's National Day, hundreds of Hong Kongers descended on London's Piccadilly Circus to protest the Chinese Communist Party's treatment of Hong Kong, Tibet and the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Among the crowd were younger political activists who had fled Hong Kong this year to avoid arrest and prison.

Edward, 32, boarded a plane for London last winter after learning Hong Kong police planned to arrest people like him who had helped organize a primary election for pro-democratic parties, which China had ruled illegal. Edward only told a few friends and family members he was leaving.

Hundreds of protesters march from London's Piccadilly Circus toward the Chinese Embassy. Frank Langfitt/NPR hide caption

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"In Hong Kong, you have to protect them," Edward says, pointing out that authorities retaliate against family members of activists.

Like every Hong Konger interviewed for this story, Edward is grateful to the British government, but his transition has been jarring at times. He gave up a well-paying logistics job in Hong Kong and worked for a time as an import clearance clerk, earning minimum wage.

Compared to Hong Kong's fast-paced business culture, Edward found his new British employer old-fashioned.

"I tried to write a program within the company just to stream down their data processing, and I was able to trim down a two-man job to a one-man job," he says.

The company was not happy with this, he adds: "They said, 'Edward, we don't like you changing things.'"

Even some who've escaped Hong Kong haven't left China entirely behind. Last year, friends in Hong Kong warned Finn Lau, a democratic activist, that he could be targeted for attack — even in England.

Two months later, Lau, 27, was strolling one evening through otherwise-safe West London. He spotted several men in hoodies following him. When he stopped to check, he recalls: "They rushed and started beating me, kicking and beating my head."

He says the men didn't take anything, nor say anything racist, but just kept hitting him.

"There was a moment I asked myself, 'Is this the end of my life?'" he says.

Lau passed out. When he came to, he went to the hospital, covered in blood. He was treated for cuts to the face and head injuries, according to a medical report. The doctor referred the case to the police, who couldn't identify the men.

The attack has not deterred Lau. He led the protest in Piccadilly Circus at the beginning of this month and marched with hundreds of people to demonstrate in front of the Chinese Embassy.

But when Lau walks around London, the city where he has sought refuge, he says he's much more cautious now.

London producer Jessica Beck contributed to this report.