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Voices: Peng Shuai’s disappearance shows why the UK must provide a safe haven for young Hong Kongers

One month ago, international tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared from public view after voicing allegations of sexual assault against China’s former vice-premier, Zhang Gaolin. Within hours, her post, heralded as the beginning of China’s #MeToo moment, had been censored and mentions of her name erased from the internet.

Peng eventually made a series of staged appearances on Chinese state media, which only highlighted concerns for her safety and wellbeing. Peng’s story is a tragedy which has reverberated around the world. Yet, for the young people of Hong Kong, the Chinese government’s brutal repression of all forms of dissent is a familiar tale.

In the summer of 2019, up to a quarter of the city’s population staged peaceful demonstrations against the Chinese government’s assault on Hong Kong’s nascent democracy. Later that year, pro-democracy candidates won a landslide victory in the District Council elections, claiming 90 per cent of seats.

The democratic aspirations of Hong Kong’s youth captured global imaginations. Images of school children standing courageously against lines of armed police were broadcast internationally. Videos of university students suffering the worst excesses of police brutality circulated on social media, while young professionals defied their employers and joined the protests.

Today, all of Hong Kong’s leading opposition figures are in jail or exile. Only three of 153 hopeful candidates in imminent Legislative Council elections belong to the pro-democracy opposition. Beijing’s National Security Law has been used as a pretext to break up unions, close newspapers and arrest activists.

It is the young people of Hong Kong who have borne the brunt of this crackdown. Analysis from Hong Kong Watch found 93 per cent of defendants facing charges related to the 2019 protests were under the age of 25. Of the 10,000 protesters arrested, 2,000 were still at primary or secondary school. The youngest person charged under the National Security Law was just 15 years old when arrested.

Last month, 20-year-old student activist Tony Chung was sentenced to 43 months in jail for his role in leading student protests. Thousands more anxiously await charges or face trial, knowing their fight for democracy could remain a black mark against their name forever.

Scandalously, the UK’s much vaunted visa offer to Hong Kong’s British Nationals (Overseas) passport holders does little to help the young people who have most cause to flee Beijing’s oppressive rule. BN(O) passports were issued prior to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, before many of the protestors facing charges were born. Though the scheme allows BN(O) passport holders to move to the UK with their dependents, it does not cover the vast majority of 18-25 year olds who live independently of their parents.

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Instead, young Hong Kongers who fled to the UK now find themselves stuck in Britain’s slow and faulty asylum system. Young Hong Kong asylum seekers speak of the extended anxiety of not knowing the status of their application for months on end, causing mental health problems and driving at least one individual to suicide. Their continued suffering makes a mockery of the government’s promise to honour its historical commitment to the people of Hong Kong.

That is why I am proud to be supporting efforts to extend the BN(O) visa scheme to those born after 1997. A cross-party amendment to the upcoming Borders and Nationality Bill, led by Damian Green MP, will allow those with one or more parents holding a BN(O) passport to apply to live and work in the UK. Crucially, they will be able to do so independently of their parents.

There is much more work to be done to hold the Chinese government accountable for its heavy-handed crackdown in Hong Kong. However, by making a simple change to our existing offer to BN(O) passport holders, the government has the chance to make a real difference to the lives of thousands of brave young Hong Kongers. Only then can we truly stand with the people of Hong Kong.

Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham


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