We spoke to Hong Kong residents fleeing to the UK to avoid prison under China's strict new anti-protesting law

  • China is clamping down on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong with a new national security law that threatens protesters with life imprisonment.
  • Now, many Hong Kong residents are looking to flee to the UK.
  • But even after leaving Hong Kong, some activists are finding their troubles are just beginning.
  • View more episodes of Business Insider Weekly on Facebook.

London has become a hub for pro-democracy activists fleeing Hong Kong.

In recent months, as Beijing began a crackdown on protests and free speech, thousands have either fled the former British colony — or are looking for an exit. 

Simon Cheng arrived last December after he was arrested and, according to him, tortured by Chinese police.

Cheng took part in peaceful protests in Hong Kong, but his name is now on China's most wanted list. So it's on the streets of London that he continues his campaign for free speech and democracy.

"We need to stand together because we are now seeing Hong Kong's human rights situation getting worse and worse," Cheng said to a crowd at a recent protest in central London.

"We don't have any power, but we have a voice."

China's national security law threatens dissenters with life in prison.

Beijing's new national security law clamps down on any sign of dissent. The maximum penalty is now life imprisonment.

Cheng is currently seeking political asylum in the UK. While he feels safer than he did in Hong Kong, he is convinced he's still being watched by Chinese agents.

"Even that day that I heard I was on the wanted list, I also have been monitored in Whitehall in central London," he told Business Insider Weekly.

Back in Hong Kong, Cheng worked for the British consulate. Like most of his friends, he supported the peaceful pro-democracy movement.

But last year, on a business trip to mainland China, he was arrested and put in solitary confinement, where he says he was tortured for 15 days.

"Sometimes they would ask me to stand still for countless hours. I was not allowed to sleep. Once I moved a bit and I would be beaten," Cheng said. "One of the punishments is that they would make me sing the Chinese national anthem. They said that would wake me up."

It did wake him up, but not in the way the Chinese authorities intended. Cheng is now one of the most prominent faces of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.

Hong Kong residents are applying for visas to leave the country in unprecedented numbers.

It's not just activists trying to get out. Hong Kong residents are increasingly looking to leave the island, with requests for visa application documents leaping by 40% from 2018 to 2019, according to The Economist.

And a recent poll by the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that 42.3% of young adults were considering leaving, compared to 34% the year before.

Edward, an 18-year-old who asked to use a pseudonym for this story, is one of those looking for the exit.

We interviewed him in Hong Kong as he was packing his belongings to start a new life as a student in the UK. He doesn't expect to come back.

"It's going to be saddening as I really love this place, all the friends I have here, my family. It's going to be really tough," he said. "It's ironic how us Hong Kongers have to be pushed out of our own homes by the Hong Kong government because of how disgusting it is, and how every day, every second, our freedom is slowly disappearing."

Edward's parents and sister are planning to join him as soon as they manage to sell their apartment. But his father has mixed feelings about the move.

"I love this place. I studied here, married, and had children here," Edward's father said. "They also like Hong Kong so much. We feel not safe in the city anymore. The police just do the job for the government, not Hong Kong people. Now, Hong Kong is China."

China's grip on Hong Kong has been slowly tightening.

This year Britain offered all Hong Kong residents with a British National (Overseas) passport a chance to come to the UK. The passport is available to Hong Kongers alive before the handover in 1997 — almost 3 million people.

Peter, another Hong Kong activist, fled to London after friends of his were arrested under a new China security law.Claire Price and Diana Chan for Business Insider TodayAs of January 31, 2021, those with a BN(O) passport will be able to come to the UK for up to five years, with a chance of acquiring citizenship after that.

A British colony for over 150 years, Hong Kong was handed back to China with an agreement to protect its citizens' democratic rights for 50 years.

But as China's economy grew, so too did its grip on Hong Kong. 

In 2014, Beijing ruled out open elections, triggering a wave of protests, some of which turned violent.

Last year, up to 2 million people marched against China's proposed extradition bill, which would have allowed the transfer of suspects from Hong Kong to mainland China.

A few months later, protesters closed the international airport. And China withdrew the bill.

But on June 30 this year, China hit back with a national security law that effectively banned protests, whether in the streets or on social media.

The original agreement between China and the UK was left in tatters.

"What was totally unexpected not just in Britain but in Hong Kong and China was that a new Chinese leader would emerge who would not only refuse to liberalize and reform China but would go in the opposite direction," former British Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind told Business Insider Weekly.

Many residents feel like they can't trust anyone.

"Peter" was one of those to embrace violent protest on the streets of Hong Kong. He fled to London just 48 hours after friends on his Telegram channel were arrested under China's new law. 

He meets us in London, and talked only through a balaclava to disguise his identity. He also requested to use a pseudonym.

He threw Molotov cocktails at riot police, using an umbrella to protect himself from the water canons. If arrested, he's certain he'd face prison or worse.

He hasn't seen or spoken to loved ones since he moved in July and is afraid to leave his apartment in case he's followed by Chinese agents.

"Not until the Communist Party is done, I would say there is no future for Hong Kong. You simply cannot trust anyone. You don't know who are the agents from China", he said.

Protests in Hong Kong are effectively banned under a strict new Chinese security law.ReutersIn July, the UK suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong in the wake of the Chinese Security Law, protecting dissidents like Cheng and Peter. In August, the US followed suit.

Relations between China and the West are now the worst they've been for decades — with tensions around trade, 5G technology and human rights abuses.

And those who left their homeland behind are grappling with mixed emotions.

Cheng hasn't spoken to his parents or siblings since fleeing Hong Kong last year in case he puts them in danger. It's the one thing he regrets the most.

"When I think about what I have done, I sometimes feel so selfish because I abandoned my family."

But even he admits he's one of the lucky ones. For each of the activists who manage to leave, millions will be left behind, forced to accept that Hong Kong's dream of democracy is fading fast.

Edward has now arrived in London to start his new life. He's feeling relief tinged with sadness.

"I've just landed in the UK and it feels so surreal because this is the first time I've actually traveled alone. It feels really weird leaving home. I miss Hong Kong. Am I getting homesick already? I don't know."

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