Our Opinion: 2021

UK welcomes HongKong Nationals

Migration agents in Hong Kong have seen a rush of enquiries from people seeking to access the UK’s new visa scheme, which came into force on 31st January. The rules effectively allow about five million Hongkongers who are eligible for a British National Overseas (BNO) passport, or are their dependants, to come to the UK. They will be allowed to come initially for up to six-months, but will have the option to extend it for another five years, and eventually apply for full British citizenship.

The BNO passport, created when Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, conferred few rights. That changed when China clamped down on the territory last year. The British government has offered a pathway that could lead to citizenship for the estimated 3m people who are eligible for BNO passports, plus their dependants. Before the protests, 167,000 Hongkongers held BNO passports. By August last year, 612,000 did. Nobody knows how many will apply for the visa. The government’s central projection is 250,000-300,000 over five years, which would be the largest-ever movement of non-Europeans into Britain.

The new arrangement provides sanctuary and freedom for people who might otherwise be arrested on spurious charges and disappear into China’s opaque prison system. Problems integrating the new immigrants should be limited as most Hongkongers are highly educated and skilled. With no initial English language requirements or stringent points-based system, the scheme sits outside Britain’s main immigration pathway. The stereotypical HongKonger is the ideal migrant—hardworking, entrepreneurial, liberty-loving and loyal to a certain idea of Britain. The decision sets a marker for Global Britain and follows its noble tradition of welcoming victims of persecution.

The terms of the scheme are generous, especially given the UK Home Office’s cautious approach towards immigration in recent years. As well as extending a welcome to a far wider range of dependants, the visa also offers a faster track to permanent settlement and citizenship than is offered to most groups. There is a risk the move could backfire by antagonising China, encouraging it to step up authoritarian measures in Hong Kong.

Indeed, China is already looking at ways to make life difficult for emigrants. Policies under consideration include barring anyone with a BNO passport from holding public office and even stripping them of their Chinese citizenship, which would effectively exile them from Hong Kong. Such moves would be unprecedented, as many of the families of Hong Kong’s elite hold foreign passports, including Carrie Lam, the country’s leader. Many Hongkongers are likely to take up the offer regardless. Arrests of opposition figures have been stepped up, newspaper offices have been raided and there has been intense pressure on schools to purge them of dissident views.

Whatever the success of the new scheme, “the approach of liberal democracies to China must change”, according to Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong from 1992 to 1997. He said that China has “trashed” any illusion that it will allow a degree of freedom in Hong Kong and that ignores the fact that China is willing to “break the letter and spirit” of any trade and investment rules when it suits it.  He emphasised that we must constrain China’s “determined assault on international agreements and liberal democracy”.

Two key groups of HongKongers are expected to apply. The first are people with young families and the wherewithal to leave. Some parents don’t want their children to attend school in Hong Kong, where the curriculum increasingly emphasises patriotism towards China and the Communist Party. Astronomical property prices in Hong Kong will ease the settlement of migrants in London, where homes are a snip by comparison. The second group are politically vulnerable people, though many of those involved in the 2019 anti-government protests were born after 1997 so unless their parents are BNO passport-holders, the new visa policy does not cover them.

People may not be China’s main focus of concern. Bank of America estimates that emigration from Hong Kong could trigger capital outflows of HK$280bn ($36bn) this year. China may not be averse to repopulating Hong Kong with loyalists from the mainland, but it will not want to say goodbye to billions of dollars.

18th February 2021