China and Hong Kong: The UK Hongkongers living with the handover's legacy

By Nadeem Shad
BBC News

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A woman holds a sign reading "I am a HongKonger"Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Honkongers living in the UK struggle with questions of their nationality

"Looking back, 1997 is a lie," says Thomas Fung, a Hong Kong-born accountant who now lives in Oxford.

That was the year Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed back to China as a special administrative region (SAR).

The city, both sides agreed, would continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy until 2047 when it would become a fully integrated part of China.

"China broke most of the promises or agreements they signed," says 31-year-old Mr Fung, who first came to the UK a decade ago as a student.

Beijing's increasing influence, and the implementation of a controversial national security law (NSL) two years ago, has set off uncertainty among Hongkongers over the future of their city and their freedoms.

Thousands have left - and are still leaving. One of their most popular destinations? The UK.

The UK has for decades given those with a British National Overseas (BNO) status - created as a way of allowing Hongkongers to retain a link with the UK - the right to visit the UK for six months without a visa.

But in 2021, after the imposition of the NSL, the UK introduced a new visa system for those with BNO status. This gave those eligible - 5.4 million people, 70% of Hong Kong's population - the right to live, work and study in the UK with a route to citizenship.

Britain had expected some 300,000 people to take up the offer over five years - more than 100,000 visas have already been granted since January 2021.

And as the city is set to mark 25 years since Hong Kong was returned to China, many of these Hongkongers - like the ones who came before them - are still conflicted about the handover.

'Hongkongers didn't have a choice'

Mr Fung was just six years old in 1997 when his family tried to leave Hong Kong. But they decided to stay put despite many of their relatives moving to the US and Canada.

"I was too small to feel the fear myself but I remember that no-one said a positive thing about the handover," he says.

Mr Fung, who believes the city was "well-run" under the British, considers the handover a mistake, and a result of the UK handling the situation poorly.

Former UK PM Margaret Thatcher, who had negotiated the agreement with China's then president Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, later revealed in her memoirs that he had threatened to "walk in and take the whole lot this afternoon".

It was such "threatening actions" that led to the agreement, Mr Fung says.

"Hongkongers didn't have any choice in deciding our own future like other colonies, we were forced to be handed over to China."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Two Royal Navy sailors carry the Queen's portrait after it was taken down for the last time.

Now, Mr Fung is wary of China's narrative: "They are already trying to rewrite the history about colonisation."

This is the latest in a slew of measures that has sparked fear and suspicion among many Hongkongers, both at home and abroad - it has also stirred nostalgia for a city they feel no longer fully belongs to them.

'Home Kong'

In recent years #HomeKong has become a popular hashtag - a fond nickname for the city that can be found on thousands of social media posts.

*Ko, who wanted his name changed, uses the hashtag frequently. Like the SAR, he turns 25 this year. He moved to the UK with his family last year under the new visa scheme.

"My family took it [the visa] without hesitation, even though none of us had been to the UK before," he said. "We felt so insecure at that time after a year of unrest."

The handover was a big moment for his family.

"My mother felt a bit betrayed and abandoned by the British when she saw the last governor, Chris Patten, leave on his ship."

The image of the city's last governor-general departing on the royal yacht Britannia on a rainy July night is an iconic moment in Hong Kong's history.

"She was not a fan of the colonial era, but the Chinese government didn't give her much hope either."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The departure of HMY Britannia from Victoria Harbour in 1997 was an iconic moment

He says she had been afraid of what life would be like after the handover, after the events of 1989 when Chinese security forces opened fire and used tanks to crush peaceful protests at in the capital Beijing.

The Tiananmen Square Massacre is taboo in China and no references to it are made in the country's history books or on its highly censored internet platforms.

Even the true death toll is unknown, with unofficial estimates putting numbers as high as the hundreds or thousands - far higher than the official count of 200 civilians and several security personnel.

In 2017, previously unreleased UK documents revealed a diplomatic cable from the then British ambassador to China that said that 10,000 people had died.

Then in 2020, Hong Kong introduced the National Security Law (NSL), which Beijing says was needed to bring stability to the city, but critics say is designed to quash dissent.

Ko says the clampdown on free speech and his loss of hope in Hong Kong politics are the main reasons he and his family decided to leave.

He describes London as the "older version of Hong Kong" and that he can sense its historical connection to his home city. He says he was told in school that he was a Chinese citizen first and then a Hongkonger - and that the British colonial era was "bad".

But, he says many still struggle with the question of nationality: "What should we call ourselves - Hongkongers, British, or Chinese?"

An uncertain future

But the handover is not such an existential moment for every Hongkonger in the UK.

Ed*, who moved to the UK in 2015 to study, says it's an important event in the city's history that led to "positive and negative changes".

He was hesitant to elaborate but he mentioned the city's recent political instability, which he fears could lead to regional competitors eclipsing its status as a financial powerhouse.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Thousands of Hongkongers in the UK turned up for a protest in June in London

But either way, he insists: "Hong Kong will remain my home."

Jamie Wong, a 33-year-old graphic designer who moved to London in January, a year after her brother and his family, is less optimistic: "I feel hopeless, immigration seems to be the only choice now for the younger generation."

In fact, she sees the UK as her future home: "If there are Hongkongers in the UK, and the community becomes bigger and bigger, of course we will consider the UK as the new Home Kong."

Years have always mattered in Hong Kong - and 1997 and 2047 are the two dates that loom large in the consciousness of every Hongkonger. But now, no one is certain what will happen in 2047.

Many young Hongkongers talk of the future with the same trepidation their parents felt in the years leading up to the handover.

"One country, two systems is dead," said Ms Wong who believes the handover is responsible for Hong Kong's recent troubles, setting the local population on an inevitable collision course with the pro-Beijing local government.

"2047 is meaningless now."

*Names have been changed

Read more of our coverage on Hong Kong

Viewers in the UK can watch BBC Panorama's Hong Kong: Life Under the Crackdown on BBC iPlayer.