Full of bravado and often clad in black, the 21-year-old oversaw a group of 60 combative front-liners who embraced confrontational tactics against the police while demanding greater democracy in the former British colony.
Today, he is applying for asylum in the United Kingdom, and separated from his family in Hong Kong where he feels he can longer visit. Malcom believes if he returns to the Chinese city he could be arrested under a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong last June, which scaled up penalties against dissent to include punishments as severe as life imprisonment.
Since then, nearly 100 activists have been arrested under the new law. When Hong Kong police apprehended a protester friend of Malcolm’s in October, he booked a red-eye flight to London. Malcolm asked CNN not to use his real name, for fear that his family — who remain in Hong Kong — could face repercussions.
It’s also remarkable for another reason: it has been pioneered by the same British politicians who engineered the UK’s break from the European Union, in part, to curb immigration.
A different tone
The UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016 following a campaign dominated by anti-immigration rhetoric — much of it emanating from the same politicians who are now running the government.
There is also a feeling of colonial “indebtedness” to the people of Hong Kong, says Jonathan Portes, a Professor of Economics and Public Policy at King’s College London.
Some of Brexit’s biggest backers are championing the scheme “in a pretty explicit break with the approach of [Margaret] Thatcher in the run up to 1997,” Portes said, explaining that the late UK Prime Minister “wanted to limit, as much as possible, the number of Hong Kong Chinese who came here, because of her wider anti-immigration views.”
Hong Kong nationals “wouldn’t cost our taxpayers a penny… [they] would bring their own wealth,” Conservative peer Daniel Hannan wrote in the right-wing Daily Telegraph newspaper. “And once they arrived, they would generate economic activity for the surrounding region, just as they did in their home city.”
Yet the reality might not be so clear cut.
The language barrier (forms will need to be completed in English), and having to demonstrate the ability to accommodate and support themselves for at least six months, are also likely to put some off.
“60% of the people in Hong Kong live in public housing estates and they would find it harder [compared to Hong Kong’s white-collar workers] to settle in a foreign country,” Chan added.
Another challenge is the support that awaits them when they arrive in the UK.
Some of the 40 Hong Kongers who Wong is currently helping in the UK have yet to finish university or high school, while around half have never held down a job before and are struggling to get on the ladder in the UK. The UK government has no provisions to help them find jobs, set up bank accounts, or access mental health support, Wong said.
“Most of them suffer from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], which could be a reason or excuse [to why] they are not progressing,” Wong said. His group has been organizing free psychological consultations and talks on how to overcome insomnia, nightmares and stress, as many of the Hong Kongers Fred helps have had trouble sleeping since fleeing the territory.
The model minority narrative means that the UK government is “unprepared, and maybe a bit oblivious to the amount of support that’s needed,” Wong said.
“The UK government is working alongside civil society groups, local authorities and others to support the effective integration of BN(O) status holders and their families who choose to make our United Kingdom their home,” UKs Minister for Future Borders and Immigration, Kevin Foster, told CNN in a statement.
Support could shift
“The [ BN(O) scheme] is genuinely well meaning, but the provision around it is not very good,” she explained — something that raises questions over how many Hong Kongers will make the move in the end.
London-based Hong Kong Watch and 10 other civil society groups wrote to the government in January expressing concern about the lack of a “meaningful plan in place to ensure that the new arrivals properly integrate … local authorities do not have specific policies, strategies or the creative bandwidth to welcome and integrate Hong Kong arrivals into their communities.”
“The government must learn the lessons from past failures and take pre-emptive action now,” their letter read.
In the meantime, up to 350 Hong Kong dissidents between the ages of 18 and 24 are believed to be currently “stuck in limbo” in the UK, according to Wong from Hong Kong ARC. Being born after 1997, they are not eligible for the BN(O) scheme.
But pandemic-related travel restrictions, as well as a lack of funds, mean many have had to rely on the generosity of civil society groups for a stipend, food and even accommodation.
Many asylum-seekers instead have to rely on asylum appeals through the courts to provide them with refugee status.
“The pro-democracy protests would not have existed without them [young activists], and without the protests there would not have been the BN(O) scheme — but they’re the ones who are being left behind,” said Chan.
Malcolm says he is luckier than most, having a sizeable inheritance to survive on, and a network of contacts that helped find him accommodation outside London. He hopes to apply for college once he gains asylum, but in the meantime has started to financially support around 20 dissidents in the UK and Hong Kong. He says that the British government has not done enough to help his generation.
‘Practice makes perfect’
Hong Konger Sze, who asked CNN not to use her full name because her family still lives in Hong Kong, quit her job as a high school geography teacher and came to the UK in October on holiday to visit some friends.
At the end of her two-week trip, Sze decided to stay. She told CNN she plans to apply for BN(O) visa at the end of this month and is living off her savings in a flat she rents with a friend in North London in the meantime. Sze has been looking into roles as a geography teaching assistant or tutor as her Hong Kong teaching qualifications are recognized in the UK. When asked if her halting English will be a liability, Sze says “practice makes perfect.”
The 28-year-old said China’s incursion into everyday life in Hong Kong had influenced her decision to stay, as had the fact that being in the UK means she has the “freedom to do what I want and even protest every week,” without fear of political retribution.
Sze has settled into London life: She already has strong opinions on the snail’s pace of London buses and is counting the days to when lockdown ends and she can go shopping on Oxford Street.
While it can be hard to find the authentic Cantonese cuisine she grew up eating in Hong Kong, Sze marvels at how much cheaper food is at British supermarkets.
“The food quality is better, the price is cheaper and the rent is cheaper,” she told CNN.
Sze cannot get a job until her BN(O) visa is approved, but she is optimistic that the UK’s coronavirus-induced economic slump will not get in the way of her finding work. “I am open to any [job] option — it really depends on how much savings I have,” she said.
But her biggest concern is the fate of fellow dissidents going through the asylum process, and whether her compatriots who move to the UK will give up the fight for independence back home.
“Hong Kongers should never give up, no matter if they’ve left Hong Kong or not,” she said.