Britain's government vowed Friday to stand by the people of its former colony, Hong Kong, against a Chinese crackdown as it prepared to launch a new visa scheme potentially benefiting millions.
Starting Sunday, holders of British National (Overseas) status — a legacy of British rule over Hong Kong up to 1997 — will be able to apply to live and work in Britain for up to five years, and eventually seek citizenship.
Before the change, BN(O) passport holders have had only limited rights to visit Britain for up to six months and not to work or settle.
Britain says it is acting in response to the National Security Law imposed by China last year, which has devastated Hong Kong's democracy movement and shredded freedoms meant to last 50 years under the 1997 handover accord.
"I am immensely proud that we have brought in this new route for Hong Kong BN(O)s to live, work and make their home in our country," Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement.
"In doing so, we have honored our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy — values both the U.K. and Hong Kong hold dear."
Any Hong Kong resident born before 1997 is eligible for BN(O) status. The new visa path opens up entry to the United Kingdom to an estimated 2.9 million adults in Hong Kong and another 2.3 million of their dependents.
In practice, London projects that up to 322,400 of Hong Kong's 7.5 million population will take up the visa over five years, benefiting the British economy by up to $4 billion.
The new pathway will not be cheap.
A five-year visa will cost a relatively moderate $343 per person. But a mandatory surcharge to access Britain's state-run health service will run to $4,280 per adult, and $3,224 for those under 18.
Shorter, cheaper visas for 30 months will also be available.
"We have been clear we won't look the other way when it comes to Hong Kong. We will live up to our historic responsibility to its people," Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said.
"China's imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong constitutes a clear and serious breach of the [pre-handover] Sino-British Joint Declaration contrary to international law," he added.
The security law was imposed on Hong Kong last June in response to 2019 protests, targeting acts Beijing deems to be secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces.
Mass arrests of pro-democracy figures have followed. Some have fled Hong Kong for the West, including to Britain.
Between July and this month, about 7,000 people with BN(O) status and their dependents have already been given exceptional leave to live in Britain.
China, furious at Britain's new visa pathway, has in turn accused London of flouting the handover agreement and demanded Western countries stay out of Hong Kong's affairs.