LONDON: When artists Lumli and Lumlong fled Hong Kong in 2021 they didn’t tell a soul for fear of being reported and arrested before they could leave.
Two years later in London the couple still feel threatened by the long arm of Beijing, like many other Hongkongers exiled in the UK.
Following Beijing’s crackdown on huge pro-democracy protests in 2019 and a sweeping security law imposed the following year, London has granted 166,000 visas to people from its former colony.
Holders of a British National Overseas passport – issued to Hongkongers born before the handover to China 26 years ago on July 1, 1997 – can apply for a visa.
It allows them to live and work in the UK for five years and then apply for British citizenship.
In their small London apartment, Lumli and Lumlong, both 43, who go by the one-word names they use professionally, keep their artworks depicting the violence inflicted on the pro-democracy demonstrators.
It was after an exhibition in Hong Kong in May 2021 that they realised that they would have to leave.
“We were accused by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the newspaper of violating the Hong Kong National Security Law because of our painting,” Lumlong said.
“The police even came to our studio to frighten us.”
The visit left both feeling they would be arrested “sooner or later” if they didn’t flee, added Lumli.
Their visa took two weeks to come through but it was only after they actually landed in London that they told their family.
Even now, on the other side of the world, “we are not totally safe here”, Lumlong said.
“There are so many informants in the UK.”
The British government earlier this month ordered China to close what it views as clandestine police stations on British soil.
Beijing has said it does not operate any secret police stations, but that it runs centres providing administrative services.
Human rights group Safeguard Defenders said in a report that stations in cities around the world have been used to track down opponents.
Such “police service stations” in the UK should “not operate in any form”, security minister Tom Tugendhat said.
The couple say journalists working for pro-Beijing media came incognito to one of their exhibitions in London last year.
The pair were then accused by the same media of “coalition with foreign forces”, they said.
A few days later, they said, their social media accounts were hacked.
“It was scary. The hackers changed our picture into (the) IS flag,” Lumlong said.
He said they were grateful to the UK for giving them sanctuary but warned that London had to resist pressure from Beijing.
“If the government doesn’t stand up strong against the CCP, we will never be safe,” he added.
The Hong Kong community in the UK was shocked last October after video footage emerged of an incident at the Chinese consulate in Manchester in northern England.
Police said a group of men came out of the consulate and dragged a Hong Kong protester inside the grounds where he was assaulted.
The Chinese authorities responded by saying staff were required “to physically fend off unauthorised entry and subsequent assaults”.
“There’s a transnational repression happening on our community,” said Simon Cheng, founder of the group Hongkongers in Britain.
A former employee of the British consulate in Hong Kong, he says he was detained and tortured by Chinese police for 15 days in August 2019.
He was then granted asylum in the UK.
“Sometimes I feel I’m being followed,” he said, adding that he has nightmares over fears “they could report me to the police and find a way to catch me and deliver me back to Hong Kong or China”.
Several Hongkongers expressed similar fears as they attended a vigil marking the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, on London’s Trafalgar Square on June 4 – the kind of event that is now effectively banned back home.
One man, a 39-year-old accountant who declined to give his name for safety reasons, said he and his wife had moved to London to ensure their two small children could be assured an education free of CCP propaganda.
“But we hope that one day, the central (Chinese) government will change or that Hong Kong will go back to the path of an open society just like before,” he said.
“For now, as a Chinese, as a Hongkonger, we need to stand here (in Britain) with the same spirit of democracy and liberty.”
AFP contacted the Chinese embassy in London for comment.