HONG KONG: As the city’s former colonial ruler opens its doors to those who want to flee China’s ban on opposition, a new visa system offering millions of Hong Kongers a road to British citizenship went live on Sunday.
A visa authorising them to live and work in the United Kingdom can now be applied for online by those with a British National (Overseas) passport and their dependents. They will apply for citizenship after five years.
The immigration scheme is a reaction to last year’s Beijing decision to enforce Hong Kong’s sweeping national security legislation to snuff out the massive and frequently violent demonstrations against democracy.
Read Also: Saga of a refugee girl’s quest for education
Ahead of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover, Britain accused China of breaking up its pledge that the financial centre would retain key liberties and sovereignty for 50 years, and claimed that it had a moral obligation to defend its former subjects.
This week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said of the scheme, “We have honoured our deep bonds of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy.”
At 5pm in Hong Kong, the visa applications website went live.
China responded to the visa bid with fury, declaring that it would no longer accept passports as a valid travel or identity document.
As Hong Kongers tend to use their own passports or ID cards to leave the area, the change was largely symbolic.
But Beijing said it was prepared to take “additional measures,” raising worries that authorities might attempt to deter Hong Kongers from leaving for Britain.
On Sunday, the Chinese State Council’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office said it firmly condemned the British for breaking their pledge not to extend the right of residency to BN(O) passport holders.
“This is a flagrant offence against the sovereignty of China, and we are strongly opposed to it,” it added.
“The office claimed that the United Kingdom was embellishing its colonial history and called this “a blatant bandit logic, severely damaging the Chinese feelings.
China’s state-run Xinhua news agency accused Britain of possessing a ‘racist mindset’ in a commentary on Sunday.
It is not clear how many Hong Kongers will take up the bid, especially as the coronavirus restricts international flights and creates a painful economic malaise for most of the world, including Britain.
But the visa bid is open to a large number of persons, around 70 percent of the 7.5 million population of Hong Kong.
Since the national security law was enforced last July, applications for BN(O) passports have skyrocketed more than 300 percent, with 733,000 registered holders as of mid-January.
In the next year, Britain estimates that up to 154,000 Hong Kongers will arrive and up to 322,000 over five years, offering an expected “net benefit” of up to 2.9 billion ($4 billion).
A legacy of Hong Kong’s return to totalitarian China is the BN(O) visa.
At the time, many Hong Kongers wanted Britain to give them full citizenship, but the change was resisted by China.
The BN(O) was a concession, giving Hong Kongers born before 1997 the right to stay for six months at a time in Britain, but without the right to work or settle.
Today, as authorities execute mass arrests of democracy backers and move to rid the city of opposition, it has become one of the few ways out for Hong Kongers looking to begin a new life overseas.
With her husband and three-year-old son, Stella, a former communications specialist, expects to relocate to Britain imminently.
We were offered a final kick by the national security legislation in 2020 because the provisions effectively criminalise free expression,” she said, asking to use only her first name.”
Those wishing to transfer must demonstrate under the visa programme that they have the funds to support both themselves and their dependents for at least six months.
Already in Britain, Hong Kongers who are interested in helping others travel claim that many of the early applicants appear to be trained middle-class persons, often of young families, who have enough liquidity to fund their move.
Nic, an activist with an organisation called Lion Rock Hill UK, said, calling for anonymity, “Most people we spoke with are families with primary school- or nursery-age children.”