LONDON—After protests and political upheaval prompted China to impose a tough new security law on Hong Kong last year, Key Yeung uprooted her family and left for England.
“Hong Kong is no longer safe,” said Ms. Yeung, who recently settled in the English city of Lincoln with her husband and younger daughter, after sending her older one to a boarding school in Oxford last year. “I am not optimistic about Hong Kong anymore.”
The British government expects hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents to follow in Ms. Yeung’s footsteps. In an unusual move that is exacerbating tensions with Beijing, Britain has opened its doors to as many as five million residents of its former colony.
As of Sunday, holders of British National Overseas passports—which are available to Hong Kong citizens born in the territory before it was handed back to China in 1997—can move with their families to the U.K. on five-year visas. After that period, they can apply for British citizenship. Previously these passport holders could only get six-month British visas.
The immigration overhaul is a response to China’s imposition of a new national security law on Hong Kong, which Britain says violates Hong Kong’s judicial independence from Beijing. The U.K. argues this was guaranteed until 2047 by an international treaty the two countries signed.
Beijing has accused London of meddling in its affairs and expressed its anger toward the new immigration plan. On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said it would no longer recognize the BNO passport as a valid travel document and may take further measures.
The move is largely symbolic because people traveling through Hong Kong and mainland China border checkpoints typically use their Hong Kong identity card and a “return home card” issued by Chinese authorities. A passport is only used upon entry and exit from other countries.
It is unclear how many Hong Kong residents will take up Britain’s offer given Covid-19 travel restrictions, Britain’s steep economic downturn amid the pandemic and pressure from the Chinese government. The U.K. Home Office estimates around 300,000 people will move from Hong Kong to Britain in the next five years.
That would dwarf the existing Hong Kong born population in the U.K., which a 2011 census put at just over 100,000. The visa offer is open to about 70% of Hong Kong’s population and could trigger capital outflows of $75 billion from Hong Kong over five years, estimates Bank of America Corp.
The immigration plan is the latest round in a diplomatic tit-for-tat between the U.K. and China. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing increasing pressure from both the U.S. and British lawmakers to hold a firm line with China over its treatment of Hong Kong and the Uighur people, a majority Muslim population that has faced a crackdown in the western region of Xinjiang.
Britain has already suspended an extradition treaty with Hong Kong and imposed a ban on the installation of new 5G telecom equipment built by China’s Huawei Technologies Co.
“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,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday.
Applications for the BNO travel document have surged from 167,000 in July to 612,000 in August last year. Since the policy was announced last year, 7,000 BNO holders and their families have been granted leave to remain in the U.K., the Home Office says.
That is a small chunk of those eligible. Any resident born in Hong Kong before 1997 can apply for a BNO passport, equating to some 2.9 million people. These people have 2.3 million family members also eligible for the visas.
An estimated 400,000 residents left Hong Kong in the five years leading up to its handover to China in 1997. Tim Summers, a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, warns of a loss of face for the Chinese government if many do take up Britain’s offer but he believes the driver to migrate will be more financial than political. “I don’t see this as a brain-drain threat to Hong Kong’s ability to function,” he said.
Dickson Choi, a 27-year-old who works for a radio station in Hong Kong, said he wants to apply under the new visa system and move to the U.K. “When you consider the political situation, it is no longer comfortable for me to stay here,” he said. “Secondly I love the culture in the U.K.” However, he said he wants to be able to secure work in Britain first, so doesn’t want to leave for a couple of years.
Ms. Yeung said a key reason for shipping her family to England was when patriotic materials started being added to her children’s textbooks aimed at promoting a stronger Chinese national identity. “I have totally lost my confidence and hope in Hong Kong’s education,” Ms. Yeung said.
For Ms. Yeung and her husband, both BNO holders, the new pathway is also cheaper than acquiring an investor visa, said Ms. Yeung, who worked at an insurance company in Hong Kong before she moved. Amid the pandemic lockdown in the U.K., the couple haven’t started looking for jobs and plan to live on their savings until their visas are approved.
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