In a parallel universe, Finn Lau says he should be sitting in jail right now.
The Hong Kong native and anti-government activist, who founded the international network “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong,” lives in London. In 2020, he supported from afar—and one time, in person—those who protested the government of Hong Kong‘s closeness with the Chinese Communist Party. The protests turned violent, and led to months of instability; eventually, authorities cracked down with a repressive national security law. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, including three of the democracy movement’s key figures, Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam. Others, like Nathan Law or opposition lawmaker Ted Hui, fled to the UK as Britain became a base for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
Lau, too, is wanted by the Hong Kong police. While he originally came to London with a temporary work visa in April 2019, he is one of the many Hong Kongers who are expected to settle permanently in the UK in the coming years through a bespoke immigration route known as the BN(O) Visa, created last year in response to the crackdown in Hong Kong.
The Home Office released data today (May 28) showing that it received 34,300 applications for BN(O) visas in February and March, the first two months of the program. Of those, 7,200 were granted (not including Lau’s, who applied in March and is still waiting to hear back). For comparison, according to the Hong Kong government’s official estimates, 7,000 Hong Kongers emigrated in all of 2019 to various countries, based on requests for a certification of no criminal record, though these figures don’t capture departures by dual passport holders, such as the many Canadian Hong Kongers.
The question of how many Hong Kongers would take the UK up on its offer of citizenship, leaving Hong Kong and sending a message to the Chinese government in the process, has become a major fault line in UK-China relations. Until now, it wasn’t clear that many of them would. These numbers are a first indication of a level of interest in the visa that is broadly in line with government expectations.
The UK believes it has a special responsibility for the people of Hong Kong because it occupied the island in 1841 and ruled over it until 1997. Ahead of the handover, the two sides agreed in1984 a Joint Declaration that China would preserve Hong Kong’s economic and personal freedoms—which are far greater than those in mainland China—at least for 50 years.
In fact, Hong Kongers born before the handover are considered overseas British nationals (BNO) and have special passports, which prior to 2021 allowed visa-free entry to the UK but not the right to reside there. As of October there were close to 470,000 people with the document.
Official estimates have predicted that anywhere between 300,000 and 1 million Hong Kongers could move to the UK over the next five years, taking more than $75 billion of capital with them, under the citizenship route for Hong Kongers. It’s prime minister Boris Johnson’s signature foreign policy initiative and a major soft power bid for the UK outside the European Union.
It wouldn’t be the first major exodus in the history of Hong Kong: According to the Canadian International Council, 335,646 Hong Kongers moved to Canada between 1984 and the 1997 handover, though many of them later returned to live in Hong Kong again.
Last year, the Home Office laid out a variety of estimates (pdf, p. 9) of the numbers of likely applications—all of which expect the highest number of applications in 2021. They’re based in part on different forecasts of how many of the 2.9 million people eligible for BN(O) passports will apply for them, making them eligible for the BN(O) visa.
The very lowest estimate pegged applications at less than 5,000 this year, which looks to have been a clear underestimation of interest, while the very highest estimate imagined half a million applications in 2021.
If the application rate for the rest of 2021 resembles the first two months, the total applications this year will fall well above the government’s mid-range expectations of somewhere between 122,600 and 153,300 applications in the first year. And if the same approval rate holds, close to 40,000 Hong Kongers could be granted the right to settle this year.
Of these first application, 40% came from people already in the UK while the rest were from applicants still in Hong Kong. But of those granted, 77% of the approvals went to people still in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kongers who choose to go this route won’t have it easy. They might struggle to find jobs due to the pandemic. They may face language and cultural barriers—and an administrative limbo. Chinese authorities have said that they will no longer recognize BN(O) passports as official travel documents, and the former chief executive of Hong Kong (link in Chinese) said that those who leave Hong Kong for the UK should have their Hong Kong residency permits suspended.
It will take five years of continuous residence in the UK with a BN(O) visa before Hong Kongers can apply for UK residency and, later, nationality. And even as UK passport holders, they may still be considered Chinese (paywall) by China. According to UK authorities, that means if they are detained in Hong Kong, “the British consulate-general may not be able” to offer them consular assistance.
One young Hong Konger, who asked to be identified as Emily, described her reasons for leaving and seeking to apply for the BN(O) program.
She felt there were dwindling opportunities for young people like her back home; as an aspiring civil servant, she didn’t want to swear loyalty and allegiance to the Chinese government, and as a supporter of the 2019 anti-government protests, she feared she would be arrested. Still, she feels “very sad” about the prospect of never being allowed back into Hong Kong.
“Some people will say, why do you need to go back? But if you have family and friends there, you still want to go back. And it’s still my roots.”