LONDON — It’s been nine months since Adrian Leung and his family packed up their lives in Hong Kong in search of a brighter future in Britain.
The 51-year-old teacher was on course to move to Canada with his wife and son, fleeing political turmoil back home. But when Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government announced a new visa program granting Hong Kong citizens the right to residency — and eventual citizenship — in the U.K., he said his choice was clear.
“Compared to Canada’s scheme, the criteria of Britain’s scheme is much lower: We just need to live in the country for five years. To me, it’s much easier,” Leung told CNBC.
Many in Hong Kong are angry at what they see as China’s encroaching grip on the semi-autonomous region in the wake of a new national security law passed in June 2020.
The law, which aims to prohibit secession and subversion of state power, has been widely condemned by Western governments and human rights watchdogs as undermining the “one country, two systems” principle under which the former British colony was transferred to China in 1997.
That prompted Britain to offer refuge to those born in Hong Kong prior to its handover. While it’s unclear how many have left due to the security law, Britain’s offer for refuge came for that specific purpose and was timed accordingly. The U.K. has said it will help those born in Hong Kong prior to its handover, citing “China’s failure to live up to its international obligations with respect to Hong Kong.”
A spokesperson for Hong Kong’s information services department said it “deplores and opposes” the launch of the U.K. visa, while the Chinese embassy in London said that 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 curtail the chaotic mass protests that dogged Hong Kong in 2019.
Leung, some of whose students were prosecuted and, in certain cases, imprisoned for demonstrating, is one of tens of thousands of Hong Kongers to have emigrated to Britain in the past year.
“It seemed to me, after June 2019, that Hong Kong is not going to be under the rule of law,” said Leung, referring to the start of the protests. “For the future of my son, I thought we had to leave,” he told CNBC.
Britain welcomes more than 97,000 Hong Kongers
The British National (Overseas), or BNO, visa program was launched to great pomp in January 2021, with Johnson declaring his pride over a program designed to honor Britain’s “profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong.”
The U.K. government said at the time that the program would open the door to an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Hong Kongers (though up to 5.4 million are eligible) and generate up to GBP2.9 billion ($3.9 billion) of net benefit to the U.K. economy over five years.
In the 12 months since, the U.K. received 103,900 applications for the visa program, which entitles holders and their dependents to five years of residence with a pathway to citizenship. More than 97,000 applications have so far been successful, according to data released Thursday by the U.K.’s home office.
The majority of those applicants are highly skilled and working in professional or managerial roles.
In a survey of 500 people granted the visa, the home office found seven in 10 (69%) were university educated and three-quarters (76%) had professional occupations. Almost all (96%) were of working age, with two in five (21%) aged under 35.
The findings suggest a win for the U.K. government as it seeks to position itself as a magnet for international talent, even as it closes its doors to EU workers after Brexit. Yet the experience of Hong Kong emigres who spoke to CNBC has been far more nuanced.
A personal and financial price
While BNO visa holders praised the speed and ease with which applications were processed (typically around six weeks), some said the personal costs of making the move have been high — not least financially.
The five-year visa costs GBP250 ($340) in addition to a mandatory NHS surcharge of GBP3,120 for adults and GBP2,350 for children. A family of four could expect to fork out GBP11,940 in fees before they even enter the United Kingdom.
That as Britain faces its worst cost of living crisis in decades amid spiraling house, food and energy prices.
Leung and his wife sold their apartment, cashed in their pensions and used their savings to fund their move to Britain. They recently bought a home in Durham, in the northeast of England, but not everyone has been as fortunate.
One BNO visa holder, who spoke to CNBC anonymously due to fear of a backlash or being identified by new colleagues in Britain, arrived in Nottingham, England, in December 2020 — during the height of the U.K.’s coronavirus lockdown.
The source quickly found himself in a catch 22; unable to rent a home without a bank account and unable to open a bank account without a home address.
After six weeks in an Airbnb, the 45-year-old finally found a landlord who would house him and his family in exchange for six months’ advanced rent. His pension, meanwhile, remains held in Hong Kong under dispute.
“Money or salary is not our top priority,” said the source, who, along with his wife, left their permanent nursing jobs in Hong Kong seeking “democracy, rule of law, civil liberties and respect.”
The Chinese embassy in London and Hong Kong’s information services department did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.
Swapping professional security for political stability
Like so many other highly skilled Hong Kong migrants in Britain, the source found himself sacrificing financial and professional stability for political security. He now works under contract at a hospital while his wife works part-time in a warehouse.
“I had a gap year later in life,” he said, adding that he and his family are using savings to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, a second CNBC source found himself overqualified for most available work. The Ph.D.-educated university lecturer decided to leave Hong Kong when its “human rights situation deteriorated” to the point, he said, where it threatened his children’s future and his own mental health.
After a “nightmare” six-month job search, the 51-year-old secured part-time work at a popular central London fast food chain, where he works nights.
“If I did not have children, my consideration might be different because, coming here, I have had to give up everything — work, money, friends, status,” the second source said, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Settling into the community
BNO visa holders are not eligible for welfare benefits, except under extreme circumstances. Instead, the government said it set aside GBP43 million for integration projects for the Hong Kong diaspora, including support to access housing, work and education.
Though the second anonymous source said better provisions might have been made for the sudden influx of Hong Kong workers, he still considers himself “lucky.”
Within weeks of arriving in June 2021, he secured a place for his son, 14, and daughter, 11, at a “very good state school” in outer London, where they and his wife are living with a friend.
“My initial mission was to help the children to adjust. It turns out they’ve actually adjusted better than me,” noting that his children quickly settled into local friendship groups.
One year into the program, competition for school spaces is heating up. Reports suggest some schools, particularly Britain’s elite public schools, have had to turn away Hong Kong students amid record enrollment and interest. Some three-quarters of BNO visa holders arriving in Britain are married or with long-term partners, while two-thirds have children.
“We’re fortunate that we’re a bit earlier settled,” the first anonymous CNBC source agreed. “It can be more difficult for newcomers — especially to secure school places.”
Hopes of a brighter future
Challenges aside, the BNO visa holders who spoke to CNBC said they were grateful for the program, which, while not necessarily an obligation, was certainly a “responsibility” of the U.K. government. Most of all, they praised the prospect it presents for a brighter future.
“After coming here, my son enjoys a lot more freedom, [including] the freedom to run,” said Leung, adding that he and his family have adjusted well to the lifestyle, neighborhood and working environment in Durham.
An overwhelming 96% of those granted BNO visas say they have no plans to return to Hong Kong, according to Home Office data. BNO visa holders are eligible to apply for permanent residence and indefinite leave to remain after five years at a cost of GBP2,389. The following year, they can apply for British citizenship at GBP1,206.
“Definitely U.K citizenship is our ultimate goal, since I am in line with 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.”
That potentially spells bad news for Hong Kong, which, aside from losing many skilled locals, also faces an expat exodus as overseas workers tire of the city’s Beijing-led zero-Covid policy.
“I don’t think it will get better,” the second CNBC source said. “Hong Kong’s space now is closely tied to the politics in China. That means increasing authoritarianship.”
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