A new visa system offering millions of Hong Kongers a path to British citizenship went live on Sunday as the city’s former colonial masters open their doors to those who want to escape China’s violence against disagreement.
Anyone with a UK national (foreign) passport and their relatives can now apply for a visa online so they can live and work in the UK. After five years, they can apply for citizenship.
The immigration system is a response to Beijing’s decision last year to introduce a comprehensive national security law for Hong Kong to remove the huge and often violent democracy protests.
Britain has accused China of tearing up its promise ahead of Hong Kong’s handover in 1997 that the financial hub would maintain key freedoms and autonomy for 50 years and has claimed it has a moral obligation to protect its former subjects.
“We have honored our deep ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson about the plan this week.
The Visa Application Website went online at 5pm in Hong Kong (0900 GMT).
China has reacted angrily to the visa offer, announcing that it would no longer recognize passports as a legitimate travel or ID document.
The move was largely symbolic as Hong Kongers tend to use their own passports or ID cards to leave the city.
But Beijing said it was prepared to take “further action”, raising concerns that authorities could try to stop Hong Kongers from leaving Britain.
On Sunday, Hong Kong and the Macao Affairs Office of China’s State Council said they strongly condemned the British for breaking their promise not to grant BN (O) passport holders the right to stay.
“This is a clear violation of China’s sovereignty, and we oppose it,” it said.
The Office claimed that the United Kingdom was embellishing its colonial history, calling it “a shameless bandit logic that seriously harmed Chinese sentiment”.
In a comment on Sunday, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency accused Britain of having a “colonial mentality”.
The applications are floating
It is not clear how many Hong Kongers will take up the offer – especially as the coronavirus restricts international flights and reduces much of the world, including the UK, in a painful economic disease.
But the visa offer is available to a large number of people – about 70 percent of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million inhabitants.
Applications for BN (O) passports have soared more than 300 percent since the national security law was introduced in July last year, with 733,000 registered holders in mid-January.
The UK predicts that up to 154,000 Hong Kongers could come next year and as many as 322,000 over five years, giving an estimated “net profit” of up to £ 2.9 billion ($ 4 billion).
The BN (O) passport is a legacy of Hong Kong’s return to authoritarian China.
Many Hong Kongers at the time wanted Britain to grant them full citizenship, but China opposed the relocation.
BN (O) was a compromise that allowed Hong Kong-born people before 1997 the right to stay in the UK for six months at a time, but without employment or residence rights.
Now it has become one of the few ways out for Hong Kongers’ hopes of starting a new life abroad when the authorities carry out mass arrests of pro-democracy activists and move to clear the city of disagreement.
Stella, a former marketing staffer, plans to move to the UK immediately with her husband and three-year-old son.
“National Security Act 2020 gave us one last kick because the regulations in principle criminalize freedom of expression,” she told AFP, asking to use only her first name.
According to the visa system, those who hope to move must show that they have the means to maintain both themselves and their relatives for at least six months.
Hong Kongers who are already in the UK and involved in helping others relocate say that many of the early applicants tend to be educated middle class people, often with young families, who have enough liquidity to finance their relocation.
“Most of the people we talked to are families with children in primary school or preschool age,” Nic, an activist with a group called Lion Rock Hill UK, told AFP, asking for anonymity.
Some Hong Kongers began to leave the city even before the new system went into operation.
Earlier this week, the UK said about 7,000 people had moved in the last six months under a separate “Leave Outside the Rules” (LOTR) system. They will also be able to apply for a visa for citizenship.
“BNO is definitely a lifeboat for Hong Kongers,” Mike, a medical researcher who recently moved with his family to Manchester, told AFP.
He said many Hong Kongers feared that China could stop residents from leaving the territory.
“So it’s better to go as soon as possible,” he added.