Britain's visa pledge won't lead to a mass exodus from Hong Kong
Tom Fowdy

Editor's note: Tom Fowdy is a British political and international relations analyst and a graduate of Durham and Oxford universities. He writes on topics pertaining to China, the DPRK, Britain, and the U.S. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Yesterday, in response to the implementation of the national security law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the British government announced an expansion of visa rights for up to 3 million Hong Kong residents who were associated with the British National Overseas passport scheme. The plan extends their right to study and work in the United Kingdom, and provides a pathway to permanent citizenship. Not surprisingly, the government and the mainstream media marketed the proposal on strongly moralistic terms, styling it as Britain's "duty to Hong Kong."

The policy however, is grandstanding and is certainly more public relations than substance. It thrives on the mythology of a "benevolent Britain" who has an obligation to "save" Hong Kong residents from the "evil China." It was a more sensible course of action for the British government than to pursue sanctions, which would draw deeper retaliation from China and is a riskier option given the poor economic and diplomatic position of the UK. However, is it likely to lead to a mass exodus from Hong Kong? The answer is no: the British media's binary portrayal of the situation ultimately exaggerates the numbers and scope of those who might leave, portraying them as more desperate than they are and overlooking economic considerations for those who do wish to move.

The British media and public discourse of the situation in Hong Kong is misleading because it draws an uncompromising binary of Britain's self-perceptions of being a free, benevolent, enlightened and dutiful nation up against an "evil and oppressive" China. Therefore, the righteous Britain believes it ought to save "persecuted" Hong Kong residents by the national security law, who being desperate will ultimately take no second thoughts in flocking to Britain in huge numbers. The mainstream media proceeded to hammer a single narrative yesterday that "One Country, Two Systems" in the territory was finished, that everyone was at risk of persecution and this was "the end of Hong Kong." It did not offer an alternative or grounded perspective.

Rioters outside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China, November 16, 2019. /Reuters

Rioters outside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China, November 16, 2019. /Reuters

But this of course is not the reality. The idea of a complete exodus of 3 million people is a massive generalization. First of all, those who are eligible for the British overseas passport scheme are older people born before 1997, not younger people. They already have established lives, professions and families. As a result, irrespective of their views, they are not likely to be involved in violent activism and demonstrations which contravene the new national security law. Why would they uproot everything, give up their jobs, networks and more to move to a foreign country for purely political reasons? British discourse misses this.

In addition, the British media and government fail to distinguish the fact a meaningful portion of that number will be supportive of the national security law, especially amongst those who have more stake and interest in society. A recent Reuters poll even found that support for the protests was actually falling, with only a slim majority of the city's population at 51 percent supporting them. This leaves the only solid category receptive to leaving as younger people, where a more militant "Hong Kong identity" is rooted along with less economic considerations and a feeling of less future in the city. However, these people are not eligible anyway. The visa change targets the wrong demographics, yet somehow expects massive results.

In addition, there is the very haughty assumption as "Why Britain?" - In my conversations with Hong Kong residents, I found that for many even if they wanted to leave, the United Kingdom is not their first choice destination. The reasons are economics. Again this is the British media and public overplaying the worth of the country in the belief Hong Kong residents are desperate. Hong Kong residents actually see limited opportunities in Britain's economy and see other English-speaking countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada as relatively more attractive and logical destinations. Again, Hong Kong residents are highly skilled, well-educated and economically equipped. Even if they have political grievances, they are not desperate. Britain is literally rendering these people as if they were third world refugees and will not assess their options.

As a result, this move is unlikely to ferment an exodus from Hong Kong. It is certainly a move which is lost in imperial era nostalgia and an extraordinary obsession with one's own benevolence. In doing so, it falls short on assessing that some Hong Kong residents will support the status quo, even if reluctantly, it ignores the fact many will not want to uproot their established lives and targets the wrong demographics and fails to see the country might not even be people's first choice. There won't be a flood.

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