The British government has decided to expand a program allowing some Hong Kong residents to settle in the U.K., providing a potential lifeboat for thousands of young people seeking to escape increasingly repressive Chinese rule in the former British colony.
The British Nationals Overseas, or BNO, plan that gives millions of Hong Kong residents the chance of British citizenship, was launched 13 months ago. The move came after the Chinese government imposed a national security law on Hong Kong, which critics say has restricted the city's freedoms.
Previously, only Hong Kong residents born before 1997 — when the city was handed back to China from Britain — were eligible to apply for citizenship through the plan.
But following a parliamentary meeting Thursday, British Immigration Minister Kevin Foster outlined in a written statement the changes, which are expected to go into effect in October.
"It is right and important to address this, so the Government has made the decision to enable individuals aged 18 or over who were born on or after 1 July 1997 and who have at least one BN(O) parent to apply to the route independently of their BN(O) parent," part of the statement read.
Approximately 5.4 million residents were eligible for the BNO plan prior to Thursday's amendment, with more than 100,000 applications received since January last year. Successful applicants can work and study in Britain for up to five years, after which they can apply for citizenship.
But a campaign backed by senior British politicians and the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, urged British lawmakers to open the plan to Hong Kong's younger residents.
Britain-based Hong Kong Watch, a nonprofit organization monitoring human rights and freedoms, released a statement welcoming the news.
"We are delighted that the Government has taken the bold and moral step to expand the BNO Visa for those brave young Hong Kongers who are not currently covered by the scheme.”
Benedict Rogers, Hong Kong Watch chief executive, praised the move.
"This is a very significant development, which will provide a lifeline to many young Hong Kongers whose only option until now was applying for asylum. It sends a clear message that the U.K. will honor its responsibilities to Hong Kongers and that Hong Kongers are very welcome in the U.K.," he told VOA.
The Hong Kong government Friday condemned the move, telling VOA in an email it “deplores and opposes British Government's interference on Hong Kong affairs by providing holders of the British National (Overseas) (BN(O) passport or eligible for it a pathway to reside and obtain citizenship in the UK.”
China and the U.K. “previously exchanged memoranda in which the UK clearly pledged not to confer the right of abode in the UK on holders of the BN(O) passport who are Chinese nationals in Hong Kong,” the email from the Security Bureau’s Press Office said.
“The measures taken by the British Government on the pretext of the National Security Law are purely made out of political maneuver. They not only seriously violate the UK's own pledge made in the British memorandum exchanged with the Chinese Government, but also seriously interfere in the affairs of the HKSAR,” it said, referring to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
“The HKSAR Government urges the British Government to stop interfering in the affairs of the HKSAR and return to the normal tracks," it said.
In 2019, Hong Kong saw widespread anti-government protests that sometimes turned violent as demonstrators opposed a controversial extradition bill and called for further freedoms. Many demonstrators were either students or in their 20s.
Beijing responded by passing the national security law for Hong Kong in June 2020. It strictly prohibits acts deemed as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson then announced that his government was launching the BNO program to aid residents in the former British colony because the security legislation threatened Hong Kong's unique freedoms.
China has not recognized the BNO passport for Hong Kong residents since Jan. 31, 2021.
The lifeboat plan, however, has already contributed to thousands leaving, data suggest. According to data released by Hong Kong's Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong's population declined 1.2% by mid-2021, equating to approximately 89,200 people, the biggest decrease in Hong Kong's population in 60 years, Agence France-Presse reported.
A government spokesperson has defended the decline, insisting the figures are due to a lack of new arrivals into the city.
Joseph Cheng, a political analyst formerly of Hong Kong but now in New Zealand, said the amendment is a boost for younger Hong Kong residents.
"This is going to be a major help to the young people in Hong Kong who want to emigrate, especially for those who do not have the wealth. The U.K. has been the most favored destination for Hong Kong people who plan to leave," he told VOA.
"The exodus reflects the general disappointment with the government on the part of the Hong Kong society," Cheng added.
An initial assessment by the British government previously estimated that by 2026, up to 300,000 could apply to emigrate via the BNO plan. As of Dec. 31, 2021, 103,900 applications had been received.
Ernie, a 20-year-old student in Hong Kong, told VOA he would now consider applying for the plan.
"I feel positive that the U.K. government is finally stepping up, helping the young adults in Hong Kong. [The] Hong Konger community in the U.K. is huge and growing. It would be easier for Hong Kong people to settle," he said.
Ernie is considering moving to Britain because of health and political measures in Hong Kong.
"[Hong Kong is] too strict in pandemic measures. [And the] political environment keeps evolving. The idea that a lot of people who you support three, four years ago, before any protest begin, are being prosecuted and jailed right now for whatever reason seems frightening," he said.
Michael Mo, a former district councilor in Hong Kong who now resides in Britain, said many who emigrate will be students needing financial support for their studies.
"The next step of the U.K. government, if they change the rules, should allow BNO visa holders to be treated as home fee students at universities. "Home fees are capped by the Government and generally lower than international fees," according to the House of Commons Library website.
Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" agreement that would see the city enjoy a "high degree of autonomy" for 50 years. But critics have said Beijing has since broken this agreement by tightening its grip on the city's political and lawful affairs.
Hong Kong's national security law has had a dramatic effect on the city. Street protests and slogans have been banned. Hundreds of dissidents have been arrested, including dozens of democratic lawmakers, and media outlets also have been forced to close.