Britain’s government announced Wednesday that it will open a new special pathway to obtaining U.K. citizenship for up to 3 million eligible Hong Kongers as of January, taking another step toward solidifying a policy denounced by China.
In a statement, the Home Office said holders of the British National Overseas passport and their immediate family members can move to the U.K. to work and study. The change to immigration rules was introduced after Beijing imposed a new, sweeping national security law on Hong Kong.
“Today’s announcement shows the U.K. is keeping its word: We will not look the other way on Hong Kong, and we will not duck our historic responsibilities to its people,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said.
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Britain announced in early July it was extending residency rights for some 2.9 million people eligible for the British National Overseas passport in Hong Kong, stressing that it would uphold its duty to the former British colony after the new law was imposed.
Eligible individuals from Hong Kong currently can come to the U.K. for six months without a visa. With the rule change, they will have the right to live and work in the country for five years. After that, they will be allowed to apply for settled status and then again for citizenship.
Those eligible can access the British job market at any skill level and without a salary threshold, but won’t have access to public funds.
The U.K. introduced a special, limited type of British nationality in the 1980s for people who were a “British dependent territories citizen by connection with Hong Kong.” The passports did not confer nationality or the automatic right to live and work in Britain, but entitled holders to consular assistance from U.K. diplomatic posts.
Britain handed over Hong Kong, its former colony, to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997 under a “One Country, Two Systems” framework that was supposed to guarantee the city a high degree of autonomy and Western-style civil liberties not seen on mainland China.
The new national security law, enacted just ahead of the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong becoming a special administrative region of China, criminalizes subversive, secessionist or terrorist activities and collusion with foreign forces to intervene in the city's affairs.
In some cases, mainland China will assume legal jurisdiction and suspects could be sent there for trial.
The changes are seen by many as Beijing’s boldest move yet to erase the legal firewall between the semi-autonomous territory and the mainland’s authoritarian Communist Party system.
Beijing has said that Britain's move to offer refuge to Hong Kong residents constitutes interference in internal matters.