We are being watched. We may be 6,000 miles from the Pearl River Delta, but that does not stop the long arm of the Chinese state reaching into this sports hall in a small town in South Gloucestershire.
I am talking to members of the ballooning Hong Kong community in sleepy Bradley Stoke — over the din of badminton shuttlecocks being batted back and forth and ceremonial swords whooshing through the air as older residents practise tai chi.
No one dares give their real name. Some even hesitate to give their age, in case it might somehow lead to their identification.
Are they scared of endangering their family back home? “No,” says one man. “It is because of the place you’re interviewing in. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there is actually one spy from the Chinese government behind us,” he adds with a nervous laugh. “So we have to be careful what kind of information we’re sharing.” I ask if we should continue outside, to sidestep the amateur agent, but he insists we stay put. “I think 70% of them actually can’t understand English. But they want to show they’re listening.”
In 2020, following a wave of pro-democracy protests, China imposed a draconian new security law on Hong Kong. It made crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison, with the possibility of cases being heard behind closed doors and defendants being spirited away for trials in mainland China. Hundreds of activists and former opposition lawmakers have since been arrested.
Britain said the clampdown broke a guarantee of freedoms it agreed with China in the 1997 handover deal, and ministers responded in February 2021 by providing an escape hatch — a “bespoke visa route” for anyone registered with British National (Overseas), or BNO, status before 1997, along with their partners and dependent relatives. In all, 5.2 million people, or two thirds of the population, are eligible to live, work and study in the UK for up to five years, after which they can settle permanently (and can apply for citizenship 12 months after that).
And so, over the past year, roughly 1,000 Hong Kongers have moved to South Gloucestershire. At the Aerospace Bristol museum in October, local agencies came together with the Chinese Community Wellbeing Society for a welcome event attended by 250 people. And at the Konbini Asian supermarket in nearby Patchway, managers have been buying exotic fruits and vegetables — from shark fin melon to choy sum greens — to cater to them.
The new arrivals say they chose the area around Bristol for its moderate climate, good schools, low crime rates and relatively affordable housing (new-builds are much favoured over what one calls “second-hand properties”). Many have also been attracted by a YouTube influencer, Canaan K, who has amassed 60,000 followers in two years by producing Cantonese videos on everything from UK income tax to Primark sales, while gushing about the wonders of BS32. “They think this is the place to be — according to her,” explains one of Bradley Stoke’s newcomers.
Daniel*, who is in his thirties, says he escaped so he can speak freely and “go everywhere without worries”. The last straw was the smartphone app the Hong Kong government instituted ostensibly because of Covid, but which he says is a “monitoring system so they know everywhere you go”. He had to abandon “my family, my friends, my dogs”. Yet he does not consider himself a refugee. “I think we are liberated,” is how he prefers to put it.
Liberation, however, has its limits. Everyone here knows about the incident in October when a man believed to be Beijing’s consul general in Manchester ripped down pro-democracy posters, and looked on as one protester was dragged into consulate grounds and beaten so badly he was hospitalised.
“I was shocked,” says Daniel, “but not surprised. From what we’re gathering from the news, the Chinese government even set up police stations in foreign countries. It is effective. If you look at Xinjiang [where more than a million Uyghur Muslims are thought to be detained in “re-education camps”], you know what’s happening.” What are his worst fears? “Just that Hong Kong will become another China.”
The territory is also suffering economically, in part thanks to strict Covid lockdowns. In September, it lost its crown as Asia’s leading financial centre to Singapore in a respected global index. And its population fell by a record 1.6% in the past year, with 113,200 residents emigrating. Only this week, protests flared up again, echoing the anti-lockdown demonstrations that have swept across the mainland.
Candy Choy is the only person I can find who will agree to be named (she also approached more than 30 families on my behalf, but all declined to talk). “I love Hong Kong,” she says. “But unfortunately, Hong Kong didn’t love me.” A pastor and mother of two, who lives in neighbouring Stoke Gifford, she was recruited by the West of England Baptist Network to channel BNOs to the local churches and help them adapt to British life. She says she did not want her children to continue being “brainwashed” and had had enough of “self-checking” every time she ministered. “I was very stressed. But I’m not stressed now.”
Still, she says many arrivals take precautions — including declining to give their new contact details to loved ones back home. “Sometimes we want to disconnect from them. So we didn’t tell anyone when we left. The police can find some excuse to arrest you. We don’t give our addresses — to protect us, and our families in Hong Kong.”
Choy says she has been savouring her liberty in Britain — googling anything she likes without hesitation and marvelling at the right to lampoon those in the highest offices in the land (her daughter asked in astonishment how the British were allowed to make jokes about the Queen). And she enthuses about the warm welcome she has received. “My neighbours mainly are local people and they invited me to many jubilees, bonfires and Christmas parties.”
No one here has a single racist incident to report. The only complaints anyone can muster are confusion about the council’s recycling system and the strict British penalties for parking and speeding. Oh, and the food. “Honestly?” says one, “it’s just chips and chicken.” Another regrets that she has not been able to find a steak in the area that actually has “a meat taste”. A third looks at me in horror as he describes what sounds like an almost mythical dish he is yet to encounter: “The London eel.”
I meet Helen*, a wary mother of three, at a pub in Bradley Stoke. “I think I escaped from a monster’s claw — because of the kindness of the English government,” she says. The 44-year-old accepts that the Hong Kong she knew and loved is no more. “It was very beautiful,” she recalls wistfully. “It was wonderful, it was energetic. It was full of freedom and mass media. Now they only take dictation.” In June last year, Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy paper, announced its closure after 26 years following police raids. Its founder, Jimmy Lai, is in jail.
Does she not find the small-town life of Bradley Stoke humdrum compared with the bustle of Hong Kong’s metropolis? In fact, she insists, she loves all the trees and the wide, open space. Plus, she says: “I’m too busy to be bored.” Helen is renting, in an area with rising prices, in part thanks to this wave of immigration. It means she works one full-time job, plus one or two part-time jobs each day, and is still not making ends meet — using her dwindling savings to make up the shortfall. “If the news reporters always focus on the majority, of the wealthy who have left Hong Kong, they will ignore the minority — people who are poor, who are struggling.”
Even those with capital from selling their expensive properties have had to adjust their career expectations in Bradley Stoke. Professors have found themselves working in Tesco warehouses. One woman from mainland China tells me how impressed she was with the Hong Kongers who arrived to work with her at a food factory — doing 12-hour shifts cooking up English soups and sauces. “They don’t want any benefits. They say: ‘We appreciate that the UK, during a difficult time, invites us to come. We want to do something for the society.’ I like their spirit.” But she is also aware of the suspicion they have for mainlanders like her. Some recoil even at the sight of Simplified Chinese characters, which they associate with the Beijing regime.
Helen joined the “Umbrella Revolution” protests in 2014 and demonstrations against a proposed extradition treaty to the mainland in 2019 — when dissent was still legal — dressing in black and singing the movement’s two protest songs, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Misérables and the Cantonese anthem “Glory to Hong Kong”. She is wary of other Hong Kongers in Bradley Stoke unless she is sure they were fellow protesters like her. “I keep a very, very careful eye on them,” she says, explaining she will look out to see if they have a yellow umbrella symbol “on their cup or on their keyring”. She is terrified someone will report her to the Chinese authorities, who would ban her from ever returning home to see her parents.
Rachel*, another Bradley Stoke BNO, says she is “very blessed” compared with those who failed to make it out. They were stopped at the airport, she says, “and then they disappeared. My friends — key persons who organised all protests — their mobile phones always are switched off. After 2019, some teenagers disappeared and their parents also found them disconnected. These are the facts.”
According to the older émigrés, there is still a strong bond with Britain, which first occupied the region in 1841. Helen says they “love Pang Ding-hong”, the Cantonese name for Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong. But Daniel says the sentiment is disappearing fast from the territory itself. “Those who have affection for Britain, underneath, they still love it. But now you just don’t say anything because the majority of those who feel the same have already moved to the UK.”
Many Brits feel our government has done precious little over the years to safeguard democracy in Hong Kong. Even Lord Patten says: “We should have delivered more explicitly on what was promised.” But the exiles in Bradley Stoke are pragmatic — and sanguine. “It is not just that China is too powerful,” says Daniel. “They’re brutal and barbaric.” Helen adds: “We just think no one can help us. But the UK government is one of the solutions. She will not very strongly make conflict with China, but now she gives us a gate to escape. And, for me, that’s enough.”
* Names and other details have been changed to protect identities.
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