At the entrance of Chinatown in London stands a decorated Chinese arch with four Chinese characters meaning “China at peace”. Swinging in the breeze are lines and lines of red lanterns used to celebrate occasions of joy and harmony. But to Hong Kong newcomers in the UK, the quarter symbolises the authoritarian regime that forced them to leave home for freedom and for good.
In January, a visa programme was introduced for Hong Kong residents with British national (overseas) status, offering them the chance to live and work in the UK, with an eventual path to British citizenship. The programme was a response to Beijing’s crackdown on opposition groups and the imposition of a sweeping national security law in the former British colony, which sharply restricted freedom of expression.
But Hong Kongers say the threats from Chinese nationalists didn’t stop, even after they crossed out of the semi-autonomous region. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), they say, continues to cast a shadow over their safety abroad.
“There’s a perception that once people are granted asylum, the problem is solved,” said Simon Cheng, a former British consulate worker in Hong Kong who claims he was tortured in China in 2019. He was granted asylum in the UK in July 2020.
“But based on the experience of myself and Hong Kong people who are living in or moving to the UK, being away from Hong Kong doesn’t lessen our fear of safety.”
Cheng and fellow activist Nathan Law, who also chose exile and has asylum status in the UK, are frequent targets of pro-Beijing loyalists. An anonymous bounty of £10,000 was offered recently on a chat group – named “UK Anti-Hong Kong Independence” – on the Chinese social media platform WeChat for the work or home address of either one.
“It’s a never-ending fear,” Cheng sighed.
According to screenshots viewed by the New Statesman, members of the same group on WeChat also suggested launching attacks on pro-Hong Kong independence figures. “We first need to tackle those with cameras and megaphones and waving [pro-independence] flags,” one said. “Let’s fiercely beat up the pro-Hong Kong independence [campaigners].”
Law, who was the youngest lawmaker in Hong Kong history and later disqualified over “improper oath-taking” during the inaugural ceremony, said such threats “literally show the long arm of the Chinese Communist Party” and the UK government should be vigilant in its monitoring of these extra-territorial activities.
“People living in a free and democratic country should be protected from those threats,” he added.
The bounty offer, which is under police investigation, comes after clashes between the Hong Kong and Chinese communities in London’s Chinatown last month. A rally titled “Stop anti-Asian racism, reject the new Cold War” and led by three separate organisations – the Min Quan Legal Centre, the Monitoring Group (an anti-discrimination organisation) and the Federation of UK Fujian Chinese – degenerated into a brawl.
The Federation of UK Fujian Chinese, along with the London Chinatown Chinese Association, has previously taken out newspaper advertisements in support of the national security law and about only allowing those who have professed their loyalty to Beijing to sit in Hong Kong’s legislature.
Bystanders said a group of Hong Kongers turned up at the rally and criticised it for overlooking human rights issues both in Hong Kong and in Xinjiang, where at least a million people from the Uyghur minority are said to have been detained in state-controlled camps. What started as an argument turned violent when some members of the organising associations “rushed towards, punched and kicked” the Hong Kong group, which was trying to leave the area, the bystanders recalled.
“At the end of the rally, several Chinese people from the Federation of UK Fujian Chinese could not bear [the situation] anymore and clashed with masked Hong Kong independence elements,” one of the articles read. “London police eventually arrested one of the event organisers but tolerated the troublesome Hong Kong independence elements.”
While the Monitoring Group denies anyone from its side launched the attack, China’s mouthpiece, the Global Times, has published two separate articles – here and here – confirming the identities of the attackers.
In the virtual world, a wave of anti-Hong Kong comment flows freely into the censored microblogging site Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
“Cockroaches are cockroaches that need to be wiped out,” one comment read, referring to the derogatory term used to describe Hong Kong protesters during the 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations. “This is how we should handle Hong Kong independence elements, or overseas Chinese will have a hard time,” another said.
These online and offline intimidations may not have deterred Hong Kongers from holding on to their belief in democracy, but they have sown paranoia and distrust within the community in the UK.
“For example, they [people from Hong Kong] want to meet in certain locations and make sure we can’t be seen or overheard,” said Benedict Rogers, chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, a rights group. “They don’t want to have any photographs, or might not want those photos to be on social media.”
While the Beijing government has remained tight-lipped on the Chinatown clashes and subsequent threats from nationalists, analysts describe its lack of action as tacit support. They expect tensions between the two communities to continue to worsen in the UK.
Christopher Hughes, emeritus professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, attributes the nationalistic behaviour to the national security law. The Hong Kong administration led by Carrie Lam said the law applies not just in the territory but to people outside as well. Overseas jurisdictions, including the UK, have rejected Lam’s remarks, assuring their citizens that they do not recognise the application of the law.
“[The law] sends out a signal that it’s alright, acceptable and actually good to pursue people who are exercising their freedom of speech in this country,” Hughes said.
Overseas Chinese are under pressure to express loyalty to the CCP, explained Andreas Fulda, associate professor at the University of Nottingham. The ideologues of the CCP do not make a distinction between a person’s ethnic, cultural and political identity, he said. He continued: “Such political pressures pose a major problem for all those liberal-minded Chinese citizens who left China to escape the long arm of Beijing.
“Governments in the West have so far failed to protect Chinese overseas communities from such nefarious Chinese Communist Party interference.”
History is repeating itself, said a man from Hong Kong, looking at a friend’s head covered in blood after the Chinatown clashes. The protest movement that arose in Hong Kong in 2019 was brought to an end by a government crackdown, leaving in its wake a polarised and paranoid society where voices of opposition are annihilated.
“I feel like Chinatown is the Chinese Communist Party’s sphere of influence,” said the man. He wishes to remain anonymous: even now, 6,000 miles from Hong Kong, he still worries about reprisals.