A pro-democracy protester holds a British passport during a June 2020 rally in Hong Kong.
CNN  — 

Eighteen months ago, Malcolm was at the vanguard of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

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.

The British government has called the security law a clear violation of the “one country, two systems” policy meant to ensure Hong Kong’s autonomy from Beijing until 2047. In its wake, the UK has opened a six-year pathway to British citizenship for holders of British National (Overseas) passports (BN(O)), a special visa category created for Hong Kong nationals before the 1997 transfer of power.

The visa does not account for the most vulnerable Hong Kongers: young pro-democracy protesters, like Malcolm, who were born after 1997 and are therefore not eligible. But it is nonetheless remarkable in its scope – in a city of 7.5 million people, 5.2 million Hong Kongers and their dependents are eligible for it.

Malcolm is one of hundreds of young pro-democracy protesters who have left Hong Kong.

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.

It sets a markedly different tone for the Conservative government, and its cheerleaders in the British press, who have spent the past decade pushing anti-immigrant policies. And critics say it is predicated on a flawed idea of Hong Kongers as a “model minority” who will need no support to settle into a new life in the UK.

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.

In one campaign missive, pro-Brexit lawmakers Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, and Michael Gove stoked fears that rising numbers of southern European immigrants would “put further strain on schools and hospitals,” and that “class sizes will rise and waiting lists will lengthen if we don’t tackle free movement.”

Yet last June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the visa pathway for millions of Hong Kongers, describing the offer as being “one of the biggest changes in our visa system in history.” The same politicians and media houses that warned darkly of an influx of foreigners during the Brexit campaign raised few objections this time around.

Last month, Priti Patel, now the Home Secretary, said she looked forward to welcoming Hong Kongers “to our great country.” Yet in 2016, Patel campaigned against what she described as “uncontrolled migration” from the EU, and last year she is reported to have considered plans to send those seeking asylum in the UK to two Atlantic islands more than 4,000 miles away.

Welcoming Hong Kongers has become one of the few issues in British politics that commands bipartisan support, uniting opposition Labour, Green Party and Scottish National Party members with the hawkish, anti-China wing of the Conservative party.

The British government’s shift in attitude could echo a change in public opinion – migration concerns in the UK appear to have softened considerably in recent years. The jury is out as to why public attitudes have shifted, but it has coincided with immigration dropping off the agenda as a political issue in the past few years.

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.