LONDON — When Hong Kong (HK) math teacher Jessica was freed from jail last year following her arrest during the territory’s massive pro-democracy protests, she decided it was time to leave her home city and head abroad.
The 28-year-old is among thousands of Hong Kongers who have recently moved to Britain to build new lives following Beijing’s crackdown on dissent in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
With Britain crying out for teachers, Jessica was confident she could quickly resume her career, but schools have repeatedly turned her down because she has not provided background checks from the Hong Kong police.
“Teaching is a real vocation for me. It’s been my dream job since I was young. But I’m really struggling with this because I don’t want to contact the Hong Kong police,” said Jessica, who asked not to use her full name.
She has been open about her reasons for refusing to contact the police force that arrested her during the protests, but employers want proof her record is otherwise clear.
While Jessica’s case is unusual because she has a conviction, it highlights a wider problem for some Hong Kong job seekers. Requests for police documents are creating barriers to jobs in education, health and other sectors where employers demand stricter background checks.
Some Hong Kongers, including those active in the 2019-2020 protests, said they did not want to share their personal details with a police force they did not trust.
A few feared the risk of arrest if they returned to the city to visit family.
Concerns around surveillance have been stoked by recent news reports — denied by Beijing — that China has established unofficial police posts overseas that could target critics.
Others did not want the police to know their whereabouts for fear their assets in Hong Kong might be frozen or confiscated in the future if the authorities knew they had left.
Some Hong Kongers who have recently tried to obtain background checks from the police also said the process had suddenly got much harder — a fact they linked to concerns about an exodus of professionals.
“I think the Hong Kong authorities are making it difficult for people coming to Britain because they’re worried about a brain drain,” said Alex Mak, employment coordinator of Hong Kongers in Britain, a group helping new arrivals.
The Hong Kong police website states that it only provides a Certificate of No Criminal Conviction (CNCC) for visa applications and child adoptions, not job offers.
Britain launched a settlement scheme for Hong Kong residents last year after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in the territory in 2020.
More than 140,000 have so far applied for a visa allowing them to live and work in Britain and eventually apply for citizenship.
The program — which has angered Beijing — is open to Hong Kongers who hold British National (Overseas) or BN(O) status — a limited type of nationality — and their dependents.
China has accused Britain of interfering in its affairs and no longer recognizes the BN(O) passport.
Britain has estimated up to 322,400 Hong Kongers could arrive in the first five years, potentially bringing a net benefit exceeding £2.6 billion ($3.05 billion) over the same period.
Most of those relocating are well-educated with three-quarters holding a degree or higher qualification and 60% arriving with children, according to a study by UKHK, a group supporting new arrivals.
Many are looking for jobs in IT, education, accountancy, banking, finance, transport, logistics and health. Some, like former IT company boss Tony, are planning a career change.
Earlier this year, he secured a job as an exam invigilator, but lost it when he failed to supply a CNCC.
Tony, 55, who asked not to use his full name, does not want the Hong Kong authorities to know he is in Britain, partly because he still has family and assets in Hong Kong.
Like many Hong Kongers, he is particularly worried about money he has tied up in the territory’s pension scheme, which he cannot access until he is 65.
“This has become a problem,” he said, adding that his wife would also need a CNCC to resume her nursing career.
“I don’t have a criminal record, but we don’t want contact with the Hong Kong police. My feeling is that the Hong Kong government is not friendly towards people moving abroad.”
Tony is now working in a warehouse while training to become a mortgage adviser, but fears his new career choice could be scuppered by the same issue.
Hong Kongers said concerns around CNCCs came up frequently on social media forums for education and health professionals moving to Britain, and urged the government and employers to recognize there was a problem.
Britain’s Home Office did not directly address such concerns but said that in “the absence of available checks, we would expect employers to obtain as much information as possible in the form of references before deciding whether to make an offer of employment.”
Until recently, Britain’s Foreign Office or its consulate in Hong Kong could facilitate requests for police background checks, but they stopped doing so in June.
The Foreign Office said this was to align policy with consular services elsewhere, but some Hong Kongers think the territory’s authorities pressured it to stop.
The Hong Kong police force told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it could still provide a record check “in exceptional circumstances” to meet another country’s legal or administrative requirements.
Some nurses have successfully requested checks backed by letters from Britain’s National Health Service (NHS).
But other Hong Kongers have been sent in circles trying to obtain them. They include former speech therapist Betty, 33, who needs one for her new job in the NHS.
After weeks of e-mails, she sent a request to the police with a letter from her employer, but has yet to hear back.
“I worry they might not give me a certificate because they’re angry with Britain and don’t want professionals moving to the UK,” said Betty, who asked to use a pseudonym. “But if I don’t get it, I will lose my job.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation