A new visa scheme offering millions of Hong Kong residents a pathway to British citizenship will go live on Sunday as the UK opens its doors to those wanting to escape China’s crackdown on dissent.
From Sunday afternoon, anyone with a British national overseas (BNO) passport and their dependents will be able to apply online for a visa allowing them to live and work in the UK. After five years they can then apply for citizenship.
The immigration scheme is a response to Beijing’s decision last year to impose a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong to snuff out huge and often violent democracy protests.
Britain has accused China of tearing up its promise ahead of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover that the financial hub would maintain key liberties and autonomy for 50 years. London argued it has a moral duty to protect its former colonial subjects.
“We have honoured our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy,” prime minister Boris Johnson said of the scheme this week.
China has reacted with fury to the visa offer and announced on Friday BNO passports would no longer be recognised as a legitimate travel or ID document.
The move was largely symbolic as Hongkongers tend to use their own passports or ID cards to leave the city.
But Beijing said it was prepared to take “further measures”, raising fears authorities might try to stop Hongkongers from leaving for Britain.
Cindy, who landed in London last week, is one of thousands of Hong Kongers fleeing their hometown since Beijing imposed a draconian national security law on the territory last summer.
“To uproot ourselves like this is definitely not easy. But things got uglier last year, the government was really driving us away,” said the businesswoman and mother of two young children who did not give her family name because she feared repercussions for speaking out against the Chinese government. “Everything we value – freedom of speech, fair elections, liberties – has been eroded. It’s no longer the Hong Kong we knew, it’s no longer somewhere we can call home.
“The Chinese government said it hasn’t ruled out harsher tactics,” she said. “I think they could lash out if tens of thousands of young professionals start leaving, because that would surely upset Hong Kong’s economy and they wouldn’t like that at all.”
It is not clear how many Hongkongers will take up the offer, especially as the coronavirus restricts global flights and mires much of the world, including Britain, in a painful economic malaise.
A BNO passport is available to about 70% of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million population and applications skyrocketed more than 300% since the national security law was imposed last July, with 733,000 registered holders as of mid-January.
Britain predicts up to 154,000 Hong Kongers could arrive over the next year and as many as 322,000 over five years.
Recently, the BNO passport has become one of the few ways out for Hongkongers hoping to start a new life overseas as authorities conduct mass arrests against democracy supporters and move to purge the restless city of dissenting views.
Stella, a former marketing professional, plans to move to Britain imminently with her husband and three-year-old son.
“The national security law in 2020 gave us one last kick because the provisions are basically criminalising free speech,” she said.
Under the visa scheme, those hoping to move have to show they have enough funds to sustain both themselves and their dependents for at least six months.
Hongkongers already in Britain who are involved in helping others relocate say many of the early applicants tend to be educated middle-class people, often with young families, who have enough liquidity to finance their move.
“Most people we spoke with are families with primary school or nursery age kids,” Nic, an activist with a group called Lion Rock Hill UK, said, asking for anonymity.
Earlier this week Britain said around 7,000 people moved over the last six months under a separate Leave Outside the Rules (LOTR) system. They will also be able to apply for the pathway-to-citizenship visas.
“The BNO is definitely a lifeboat for Hong Kongers,” Mike, a medical scientist who recently relocated with his family to the city of Manchester, said.
Agence France-Presse and Associated Press contributed to this report.