Why is Britain so keen to attract HK people as immigrants?

August 11, 2022 06:00
Photo: Reuters

Last week British Home Secretary Priti Patel announced an expansion of the scheme to allow holders of British National Overseas (BNO) passports to emigrate to the UK. As of the end of March, it had approved about 110,000 of the 123,400 applications.

In late July, the Hong Kong government announced that, in the fiscal year 2021-2022, 3,734 civil servants had resigned, the highest in a single year since 1997 and more than double the figure of the previous year. In April, the Education Bureau announced that, during the same fiscal year, 5,270 teachers had resigned, up from 3,440 in the previous year.

Not all civil servants and teachers have emigrated to Britain, but many will. London launched the scheme in January 2021, opening the door to holders of BNO passports and their families – potentially 5.2 million people.

“I am delighted that, thanks to the scheme we introduced, thousands of Hong Kongers have already made the UK their home and integrated into communities across the country,” said Patel last week. The expansion allows those born after 1997 who are over 18 and have at least one parent with BNO status to get a visa to live, work and study in the UK. About 11,700 people are eligible.

“The further changes I have announced, which will come into effect this autumn, will continue to deliver on our historic and moral commitment to the people of Hong Kong,” she said.

The attraction of the British offer is that it is unconditional. Other countries offering residence or citizenship set conditions, such as a minimum sum of money, educational standards, desired job or professional skills or family ties.

“Since the introduction of the National Security Law, the atmosphere in my school has changed,” said David Leung, who teaches in a secondary school in the New Territories. “You must be careful who you talk to and what you talk about. We assume that colleagues or parents may report you if you say the wrong thing.” Leung plans to emigrate to Taiwan early next year with his wife, a journalist. “She cannot practice her profession as she used to. She is not a free agent any more.

“Several colleagues have resigned, some with 10-15 years’ experience. They usually do not say why. One told me that he was afraid the government would stop the one-off payment at retirement that it does now and instead give only an annual payment. So he wanted to withdraw his entire amount while he still could.”

Many Hong Kong people are puzzled why Britain launched the BNO scheme, less than five years after the vote in June 2016 to leave the European Union. The demand to control and limit immigration was a principal reason for the success of the Brexit vote.

One answer is that Hong Kong people bring money from the sale of their assets here which they invest in properties in UK, as well as skills, hard work, knowledge of English and a desire to keep a low profile.

George Brock, a former journalist of The Times newspaper, said: “From the start of Brexit in 2016, the government has known that it is short of immigrants. It has been laying out the welcome mat for immigrants from Asia, from countries such as India and the Philippines. Brexit voters, often caricatured as bigoted racists, seem to content with this. They think that the government has ‘taken back control of immigration’.

“Post-Brexit EU citizens were all allowed to stay if they wanted. Some went home anyway. Then came Covid and the UK workforce shrank drastically -- early retirement, career/life changes and part-time working. There are huge labour shortages in health and social care. I do not think the government is just dreaming of HK hi-tech millionaires. Qualified nurses will settle in Britain just as easily,” he said.

Graham Hutchings, an Associate at Oxford University’s China Centre, said: “I have asked myself why it is that the 'popular' press has not made any fuss about the ‘influx’ of Chinese from HK. While the HK-ers are not 'white', they are not very 'visible' in the wider sense of that term. They stick together but do not constitute a significant element in queues at surgeries, Job Centres or even school playgrounds. In these and other respects, they seem to fall below the radar.

“I am not sure that many HK-ers can take on some of the jobs formerly filled by Europeans, especially from the east of that continent. (Fruit-pickers from Kowloon? I hardly think so). But Britain is short of people of all kinds of skills post-Brexit, and talented HK-ers can help fill certain gaps. Their arrival is very firmly on the benefit side of the cost-benefit equation, politically as well as in economic terms.

“You might think me naïve. I believe that there is a sense of obligation towards the people of HK in certain quarters of Her Majesty’s Government, given what has happened in the territory. Fortunately, such is the number and the type of people likely to take advantage of this scheme that there is unlikely to be much of a political cost in implementing and, indeed, extending it,” he said.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.