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International relations

Hong Kong's 2.9m 'UK' passport holders weigh moves to Britain

Citizens despairing of Beijing's tightening grip take advantage of new scheme

British National Overseas passports (BNO) and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China passports sit on top of the baggage of a Hong Kong family who emigrated to the U.K. in December.   © Reuters

HONG KONG/LONDON -- Shirley Yen, a Hong Kong native and master's student in London, has been filming YouTube videos since 2019, feeding viewers tips on living abroad that range from apartment hunting advice to grocery shopping guides. In June, her views suddenly jumped, and her channel's comment section was flooded with questions from fellow Hongkongers looking to emigrate to the U.K.

The U.K. that month announced a new immigration route and path to citizenship for an estimated 2.9 million British National (Overseas) status holders and their dependents in Hong Kong -- two-thirds of the city's population -- in response to the sweeping national security law imposed on the former British colony.

"I was overwhelmed by how desperately people want to leave," said Yen, whose videos have now amassed over a million views. Upon graduation, she plans to apply for residency under the scheme. "Hong Kong is not the place I used to know anymore," she said. "I want to live in a country with freedom and fairness. ... the U.K. gives me a taste of the old Hong Kong."

The BN(O) nationality status was given to Hong Kong residents before the territory returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Before the new pathway, which officially opens on Sunday, BN(O)s were only allowed visa-free stays of six months in the U.K.

"I am immensely proud that we have brought in this new route for Hong Kong BN(O)s to live, work and make their home in our country," U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement on Friday. "In doing so we have honored our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy -- values both the U.K. and Hong Kong hold dear."

However, rolling out the welcome mat has enraged Beijing, which accused Westminster of breaching a joint declaration between the two countries and interfering in China's internal affairs. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Friday referred to the citizenship offer as "an attempt to turn a large number of Hong Kong people into second-class British citizens." In retaliation, the Chinese and Hong Kong governments will no longer recognize the special U.K. passport as a valid travel document.

The increasing Sino-British tensions have prompted some Hong Kongers to expedite their emigration plans out of fear the new program will become a victim of the geopolitical skirmish. "I feel more like a refugee than an emigrant," said Vivian Cheng, a 35-year-old finance professional. The single mum is looking to move to London with her two toddlers in the summer, and for them to begin their new school year there.

"I don't want my children to be brainwashed by the education system in Hong Kong," she said, citing the increasing political pressure on the territory's schools to censor curricula. "What if one day they get punished because they said something the authority dislikes?"

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at 10 Downing Street, London on Jan 22. "I am immensely proud that we have brought in this new route for Hong Kong BN(O)s to live, work and make their home in our country," he said Friday.   © Reuters

The expected immigration wave, which is set to bring talent and wealth with it, could trigger a capital outflow of HK$588 billion ($76 billion) over the next five years, a recent report published by Bank of America noted, based on a U.K. Home Office estimate that about 321,600 Hong Kong residents will move to the country during that span.

What seems to be a blow to Hong Kong could be a boost to the U.K., which calculates that immigrants from Hong Kong could provide a net benefit of between 2.4 billion pounds (US$3.28 billion) and 2.9 billion pounds over five years, according to an impact assessment conducted by the U.K. government.

The move has widespread political and public support in the U.K. The latest survey conducted by YouGov in January found that more than two-thirds of those who expressed a preference supported the BN(O) program. Respondents most commonly associate Hong Kong people with being hardworking, well-educated and entrepreneurial.

Dr. Peter William Walsh, a researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said that since the time of the Brexit vote almost five years ago, opposition in the U.K. toward immigration, in general, has fallen to historic lows, and the unique circumstances of Hong Kong have made Brits more positive toward the territory's citizens coming to the U.K.

"It might be the case that there is a degree of sympathy amongst the British public with the political situation faced by Hong Kongers," he pointed out. "The U.K. has a long history with Hong Kong, there might also be some sense of loyalty on the part of Britain.

"The U.K. has had quite large amounts of immigration of people from the EU in so-called 'lower skilled' work. And this migration wave from Hong Kong looks like it could be a major high-skilled migration wave, and that really distinguishes it."

That said, job-hunting is bound to be challenging for prospective immigrants to a country crippled by the pandemic. Aragorn, 36, is among the 7,000 Hong Kong residents who have moved to the U.K. since July under the status of Leave Outside the Rules, or LOTR, which has allowed BN(O) holders to reside and work in the country until the scheme begins.

The former public relations executive had two job offers rescinded during the recent lockdown. At a steep pay cut compared to his last job in Hong Kong, he is recently employed by a real estate agency that is hoping to target Hong Kong clients rushing to snap up U.K. properties.

"I think it's worth it," he said. "I don't see a future in Hong Kong under the security law, with foreign companies relocating away from the city."

To lower the cost of living, some Hong Kongers are looking to live outside of London. Billy Li, 27, arrived in Manchester with LOTR status in October, a year after he was arrested for illegal assembly in Hong Kong. Although charges were never filed, he sees the city he left as "a dangerous place to be."

"I am willing to do all kinds of work here, even blue-collar jobs," said the former fitness trainer who is now living on his savings. "I will try to learn some new skills and hopefully I can land a job after coronavirus restrictions ease."

Many in Hong Kong remain on the fence about emigrating.

"My whole life is built in Hong Kong. My friends, my career, my network. ... It is hard to give up everything," said Mandy Wong, 26, who works for a Hong Kong conglomerate, adding that limited job opportunities in the U.K. and fear of discrimination are holding her back.

"I might leave in the future if the situation deteriorates further," she said, "but for now, I'm keeping my wait-and-see attitude."

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