Why this Chinese New Year will be different for many Hong Kongers

Photo by Chromatograph on Unsplash

In these COVID times, Chinese New Year celebrations in communities across the world will look very different. Gone are the large family gatherings, visiting elderly relatives, traditional lion dances and fireworks. This year’s celebrations will be more muted, more sombre and reflective.

This year, across dinner tables in Hong Kong, many Hong Kongers will be reflecting on their own family’s future in an increasingly authoritarian Hong Kong. Each passing day brings fresh news of further erosions of fundamental freedoms once taken for granted. The national security law unanimously passed by China’s top legislature in June 2020 has resulted in the arrest of journalists, pro-democracy activists, and even politicians. The spectre of the new security laws has slowly permeated every aspect of life in Hong Kong. Last week’s incredible decision by the Hong Kong authorities to incorporate the national security law into the school curriculum, with a corresponding request that schools monitor children for pro-democracy sentiments, will be seen by many anxious parents as the final straw. Hong Kong is no longer free, and nobody is safe from the shadow of the Chinese Communist Party.

At the dinner table this Chinese New Year, many Hong Kongers will be actively considering whether to accept the UK Government’s invitation to live and work in the UK.

With the memory of the Windrush scandal fresh in everyone’s minds, the UK Government has now introduced a visa scheme which allows holders of a British National Overseas (BNO) passport and their close family members to apply for two periods of five years to live and work in the UK. Importantly, the visa scheme provides a clear route to British citizenship. The UK Government estimates that 5.4 million Hong Kongers are eligible for the scheme; that’s around 72% of the population of Hong Kong. By their own estimates, 300,000 are expected to take up the offer in the first five years of the scheme.

But while the BNO visa scheme is a progressive step, there remain significant questions about how the scheme will work in practice. First, the draconian policy of ‘no recourse to public funds’ will be imposed as a condition of the scheme. In the context of a pandemic where jobs and opportunities are scarce, will Hong Kongers be entitled to access to the welfare state if they can’t find well-paying jobs? Secondly, some applicants will hold fresh convictions relating to pro-democracy activism. Under current Immigration Rules, this could be a ground for refusal of entry. How does this square with the aims of the BNO visa scheme? Finally, will Hong Kongers be regarded as ‘home students’ or ‘international students’ for the purposes of higher education tuition fees?

And what of the thousands of Hong Kongers who were born after the handover in 1997 and who do not hold a BNO passport? Young people are the face of pro-democracy activism is Hong Kong. Faced with an uncertain future and potential persecution in Hong Kong, some may seek asylum in the UK which would let them access minimal assistance on arrival. A number of issues arise. It may be difficult for Hong Kongers to prove that they have a fear of persecution. There is also always the risk that their claim for asylum is not accepted, or that the UK Government chooses to give preference to the BNO visa scheme.

An important question which looms large for us however is how we can ensure the successful integration of potentially 10,000s of Hong Kongers over the next several years.

This is where civil society, local authorities, and in Scotland, devolved government must step up. Disappointingly, there has been silence from the Scottish Government on the issue. This is in spite of the fact that many Hong Kongers will choose to make Scotland, and in particular Glasgow, their home. The pull of world-renowned higher education institutions and already well-established Chinese Hong Kong communities, will be strong. While immigration is a matter reserved to Westminster, there is an argument that matters relevant to integration lie squarely within the preserve of the Scottish Government, particularly education and housing. Indeed, during the pandemic, the Scottish Government made available funds to several organisations supporting people subject to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ policy.

The arrival of large numbers of Hong Kongers to Scotland, if fully supported by local and national Government, has the potential to have a transformative effect on the cultural fabric of Scotland. However, while many Hong Kongers will be highly skilled and multi-lingual, we must caution against viewing them in terms of what value they can contribute to our society and economy. Rather, we must remember that it was the UK which colonised Hong Kong. We as a collective society must bear equal responsibility for what has happened in Hong Kong. Indeed, the issue of universal suffrage was as much an issue in colonial Hong Kong as it is now.

Ultimately, Hong Kongers must be made to feel welcome in Scotland. But without increased awareness of the human rights situation, there is a risk that large arrivals of Hong Kongers will fuel racism. We only need to look at the increasing incidences of hate crime against people of East Asian origin during the pandemic to see the consequences of ignorance and misinformation.

Scotland has a long and proud history of extending a welcoming hand to those in need. There will be many who will be wondering what they can do to help support Hong Kongers arriving in our country. While awareness raising is important, we must also call for tangible support and assistance from local and national Government to help Hong Kongers integrate and thrive in Scotland.

Scotland welcomes Hong Kongers.

Human rights lawyer and activist