China and Hong Kong

The UK Hongkongers living with the handover's legacy

"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.

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."

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


His words come amid reports that new school textbooks in Hong Kong will state the city was never a British colony.


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."

Samuel Baya

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