The UK will introduce a new visa at the end of January that will give 5.4 million Hong Kong residents – a staggering 70% of the territory’s population – the right to come and live in the UK, and eventually become citizens.
It is making this “generous” offer to residents of its former colony because it believes China is undermining Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms.
Not everyone will come. Some of those eligible to leave have expressed their determination to stay and continue the fight for democracy.
In the end, Britain estimates that about 300,000 will take up the visa offer over the next five years.
Since the UK handed back its former colony 23 years ago, relatively few of the territory’s residents – less than 16,000 – have become British citizens.
That is certain to change, partly because the new visa scheme appears to offer few hurdles for the millions eligible to apply.
“I had clients applying to Canada, Australia and Taiwan who suspended their applications and now want to go to the UK,” said Andrew Lo, a Hong Kong immigration adviser.
Another consultant in the territory, Colin Bloomfield, said the visa provisions did appear generous, although he said Britain might add more requirements that would make it harder to move.
The scheme is open to Hong Kong residents who claimed British National (Overseas), or BNO, status before the handover in 1997. A total of 2.9 million people registered and so can apply for the new visa.
Their dependants – an additional two-and-a-half million people – are also eligible to travel with them.
‘Why should I leave?’
Although the British government admits that as many as one million people could apply for the visa over the next five years, it thinks only a few hundred thousand will actually do so.
It believes most people will choose to remain in Hong Kong.
Some residents will not want to leave behind elderly parents or learn a new language; the British weather is certain to dissuade others.
Many do not want to abandon the territory to its fate.
“There is a certain number of people who do not want to leave, particularly the young. They would rather die in Hong Kong,” said Mr Lo.
“I have a lot of clients who fight with their kids because the children don’t want to emigrate. They say: ‘Why should I leave? I should try my best to change this place’.”
There is also the difficulty of finding work in Britain, as the country tries to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, and Brexit.
And if enough come, new arrivals could face resentment from British people who oppose too much immigration.
“In the cold light of day, many will decide to stay in Hong Kong,” said Mr Bloomfield, whose company is called British Connections.
Regardless of how many apply, the British government said it had no choice but to offer Hong Kong people an escape route.
“This is not a question of numbers,” said a Home Office spokesperson.
“The government is committed to giving British National (Overseas) citizens in Hong Kong a choice to come to the UK, fulfilling our historic commitment to them.”