On 31 January of this year, the UK officially launched the citizenship visa process for Hong Kongers, and in recent months, residents of the semi-autonomous island have been arriving in Britain to begin the process, amid fears of Chinese repression.
Hong Kong residents can now apply for a new visa offering them the chance to become British citizens, an offer made by the UK following China's imposition of a national security law, which has left hundreds detained after protests in the former UK colony demanded greater freedoms.
In recent weeks, hundreds of Hong Kongers have arrived on British soil to begin the process, which involves first obtaining a residence and work permit for five years - through the so-called British Overseas Passport (BNO) - and then applying for citizenship. One of the conditions for applicants is to prove that they have enough money to live on for at least six months.
Among those who came to the UK is Cindy, a woman who owned several properties and a business in Hong Kong with her husband. But last week they moved to London, leaving everything behind in order to join her family in the UK. Not even a global pandemic stopped them.
"Uprooting like this is definitely not easy. But things got uglier last year, the government was really pushing us away. Everything we value, freedom of speech, fair elections, general freedoms, has been eroded. It's no longer the Hong Kong we knew, it's no longer a place we can call home," explained the businesswoman and mother of two young children, who did not give her surname, fearing repercussions for speaking out against Beijing.
Cindy said she and other Hong Kongers preferred to begin the migration process as soon as possible because they fear the Chinese government will start blocking a possible mass exodus.
The UK government justified the move on the grounds that China is not honouring commitments made during the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, which involved guaranteeing the territory's freedoms and autonomy for at least fifty years. While London claims to be offering a way out of Beijing's crackdown, some accuse Boris Johnson's government of hypocrisy, as it reaches out to too few pro-democracy activists.
"For all those who fear for their freedom, it's an emergency exit and they will surely leave," sats Pierre, a historian specialising in international relations at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. "But I don't see a big wave of immigration," he added.
"In fact, pro-democracy people have no other options," continued Katherine, of the Lion Rock Hill UK group, which promotes Hong Kong culture in the UK. "Most of the protesters of the last two years are not yet 24 years old: they don't care about the BNO passport." she explained.
Only Hong Kong citizens born before the 1997 handover are eligible for the BNO, i.e. 70% of Hong Kong's population, estimated at 7.5 million. "It's British hypocrisy," claims Jean-Yves, a North Asia expert at the Asia Center. "In part, the British are admitting their guilt for having handed Hong Kong over to Beijing, but they could also use this opportunity to replace the European workers who left after Brexit with people from Hong Kong. At the same time restoring their image.”
"However, there may be a majority of the Hong Kong population over the age of 25 who would prefer to leave, rather than live without freedoms or be detained by the police without a valid reason," added Katherine.
Although the scheme was announced by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government in July 2020, the official start date for the process was 31 January 2021.
"Before the announcement of the BNO visa in July, we didn't have many enquiries about UK immigration, maybe less than 10 calls per month . Now we get about 10 to 15 calls a day asking about it," explained Andrew, who works as an immigration consultant in Hong Kong. While it is unknown exactly how many Hong Kong people want to take up the UK’s offer, applications for BNO passports have increased by more than 300 percent since the security law came into effect at the end of June, according to sources in the UK government. As of mid-January, there were 733,000 BNO holders. The UK government estimates that 150,000 Hong Kongers could arrive in the next twelve months and 322,000 in the next five years.
London's reasoning is that in 1997, when it handed back its then colony and Hong Kong became a special administrative region of China, the UK offered Hong Kongers the British Overseas Passport. Until now, such people could only visit the UK for six months without a visa, but had no right to live or work there.
Johnson said his government is providing the immigration opportunity because his country owes a debt to the Hong Kong people. The offer came in the same month that Beijing imposed a so-called national security law, which includes life sentences for those it believes commit the crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
The law was launched amid massive protests in recent years in which Hong Kongers have protested to demand greater freedoms from China.
The UK's decision sparked anger from the Chinese government. On Friday, Beijing announced that it would not recognise British overseas passports, a symbolic decision since the BNO is only valid in the UK.
But the Chinese government has not ruled out "other measures", although it is not yet clear what steps it will take against those who accept London's offer. The local press has reported that the Chinese government could bar them from participating in local elections, working in official capacities or ban dual citizenship.
"I think at a certain point, the Chinese authorities will do everything they can to prevent Hong Kong people from leaving," predicts Jean-Yves of the Asia Center.
On Sunday, China's new official agency accused London of having a "colonial mentality" and warned that the new arrangements would damage "bilateral relations" and the UK's "long-term interests". It’s a complicated issue, but one thing that is certain is that many of those applying for the new passport will need certified translations as part of the process. If original documents are in Chinese, and are required for the application, a certified translation will be needed. If that’s the case for you, we’re here to help at the lowest price on the market, guaranteed. Just get in touch.