Millions of Hong Kong residents who seek to leave the territory amid a new national security law imposed by China are now able to apply to live and work in Britain.
Britain began taking applications Sunday from Hong Kong residents who wish to relocate and travel under what is known as a British National Overseas, or BNO, passport.
The policy gives Hong Kong residents the ability to move to Britain, with a pathway to citizenship after five years.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeted:
“The Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa is now open for applications. BNO citizens have the choice to live, work and study in the U.K. – free to build new lives. This is a proud day in our strong historic relationship as we honour our promise to the people of Hong Kong.”
The reaction in Beijing was swift. Only hours after London released the details of the application process on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters during a regular press conference in Beijing, “China will no longer recognize the BN(O) passport as a valid travel document or for identification, and we reserve the right to take further actions.”
The editorial of Chinese state-affiliated media Global Times criticized Britain’s decision, dismissing any significant effects an exodus in Hong Kong would create for China, while criticizing London as being a puppet for the United States amid an escalation in tensions between Washington and Beijing.
After Hong Kong was transferred back to China from Britain in 1997, Beijing promised Hong Kong would retain a “high degree of autonomy” until 2047 under a “one country, two systems” agreement.
After anti-government protests in 2019, Beijing wanted to bring stability to the city and therefore implemented a national security law for Hong Kong that came into effect on June 30, 2020. It prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and its details can be widely interpreted. Protests have stopped while activists and lawmakers have been arrested, jailed or fled into political exile.
Critics say the law violates China’s commitment to allow Hong Kong to keep its limited freedoms.
In response, the British government announced BNO holders would have their privileges expanded. The previous rules for the BNO only allowed holders to visit Britain for six months, with no right to work or settle there.
About 5.4 million residents are eligible for the offer, including dependents of BNOs and 18- to 23-year-olds with at least one BNO parent. The British government estimates at least 300,000 people are expected to take up the offer.
A senior lawyer, based in Hong Kong for decades, believes the national security law is responsible for “mass emigration” happening in Hong Kong now.
The lawyer asked not to be named amid fears of breaching the security law.
“We’re not just talking about the expat communities who have decided to relocate, there is mass emigration by families who are going off to Canada, Australia, the U.K. These are not people on bail for any criminal offenses, these people don’t have any further confidence in Hong Kong, and they don’t want their kids brought up here,” the lawyer said.
VOA spoke to several Hong Kong residents who are making the move via the BNO policy.
“I’m leaving Hong Kong because I see the government is intimidating us, “said Renee Yau, a marketing professional in her 40s.
“The arrest of the 50-plus individuals because of their participation in the primaries poll is horrible. It is almost like declaring any election result that is unfavorable to the authorities is suspicious of criminal behavior,” she said.
“Twenty years ago, when we talked about Hong Kong to foreigners, we could say we had freedom of expression and economic freedom. But in the past few months, our freedom and rights are being taken away every day. At least it is not illegal to say what we like and don’t like about the U.K.,” she said.
“I knew I’d take the offer ever since the U.K. first announced the route. Initially, I thought I’d move in the next one to three years, but now I think I’d move within three months,” Yau added.
Vince Leung, a 37-year-old architect in Hong Kong, said he has been thinking about relocating since 2019, and the accumulation of changes in the city has made him decide to leave.
“The implication of the National Security Law, the postponed of the Legislative Council Elections, Beijing and Hong Kong government’s suppression of speech, publication and demonstration in 2020 … we are losing freedom in every aspect,” Leung told VOA.
Leung added he’s “not surprised” Beijing will not recognize the Sino-British Joint Declaration regarding Hong Kong’s status since the handover. According to Leung, Beijing does not consider the agreement to be valid.
Olivis, a 35-year-old sales professional working in Hong Kong, is worried about how the security law can be used by the authorities to determine what is an offense.
“It made me worry that I will never know when I violate the law and being arrested. Even I put on a yellow mask, (or I’m) wearing a black shirt, I would be stared (at) by police,” she said.
The media sales executive admits she’ll never return to Hong Kong to live after taking the BNO offer.
“The city is dying. Political instability and great change. There’s no more democracy, justice and freedom of speech, but more ridiculous rules and policies,” she added.
As of 5 p.m. local time Sunday, those eligible for the BNO could begin to apply online and then arrange an appointment at a local visa application center. As of February 23, eligible BNO holders who hold a biometric passport will be able to complete their applications using an app.
For five years the visa stay will be $343 per person — or $247 for a 30-month stay — and there is an immigration health surcharge of up to $855 every year.