Spin doctors target Hong Kongers seeking UK visas

The UK government predicts around 300,000 people could come to the UK under the programme over five years. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Britain has terrible weather. Taxes are high, job prospects scarce, and the people aren't all that friendly. Moving there could also put your Chinese citizenship at risk.

At least that is how things are being portrayed in China-friendly Hong Kong newspaper editorials and online chat rooms, and by senior officials in Hong Kong. When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced last July that Britain would open a gateway to people to become British citizens, so began the drum beat as to why relocating would be a poor decision.

In recent weeks, as the window opened for holders of British National (Overseas) passports to gain long-term visas - the first step towards citizenship - that rhetoric has darkened to include threats that Hong Kongers who apply could end up stateless.

While it is impossible to verify whether the narratives flooding message boards are coordinated, China is well known for conducting influence operations. Either way, the chat rooms and editorials are being amplified by official efforts to deter Hong Kongers from leaving the Asian financial capital.

The offer to those in the former British colony comes as Beijing erodes Hong Kong's political freedoms, imposing a national security law and disqualifying lawmakers deemed insufficiently patriotic.

Britain's muddled coronavirus response - deaths have topped 118,000, while in Hong Kong they are fewer than 200 - and an economy that suffered its worst slump last year since 1709 are potential reasons on their own for Hong Kongers to pause. Taxes are indeed higher.

But there are also reports on forums of people moving to Britain being ripped off in house purchases, or even chased by Chinese gangs. From the authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong there are veiled warnings about the risk of families being torn apart. Hong Kong's government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hong Kong's former leader has gone as far as suggesting those with a BNO passport should lose their Chinese nationality. Hong Kongers should not "step on two ships with one foot", Mr Leung Chun Ying told a local media group.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in an interview with Bloomberg last month that she did not see why many people would want to move to Britain.

Hong Kong has seen exoduses before, including after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and before the 1997 handover of the city to Chinese rule.

But the prospect of another wave comes at a sensitive time for Beijing as it seeks to cement its hold on Hong Kong, and to prevent dissenters carrying on their efforts abroad. There is a monetary calculation, too: Bank of America Corp estimates Hong Kong could see capital outflows of as much as US$36 billion (S$47.8 billion) this year as residents leave for Britain - equal to half the net inflow into the city in 2020.

The British government predicts around 300,000 people could come to Britain under the programme over five years. It will release the first data on applicants in May. A top adviser to the Hong Kong government has said "it won't come close to the number of people being projected".

Britain has called the national security law a "clear and serious breach" of the 1984 treaty that guaranteed Hong Kong a high level of autonomy and freedoms. China says the measures are necessary to prevent further violent protests in the city.

Almost 100 people have been arrested under the law to date, while students as young as six will now be taught a more patriotic curriculum.

So far China's actions have not matched its threats. Beijing's decision not to recognise BNO passports as a travel document is largely symbolic, as people can leave Hong Kong with a residency card.

Similarly, Hong Kong's association of banks says it will not accept the passports as proof of identity. Beijing is also reportedly discussing whether to ban BNO holders from public office. But the fear among some potential visa applicants is that Beijing could remove their Chinese passports, making it harder to re-enter Hong Kong.

"That's the biggest concern," said Adrian, a 30 year old researcher who asked not to be identified. Adrian said he had now decided to wait a year or two before applying for the British visa.

Bloomberg News spoke with a dozen residents seeking to utilise the programme, all of whom reaffirmed their commitment to move. Still, the rhetoric has swayed some, according to Mr Billy Wong, an immigration consultant and founder of the Goodbye HK, Hello UK website.

"Some middle class and wealthy Hong Kongers who sought my services to obtain the BN(O) visa are now having second thoughts amid threats by politicians to take counter measures," he said, adding that a handful of clients out of almost 30 have since paused their applications.

Senior pro-Beijing politicians have turned to opinion pieces to say citizens should have to choose between Chinese or foreign citizenship, and warning that those who apply for the visa could end up becoming refugees.

Stripping BNO holders of Chinese citizenship is legally possible, given Chinese law does not recognise dual nationality, according to Professor Albert Chen Hung-yee, who specialises in Chinese constitutional law at the University of Hong Kong.

"This is not unique to China, and the principle of no dual nationality is followed in many countries."

A Foreign Office spokesman said British dual nationals in Hong Kong were already no longer receiving consular support, and urged the authorities to restore access. They did not comment on what steps Britain could take if China withdrew dual nationality from BNO holders.

In a sign that Beijing may be prepared to contemplate such measures, the Canadian government expressed concern after learning an imprisoned Hong Kong resident with a Canadian passport was asked to declare if they were Chinese or Canadian.

Australia and Britain have updated travel advice to warn dual-national citizens that China may treat them as Chinese citizens only. Another major fear is that the authorities in Hong Kong could move to bar people from withdrawing state pension funds, said Mr Benedict Rogers, the founder of Hong Kong Watch.

"Those are issues which the UK should watch and be prepared to respond to if they happen."

Some message groups have called for foreign countries to stop interfering in Hong Kong.

On LIHKG, a #BNOChallenge hash tag calls for people to rip up their BNO passport. "We don't need foreign powers," wrote one user. The BNOChallenge thread has more than 1,000 likes on the forum.

Still, "they aren't capable of knowing whether I have a BNO or not", another user wrote.

Comments and posts on social media by pro-Beijing groups and Hong Kong news outlets have focused on Britain. Users ask how it could welcome people amid the coronavirus lockdown and others wonder how new migrants might be treated, given the rhetoric on immigration that flowed around its exit from the European Union.

"British netizens do not welcome BN(O) immigrants," wrote a user on the Hong Kong Discuss forum. The thread has over 40 pages of similarly toned comments.

Mr Robert Chow, the founder of a pro-Beijing group called the Silent Majority for Hong Kong, wrote on the organisation's social media platforms, "How do you really know going to the UK will be good for Hong Kongers?"

Local groups that support Hong Kongers to settle in Britain have raised concerns that arrivals are receiving a hostile reception from established Chinese communities. Some people have reported being followed or harassed, according to a joint report in late January from three community groups.

Still, a former architect with BNO status who arrived in Britain last month with his family on a six month visa said he felt welcome.

"Of course there are difficulties; job, accommodation, different culture, different language," he said. "Just prepare. But there is a lot of opportunity if you look at it in a positive way."

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