As China Spies Try to Infiltrate U.K. in Unknown Numbers, Hong Kong Exiles Live in Fear

The British government is declining to say how many Chinese sleeper agents it believes are trying to infiltrate its expedited Hong Kong visa program set up to help Beijing's political opponents to flee the territory and resettle in the U.K.

For the thousands of Hong Kongers already settled in the U.K., the reported permeation of Chinese agents into the ranks of political exiles is an existential threat demanding decisive action in London.

The U.K. BNO—standing for British nationals overseas, a designation given to Hong Kongers born as British colonial subjects—launched in January in response to increasing Chinese encroachment into Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a former British colony whose residents previously enjoyed more economic and political freedoms than their mainland Chinese compatriots.

Their rights were protected by the "one country, two systems" structure agreed upon when the British handed control of Hong Kong back to China in 1997. But the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long been chipping away at these freedoms.

A new extradition law proposed in 2018 would have allowed Hong Kongers to be taken to the mainland for trial, a bill critics said was the death knell for "one country, two systems." This prompted a year of mass protests in Hong Kong ending with Beijing's national security law, which effectively criminalized dissent against the CCP.

The British BNO scheme offers Hong Kongers a five-year visa allowing successful applicants and their dependent family members to live, work and study in the U.K. After these five years, successful BNO applicants can apply for full British citizenship.

The Times of London reported on Monday that the government is aware of Chinese spies posing as political dissidents to infiltrate the Hong Kong diaspora in the U.K.

The newspaper cited unnamed government sources who "said they are aware" of such infiltrators, though the sources said the "stringent background checks" were put in place with that in mind.

A spokesperson for the U.K. Home Office declined to tell Newsweek how many suspected infiltrators have been identified in the BNO vetting process.

The route is "already a success," the spokesperson said, adding that existing immigration rules will apply to any "criminality and other adverse behavior" among those applying.

Nathan Law, a protest leader and co-founder of the now-defunct pro-democracy Demosisto organization, fled to the U.K. from Hong Kong in July 2020 fearing his safety as the Chinese crackdown intensified. Fellow co-founders Joshua Wong and Agnes Chang are currently imprisoned under the national security law.

Law told Newsweek that the BNO program needs more stringent checks to protect Hong Kongers in the U.K..

Law said special attention should be paid to relatives of Chinese and Hong Kong officials and law enforcement; those linked to organizations that have publicly supported the national security law; and anyone tied to China's United Front network, which Beijing uses to suppress criticism of the CCP and advance its influence abroad.

"I think we need more experts in terms of setting up a stringent vetting process," Law said. "We need people who have a more thorough understanding of how United Front activities work to help in building up a more effective background check."

Hong Kongers who have left the territory and human rights groups have warned that Chinese agents may seek to surveil, harass, or even attack those who have fled the totalitarian regime in Beijing.

"I personally have suffered much online abuse and personal attacks," Law said. "Though I have not personally experienced physical attacks from the pro-Beijing camp in the U.K., I have heard that other participants of protest in the U.K. or activists have suffered from these experiences."

The Home Office told The Times: "There are safeguards in place throughout the application process to ensure it is free from abuse and helps those most in need. The BNO visa route reflects the UK's historic and moral commitment to the people of Hong Kong."

For now, the scale of attempted Chinese infiltration will remain unknown. Law said it is "difficult" to estimate the scale of the reported Chinese operation. "I think it's a growing concern but I don't think it's a gigantic problem," he said. "I believe the government should intensify their due diligence checks, and that can curtail it from growing."

The Home Office said there were 34,300 applications for the route in the first two months after its launch in January. Successful applicants must have no serious criminal convictions or have engaged in behavior deemed "not conducive to the public good." They can also be refused for violating any existing British immigration rules.

The government might be lauding the scheme as a success, but community leaders in the U.K. have criticized the government for failing to follow through on the promises it made to fleeing Hong Kongers.

The latest figures show that only around 20 percent of BNO applications made in February and March have been approved, and that administrative delays were preventing new arrivals from finding housing, work and financial support.

Julian Chan, the director of the Hongkongers in Britain group, told the Guardian this month: "The UK risks providing Hong Kongers with a country to live in, but almost no life to actually live when they get there."

Chan warned that the problem is only likely to get worse over the summer months, leaving some stuck in Hong Kong awaiting their paperwork with the threat of arrest hanging over their heads.

"A lot of people have been trying to speak quietly; they're not announcing to all of their family and friends that they're leaving," Chan said. "It's not really fair for Hong Kongers to have to wait for such a long time, especially if they are having to flee the situation there."

Hong Kongers hug at airport before departure
This picture taken on July 19, 2021, shows friends hugging each other at the departure gates of Hong Kong's International Airport. ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images