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

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In the first half of this year, 65,000 people from Hong Kong applied to live in the United Kingdom. Hong Kong's strict national security laws are pushing them away - so, too, the threat of being punished for participating in the 2019 protests against those same laws. The U.K. voted to leave the EU because they wanted to limit immigration. But the country is now welcoming people from Hong Kong with open arms. Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It's a warm Sunday afternoon in a park in Sutton. It's a borough of London. And there are hundreds of people out here. A lot of them have just come from Hong Kong in recent months, and this is a welcoming ceremony, where they have face painting. They have kids sliding down a big slide and also music.

RUTH DOMBEY: My name's Ruth Dombey, and I'm leader of the council here in Sutton. And I wanted to give you a huge warm welcome.

LANGFITT: This year, about 400 Hong Kong families resettled in Sutton, a suburb known for good schools, south of London. They fled Hong Kong after the Chinese government imposed a national security law which frightened many in the former British colony.

ERIC: (Singing in non-English language).

LANGFITT: Eric, a former Hong Kong teacher, is playing and singing on stage.

ERIC: (Singing in non-English language).

LANGFITT: He came here last spring with his wife, Shelly, and their two kids. Eric, like almost everyone we talked to, asked us not to use his last name to protect his family back in Hong Kong.

ERIC: Before the national security law, we can express what we are thinking freely on Facebook. But after that, many people in Hong Kong, they keep silence.

SHELLY: Nobody want to talk. Nobody want to share.

LANGFITT: This is a sea change in Hong Kong, where people used to speak about as freely as they do in the U.S. Shelly says the government has even set up a system for snitching.

SHELLY: There is a 24-hours report line.

ERIC: Yeah.

SHELLY: Keep anonymous for the reporting people. Anyone is encouraged to report to each other.

ERIC: Yeah.

LANGFITT: The couple fled Hong Kong because they feared schools there would eventually brainwash their kids.

SHELLY: I was afraid one day my children will report me through the hotline.


LANGFITT: They're laughing. But they're not kidding.


LANGFITT: Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997. But before doing so, China pledged that Hong Kongers could enjoy their way of life and freedoms for another 50 years. At the handover ceremony, Chris Patten, Hong Kong's last British governor, tried to strike an optimistic tone.


CHRIS PATTEN: Now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise, and that is the unshakeable destiny.

LANGFITT: But the Chinese Communist Party had other ideas.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: So happening in just the past few minutes, China's national parliament has approved a controversial national security law for Hong Kong.

LANGFITT: China said the law would protect Hong Kong's political stability. Instead, it became open season on government critics.


HALA GORANI: Police, in fact, have already detained at least 300 people since the law took effect 24 hours ago.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: They're Hong Kong's most high-profile democracy campaigners - all now facing either prison or suspended jail terms.

LANGFITT: After China went back on its word, the British government offered a path to citizenship to potentially millions of Hong Kongers. This is a generous offer, especially for a country that left the European Union, in part, to cut immigration. Why the different approach? Steve Tsang, who runs the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies here, says it comes down to the nature of the immigrants and the power of colonial ties.

STEVE TSANG: Hong Kong immigrants are likely to be from the middle-class, professional background who would either be bringing in enough money to simply have early retirement. Or they will be coming in as very industrial, entrepreneurial workers who will contribute to the economy.

LANGFITT: The government sees them as more valuable than, say, a farm worker from Eastern Europe. When China violated its pledge, Tsang, who grew up in Hong Kong, says the U.K. had to do something. Giving visas to Hong Kongers was safer than hitting China with economic sanctions, which could have led to retaliation against British businesses.

TSANG: We are fulfilling our historic obligations to a people whose future the U.K. government signed away on the understandings that things would be a lot better than it turns out to be the case.

FINN LAU: (Chanting) Free Hong Kong. Hong Kong is not China.

LANGFITT: It's a few weeks later. And I'm in Piccadilly Circus on a Friday night for a totally different kind of get-together. It's a big protest. Hundreds of people from Hong Kong are marching, actually, towards the Chinese Embassy to protest the Chinese Communist Party's treatment of Hong Kong, as well as Tibet and the Uyghurs.

Some here are activists who fled arrest in Hong Kong, like Edward, who's 32 and helped organize a primary election, which China ruled illegal. When Edward boarded a plane to London last winter, he only told a few friends and family members.

EDWARD: Most of them didn't even know that I fled over. In Hong Kong, you have to protect them, too, because it's not just about myself. It's about my family as well.

LANGFITT: Edward is grateful to the British government. But the transition has been jarring at times. He gave up a well-paying logistics job in Hong Kong to work as an import clearance clerk here earning minimum wage. Compared to Hong Kong's fast-paced business culture, Edward found the British firm old-fashioned.

EDWARD: I tried to write a program within the company to just shrink down their data processing. And I was able to trim down a two-man job to a one-man job.

LANGFITT: Were they happy?


LANGFITT: Why not?

EDWARD: They said, Edward, we don't like you changing things (laughter).

LANGFITT: 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 here. Two months later, Lau, who's 27, was strolling one evening through otherwise safe West London.

LAU: I suspect some people were following me. And then I try to stop by lamppost. But once I stop, they rushed and start beating me - kicking and beating my head.

LANGFITT: He said the men wore hoodies.

LAU: They didn't take any of my personal belongings. They didn't even say anything racist at all. There was a moment I ask myself, is this the end of my life?

LANGFITT: 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 the medical report. The doctor referred the case to the police, who couldn't identify the men. The attack has not deterred Lau.

LAU: (Chanting) Free Hong Kong.


LANGFITT: On this evening, he led the protest in Piccadilly Circus. But as he walks around London, the city where he has sought refuge, he's much more cautious now.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.


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