London, United Kingdom:
The British government on Friday promised to crack down on Chinese crackdowns in its former Hong Kong colony as it prepared to introduce a new visa system that could benefit millions.
Holders of British National (Overseas) status – a legacy of British rule over Hong Kong until 1997 – can live and work in the UK for up to five years from Sunday, eventually applying for citizenship.
Before the change, BN (O) passport holders had limited rights to visit the UK for up to six months and not to work or settle down.
The UK claims it is responding to a national security law imposed by China last year that destroyed the democracy movement in Hong Kong and destroyed the freedoms that the 1997 surrender agreement was supposed to last 50 years.
“I am very proud that we have introduced this new route for the BN (O) in Hong Kong to live, work and find their home in our country,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement.
“We have thus recognized our deep connection between history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong and campaigned for freedom and autonomy – values that are dear to both Great Britain and Hong Kong.”
Any resident born in Hong Kong before 1997 is eligible for BN (O) status. The new visa pathway will allow an estimated 2.9 million adults in Hong Kong and an additional 2.3 million of their loved ones to enter the UK.
In practice, London estimates that up to 322,400 of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents will apply for a visa over five years, which will benefit the UK economy up to $ 4 billion.
The new way won’t be cheap.
A five-year visa costs a relatively moderate $ 343 per person. However, a mandatory surcharge for access to the UK National Health Service is US $ 4,279 per adult and US $ 32 for those under 18.
Shorter, cheaper visas for 30 months are also available.
“We were aware that we will not look the other way when it comes to Hong Kong. We are living up to our historical responsibility to the people,” said Foreign Minister Dominic Raab.
“China’s introduction of the National Security Law in Hong Kong is a clear and grave violation of the (pre-delivery) Sino-British joint statement, which violates international law.”
The security law was imposed on Hong Kong last June in response to the 2019 protests. It targets acts that Beijing considers secession, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign forces.
Mass arrests of pro-democracy personalities followed. Some have fled Hong Kong to the west, including the UK.
Between July and this month, around 7,000 people with BN (O) status and their loved ones have already been granted exceptional UK residence permits.
China, angry with Britain’s new visa route, has for its part accused London of disregarding the surrender agreement and urged western countries to stay out of Hong Kong’s affairs.