Hong Kong Families Apply to Emigrate After Launch of UK Visa Scheme

Hong Kong Families Apply to Emigrate After Launch of UK Visa Scheme The popular visa center in the Lee Man Commercial Centre in Hong Kong's North Point district.

A U.K. visa center in Hong Kong has extended its opening hours to cope with increased demand after the British government launched a new pathway to residency and citizenship for some five million residents of the city, amid a citywide crackdown on public dissent and political opposition.

The visa center in the Lee Man Commercial Centre in Hong Kong's North Point district recently extended its opening hours to run from 7.00 a.m. to 7.00 p.m., with at least four families applying to go to the U.K. in the space of a single hour on Monday.

Under a scheme launched on Sunday, millions of holders of the British National Overseas (BNO) passport -- once derided as carrying very few benefits -- will be allowed to live, study, and work in the U.K., with a path to permanent residency after five years and to citizenship after six.

The move has angered Beijing, and the Hong Kong and Chinese governments said they will no longer recognize the document for travel or identification purposes.

An applicant who gave only his surname Leung was at the center to apply for the scheme on Monday morning.

Safety claims mocked

Leung said the main reason he wants to take his family to start a new life in the U.K. is the ongoing crackdown under the national security law, imposed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the city from July 1, 2020.

"Hong Kong is clearly so safe now that we have the national security law that there is no need for us to stay here and defend it," Leung quipped in an ironic reference to claims by chief executive Carrie Lam that the law had made Hong Kong "safer."

"If it's so safe, we have nothing to fear, and we just want to experience life over there," he said.

Leung said his family have enough savings to live for at least a year after they arrive, and that he is willing to change career to suit the local employment market.

An applicant surnamed Lam said he works in education, and has lived in Hong Kong for 40 years. His application to emigrate was completed in the space of half an hour.

"After living in Hong Kong for many years, I am going to have my own opinions about certain things," Lam said. "But given all that has happened in the past year, it's clear that how someone thinks could actually have a negative impact on their life."

"How can someone go their own way [in such a situation]? There was a time when you could choose to stay behind ... but if I have the opportunity, I'd rather live in a foreign country," Lam said.

Applicants who visit a visa center in person must arrive in the U.K. within 90 days of their visa being issued.

China angry

The applicants in the North Point office on Monday were clearly unwilling to wait until the launch of an app-based application procedure later this month.

While the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities have said that BNO passports are no longer valid for boarding transportation carriers out of and arriving in Hong Kong, the U.K. has said BNO holders may present other forms of documentation for entry into the U.K. if needed.

The Chinese government strongly condemned the BNO visa scheme in a statement reported by state news agency Xinhua on Sunday.

"The UK move, in an attempt to turn a large number of Hong Kong people into second-class British citizens, is a blatant offence to China's sovereignty," the agency quoted a spokesperson for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council as saying.

China reserves the right to take further action against Britain's BNO passport policy, the spokesperson said.

The U.K. has already granted leave to enter the country to some 7,000 BNO passport holders and their dependents, and will continue to do so until the new visa scheme goes fully digital.

As many as 5.4 million Hong Kong residents could be eligible for the plan, including an estimated three million passport holders and just over two million dependents: around 72 percent of the city's population.

The U.K. changed the rules in response to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s imposition of the draconian National Security Law for Hong Kong, which bans words or deeds deemed to be secessionist, subversive, or involving terrorism or collusion with foreign powers.

The law, which was imposed by decree, bypassing the city's Legislative Council (LegCo), criminalizes anyone holding a protest banner or speaking out against the loss of Hong Kong's promised freedoms, anywhere in the world.

Reported by Man Hoi Yan for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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