Residents of Hong Kong can apply, starting on Sunday, 31 January, 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.
According to Reuters, 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.
The UK introduced BNO passports in the 1980s for people who were 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.
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.