Hong Kong Exiles Embrace UK Politics Amid Fears of Chinese Influence

For Richard Wong, 25, who relocated to Britain from Hong Kong two years ago, participating in a free election feels “strange.” He’s exercising the very rights he once fought for, knowing that his friends back home can no longer.

“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 canvassing 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, over 180,000 Hong Kongers have moved to Britain under a special visa program established in response to the crackdown on dissent in their homeland, a former British colony returned to Beijing in 1997.

China maintains the crackdown was essential 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. This means 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 opportunity they will have to participate in the central ritual of democracy in their adopted home. Many are enthusiastic about this chance.

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

Before moving to Britain, Lau was elected a Hong Kong district councillor in 2019, but was 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 remain fearful of 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.