"If you want to read a blog to get a sense of what is going on in Hong Kong these days or a blog that would tell you what life was like living in colonial Hong Kong, this blog, WALTER'S BLOG, fits the bill." Hong Kong Blog Review
"Never forget this is the land of Shakespeare, Harry Potter, the Beatles, Nora Batty and Wordsworth."
Britain is responding to events here by offering a route to citizenship for Hong Kong people. Applications start next week. In the process the UK has gone some way to correcting its shabby act of removing 'right of abode' from Hongkongers in 1981. That timing looked sinister, coming just before starting negotiations on the handover. Also, I'd argue the Brits threw away a significant bargaining chip by changing the law.
Yet, in truth, the BNO scheme is not much different from the UK's general 'citizenship' pathway except the process's prominence in the media.
Beijing has reacted with anger, asserting that the UK promised not to offer 'right of abode' as part of the handover arrangements. Indeed, we know the UK unsuccessfully lobbied Portugal to withhold 'right of abode' for Macau citizens to avoid setting a precedent. With Macau citizens getting de facto access to Britain through their EU passports, the Brits looked mean-hearted. That’s something British ministers don't like discussing.
Depending on who is speaking, hundreds of thousands will 'flee' or very few. The UK Home Office claims it is planning on a likely figure of 123,000 to 153,000 migrants in the first year. Then, up to 322,400 over five years. Keep in mind that 153,000 is equal to the population of Cardiff. One million would be equivalent to a city the size of Birmingham.
Nowhere do we hear about the infrastructure to accommodate these people, the housing, the transport systems, or hospitals. That's no surprise. With an economy in free fall from Covid-19, and public borrowing at a record £1 billion a day, the UK doesn't have the money.
There is a school of thought that the whole scheme is a bluff to bring pressure to bear on Beijing. It's claimed that in private, UK ministers prey that few take up the offer. Why? Well, they recognise the UK is ill-prepared for an influx of people, especially in a post-Covid and post-Brexit landscape.
The UK politicians are selling these proposals to the indigenous population by citing a possible boost to the economy. That comes in the form of extra tax revenue of between £2.4 billion and £2.9 billion over five years. That's about three days of the UK's national debt.
Let us run through some other numbers: a family of four will pay around HK$10,000- to make the visa application (£250 per head). Besides, the immigration health surcharge for the family would be HK$124,000-HK for five years. Applicants pay upfront with the visa application. On top of that, they'll need to prove they have accommodation and enough cash to support themselves for six months. Depending on where the migrants live that could be between HK$100,000-HK to HK$200,000.
In addition, they will need to reside in the UK for five years before applying for citizenship. During this period, they cannot leave the country for a period not exceeding 180 days. The conditions stipulate no social security payments, which means finding a job or burn-up savings.
All in all, the scheme has drawn a mixed response in Hong Kong. Some ask if the UK is so concerned about people's freedoms and welfare, why it doesn't grant immediate citizenship? Fair question.
Others ask is Hong Kong so terrible that a move is necessary? Exactly what freedoms are people seeking in the UK beyond a vote for a politician who will then ignore their wishes? Again, fair question.
One lady commented to me, noting the five-year rule: "That's a significant chunk of my life, including five UK winters. I'd prefer Vancouver for a winter". And there is the rub. Canada and Australia remain the favoured destinations for Hong Kong migrants.
It's my gut feeling that the UK's offer will tempt unattached young people. For starters, it's much easier for them to move without the complications of uprooting a family or leaving granny behind. Also, faced with increased competition from mainland graduates, some may fare better in the UK.
Of course, there are pros and cons to the UK. What struck me speaking to a few people here, is their belief a land of 'milk and honey' awaits. For them, Hugh Grant runs the corner book-shop, while Benedict Cumberbatch is rushing about detecting crime. These folks need a reality check.
Comparing Hong Kong with the UK is problematic. I do not weigh up two similar places, they are very different, and any opinions come shaped by individual tastes. For example, some folks may welcome a slower pace of life and others dread it. The question is not, which is best, but rather which place meets my needs.
Moreover, London is not the UK, no more than 'Love Actually' is an accurate account of modern life in the capital. Likewise, Hong Kong people need to understand that the UK is four separate entities, each with distinct identities. In recent years these distinctions have grown more acute, especially amongst the Scots.
Even within the four nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the populations are far from homogenous. There is a north/south divide in England. Then you have the old rivalry between Lancashire and God's chosen people from Yorkshire.
Moreover, opinion polls suggest Scotland is slipping away from the UK. Migrants may find themselves in a country that's about to fracture. I won't venture to mention Northern Ireland; that's another story.
I suppose that most Hong Kong Chinese will end up in the south-east of England, near London. This area has most of the work and a sizable existing Chinese community. Unfortunately, it also has the highest property prices.
Migration continues to be the main driver of the UK's population growth since the 1990s. That growth is slowing down. London's population may fall in 2021, with Covid-19 cited as a factor.
Let's break this down and seek to provide some insights.
The Chinese enjoy a reputation with the British public for hard work, dynamism and energy. Indeed on the surface, the Chinese don't attract the hostility that other minorities can face. A YouGov poll found that 64% of Brits, who know of the visa scheme, approve. The caveat here is 'who know of the scheme' because 44% of Brits feel the level of immigration is too high, while 33% says it's about right.
Britain prides itself on its 'multi-cultural' society with even small towns having a fair cross-section of races. Yet, most Brits can't make the distinction between the Hong Kong Chinese and a Mainlander. They'd also struggle to tell Koreans, Japanese and Chinese apart.
Whether a sudden influx of Hong Kong Chinese will change attitudes is unknown. If locals perceive they are losing jobs, housing and access to public services, then the mood could flip. None of that alters the fact that the majority of the British are decent, welcoming people.
The British weather is such a feature of life that it forms the basis of most conversations. "A bit chilly today" can be a greeting as well as a comment on the air temperature. Migrants who wish to integrate would do well to learn the rules of weather-speak.
The UK weather is less than stellar. Sorry, that's an understatement — the UK weather is shite. Long winters, damp, cold and marked by grey overcast skies. It rains a lot. During the winters the hours of daylight are short, with darkness arriving around 4 pm. Don't expect to see the sun until around 9 am if it deems to put in an appearance.
The summers are nothing remarkable compared to Hong Kong. There are moments of absolute bliss. Nothing beats sitting outside, late on a summer evening with a pint.
Covid-19 put large sections of the population on furlough, and the UK's unemployment is rising. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development assesses that the UK will suffer the worst impacts because it failed to get on top of the outbreak.
The aftermath of Brexit continues to create uncertainty. Regardless, Britain needs skilled professionals with doctors and medical workers in demand.
On a more positive note, the UK takes an enlightened attitude towards 'work/life' balance, with strict adherence to working hours. Likewise, workers enjoy better protection than seen in Hong Kong. But don't expect 13 months pay.
Be ready to pay much more tax, including 20% VAT on most purchases and services. UK income tax runs from 20% to 45% for high earners. Compare that to Hong Kong's flat 17% salary tax and no VAT.
Cost of Living and Housing
The cost of food from UK supermarkets is cheaper. With genuine competition — unlike in Hong Kong — prices are lower, and the range of items is broader. Most towns have a Chinese supermarket.
For Hongkongers transitioning from tiny flats, they'll get more space for the money. Nonetheless, any property within commutable distance of London is expensive. As you move away from London prices drop off.
In the south-east, the average house price is £258,640. To get a mortgage, a buyer needs a deposit of £38,796 and an annual salary of £48,854. In the north-east, those numbers drop off to a deposit of £16,542 and salary of £20,831. But, if the migrant has a Hong Kong flat to sell, they should cover these costs with cash to spare.
By comparison, a single bedroom flat in London's inner zones will cost at least £2,000- per month. Further out, in Dagenham or Southhall, a three-bedroom house is around £1,300 per month.
Compared to Hong Kong, the UK's public transport system is expensive and less efficient. New arrivals to Britain, especially from the Far East, take surprise at the lamentable state of the nation's infrastructure. Crowded airports, with second-rate facilities, don't stand up to Singapore, Shanghai or South Korea. According to a 2019 survey, three of the world's worst airports are in the UK.
Public transport is patchy outside the cities. Within major urban centres, such as London and Manchester, modern transport systems work well. Further afield things start to deteriorate. In rural areas, you'll need a car. Cabs are expensive.
Safety and Crime
The UK's crime rate is much higher than Hong Kong's. In 2018 the London crime rate per 100,000 population was 9,804, for Hong Kong 724. The Metropolitan Police recorded 149 homicides in 2019, 90 in stabbing attacks. Hong Kong had 24 murders. Even accounting for population differences, London's murder rate is far higher and on a ten-year upward trend.
Also, British policing is in crisis. Detection rates are at low levels of under 10%, and only 7% of all crimes lead to a suspect charged. That figure plummets to 1.4% for rapes. Hong Kong's detection rates hover around 45%.
If you are the victim of a crime in Hong Kong, a call to '999' will get a response. In the UK, that is not always the case. In 2017, UK police took over one hour to respond to one million' priority cases'. Even burglary cases go unattended, while knife crime and drink-related late-night violence are common.
So, Hongkongers moving to the UK need to develop a greater awareness of personal safety. For example, your kids won't have the option to travel unaccompanied on public transport at night.
The standard of schooling in the UK varies a great deal. Some of the local government-funded schools are superb, and others are failing. Parents will often buy a house in the right 'post-code' to get a child into a decent school. The private schools - yes called 'Public Schools' which is confusing — are expensive. Of course, the UK education system is less rigid and results orientated than in Hong Kong. Some kids will enjoy this regime.
The NHS provides world-class care, although waiting times for treatment can be lengthy. This situation is not dissimilar to the public hospitals in Hong Kong. But you can't beat the NHS for critical care. Private health care is available for those who can afford it.
In Hong Kong, if you need a plumber or an electrician, it is a straightforward matter, and they'll be there that day, if not within an hour. Not in the UK. Getting anything done, such as building work or simple repairs, takes time and expense. That's why DIY is popular.
The UK is proud of its cultural heritage with a strong preservation ethos and a thriving arts scene. Also, there is the splendid countryside, although the weather is a factor when venturing out. Did I mention the rain?
Never forget this is the land of Shakespeare, Harry Potter, the Beatles, Nora Batty and Wordsworth. A rich seam of traditions runs through the place.
Migrants must take account of the fact that the UK is in a state of flux. Brexit has opened deep wounds in society, causing polarisation and some social unrest. The very existence of a 'united kingdom' is a moot point.
All these machinations take me back. Pre-1997 I saw first-hand people going through the same process as families deliberated migrating.
Some elected to go and others to stay. Either way, it was no easy decision. Over time, a few regretted going and came back. Others settled to make a new life overseas with mixed degrees of success. In any case, the movement of people in and out of Hong Kong is nothing new.
To be sure, opting to go or stay is a personal choice. Many migrants cite 'freedom' as the reason for choosing the UK, with a tendency of adopting an oversimplified viewpoint. After all, there are many dimensions to freedom, such as the ability to walk the streets safe, day or night. This survey provides some pointers.
Will securing work in post-Brexit and Covid-19 ravaged Britain prove a daunting challenge? After all, the economy runs on confidence, which is fragile in the UK at the moment. With China's economy growing, plus the Greater Bay Area's ambitious plan, is staying put a better option? Those of us who marvelled as Shenzhen grew from nothing to a mega-city in 40 years know that China delivers.
Having said that, certain categories of professionals will experience few difficulties in securing work.
How China decides to handle the BNO issue will have a significant impact on people's thinking. If Beijing brings in punitive measures against BNO holders, those who opt for UK citizenship may lose the 'right of abode' in Hong Kong. For some that has a psychological, as well as a practical wallop.
So, as the saying goes, 'it's swings and roundabouts' at the end of the day. The choice offers advantages and disadvantages depending on perceptions. Take your pick.
I suppose the smart folks will seek to leverage the best of both worlds while sitting out the 'politics' that swirls around us.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.