Hong Kongers embrace politics in UK, but some still fear Beijing

By Thomson Reuters Jun 21, 2024 | 12:04 AM

By Alun John

LONDON (Reuters) – For Richard Wong, 25, who moved to Britain from Hong Kong two years ago, it “feels strange” taking part in a free election, exercising exactly those rights that he once fought for, knowing that his friends back home no longer can.

“Back in Hong Kong we tried so hard to get democracy and then lost it. And I moved here, and we are actually practicing democracy, but in a very different context,” said Wong, who has been knocking on doors as a volunteer for an opposition Labour party candidate in next month’s UK general election.

“I still have friends spending their time in prison and I’m … doing this at the other end of the world.”

Since 2021, more than 180,0000 Hong Kongers have moved to Britain under a special visa programme set up in response to a crackdown on dissent in their homeland, a former British colony handed back to Beijing in 1997.

China says the crackdown was necessary to restore stability after months of sometimes violent protests in 2019.

When Britain left Hong Kong it offered a limited form of British nationality to residents, which means the Hong Kongers, unlike many newcomers from elsewhere, arrive with the right to vote in the UK.

Britain’s national election next month is the first chance they will have to participate in the central ritual of democracy in their adopted home. Many are passionate about the opportunity.

“I know the power of votes. I think if we have that power we should utilise it,” said Carmen Lau, a campaign coordinator for Vote for Hong Kong 2024, a group rallying Hong Kongers in the UK to participate in the British election.

Before she moved to Britain, Lau was elected a Hong Kong district councillor in 2019, but later disqualified for refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the territory’s mini constitution.

With relations between Britain and China at a low ebb, amid accusations from London that Beijing had intimidated a foreign national on British soil and counter claims of spying activities, some Hong Kongers are still fearful China’s reach.

Lau said at cultural events many attendees wore masks and avoided cameras because they were afraid their family back in Hong Kong would be harassed.

“The right to vote is precious, and more Hong Kong people are moving to the UK and we’re concerned about China’s control and spies, so there is a need to speak out,” said one Hong Konger in the UK, Kate, 33, who declined to give her full name as she was fearful of reprisals.

(Editing by Michael Holden and Peter Graff)