From Sunday, millions of Hong Kong residents can apply for new visas that allow them to stay longer in Great Britain and then claim naturalization, a way for the former colonial power to offer a way out for those wanting to escape Chinese oppression.
Since 5:00 pm on Sunday, British National Overseas Passport (BNO) holders and their relatives have been able to apply online for a residence permit in Great Britain which will not only give them the right to live there, but also to work there for five Years. Ultimately, they will be able to apply for citizenship.
Until now, they were only allowed to visit the UK for six months, without being able to work there.
This reform is London’s response to Beijing’s controversial decision last summer to impose strict national security law on its semi-autonomous region to deter all forms of dissent, after the massive popular mobilization of 2019.
Britain accused China of backtracking on its pledge made before the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to preserve the territory’s freedoms and autonomy for at least half a century. London displayed its moral obligation to help its former colony.
“We respect our deep, historic and friendly relations with the people of Hong Kong and defend their freedoms and independence,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement this week.
The reform angered China, which announced that it would no longer recognize BNO passports, inherited from handover, as an identity document. A symbolic decision, because the Hunkong people generally use their local ID card to leave the territory.
But Beijing said it was ready for “other measures”, raising fears that the authorities were trying to prevent Hong Kong residents from leaving.
On Sunday, the official New China Agency accused London of being a “colonial mentality”, warning that the new arrangement would harm “bilateral relations” and “Britain’s long-term interests”.
The Liaison Office, which represents the central government in Hong Kong, said in a statement on Sunday, its “strong condemnation and total opposition” to the measures.
It is not known how many Hong Kong residents will apply for this visa, especially in the context of the epidemic that complicates international travel and burdens economies, knowing that the health situation in Hong Kong is much better than in Great Britain.
But about 70% of Hong Kong’s population, which numbered 7.5 million, can apply for this visa.
BNO passport applications have increased by more than 300% since the Security Act went into effect in late June. In mid-January, there were 733,000 BNO holders.
London estimates that 150,000 people from Hong Kong could arrive in the next 12 months, and 322,000 within the next five years.
At the time of the handover, many Hong Kong residents were asking London for full citizenship, but Beijing was firmly against it. BNO has been a compromise for Hong Kong born before 1997.
This passport is now one of the last exit tickets for Hong Kong people wanting to rebuild their lives elsewhere, while repression intensifies in the semi-autonomous region.
Stella, who previously worked in marketing, is planning to move to Britain very soon with her husband and their three-month-old baby.
“The National Security Act of 2020 was the last straw because its provisions amount to criminalizing freedom of expression,” she told France Press, refusing to mention her last name.
One of the conditions for obtaining a new visa is to be able to prove that you have enough money to live for at least six months.
Hong Kong residents who have already settled in Britain and who help those who wish to immigrate say that many of the people applying are middle class and have enough savings to see it coming.
“Most of the people we talked to are families with children in primary school or nursery,” said an activist from Lion Rock Hill UK, whose name refers to one of them, on the condition of anonymity, of Hong Kong’s most famous mountain.
“There is no doubt that BNO is a lifeboat,” Mike, a scientist who recently arrived with his family in Manchester, told AFP. He said many Hong Kong residents are worried that China is trying to stop them fleeing, “so we have to leave as soon as possible.”