Residents of Hong Kong can apply, starting on Sunday, for a new visa offering them an opportunity to become British citizens as the United Kingdom opens its doors to those wanting to escape China’s crackdown on dissent in the semi-autonomous city.
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 visa scheme is a response to Beijing’s decision last year to impose a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, a former British colony, to snuff out huge and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests.
The UK said the law – which punishes subversion, collusion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces – breaches the terms of agreements under which Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997. London has argued it has a moral duty to the people of Hong Kong.
“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.
On Friday, it announced BNO passports would no longer be recognised 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 measures”, raising fears authorities might try to stop residents of Hong Kong from leaving for the UK.
Cindy, a businesswoman and mother of two young children, left Hong Kong for London last week.
“To uproot ourselves like this is definitely not easy. But things got uglier last year, the government was really driving us away,” she told The Associated Press news agency, declining to 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 UK predicted up to 154,000 Hong Kongers could arrive during the next year and as many as 322,000 across five years, bringing an estimated “net benefit” of up to 2.9 billion pounds ($4bn).
Earlier this week, the British government said some 7,000 Hong Kong people with BNO status have arrived in the country since July. They moved under a separate Leave Outside the Rules system, and will also be able to apply for the pathway-to-citizenship visas.
The UK introduced BNO passports in the 1980s for people who were a “British dependent territories citizen by connection with Hong Kong”.
Many residents of the city at the time wanted the UK to grant them full citizenship but China was opposed to the move. The BNO was a compromise, allowing Hong Kong people born before 1997 the right to stay in the UK for six months at a time, but with no working or settling rights.
Now, it has become one of the few ways out for Hong Kong people 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.
“I think if you knew when to shut up, you’ll be OK staying in Hong Kong,” said 39-year-old Fan, who also recently arrived in London. “But I don’t want to do that. I can complain about the queen if I wanted to – I can say anything here.”
Fan, an animator, told AP that he sold his flat in Hong Kong and plans to slowly build a new life in the UK – a country he had never even visited before. He will not be alone in starting from scratch.
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.
Hong Kongers already in the UK 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, told the AFP news agency, asking for anonymity.
Mike, a medical scientist who recently relocated with his family to the city of Manchester, told AFP the that BNO passport “is definitely a lifeboat for Hong Kongers”.
He said many in Hong Kong feared China might stop residents leaving the territory.
“So, it is better to leave as soon as possible,” he added.