© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Pro-democracy protester participates in a lunchtime protest against the national security law in a Hong Kong shopping mall
LONDON (Reuters) – Nearly 5,000 Hong Kong citizens have applied to live, work and study in the UK under a new visa scheme that opens a path to British citizenship for people fleeing China’s crackdown on the former colony. reported The Times newspaper. London made changes to its visa rules to give millions of Hong Kong residents a chance to settle in Britain after China imposed a new security law that democracy activists say will end the freedoms promised to the territory in 1997. Under the rules, Hong Kong residents who hold a British Nationality Overseas Passport (BNO) will be allowed to live in the UK for five years and then apply for “residence status” and citizenship. About half of the 5,000 applications received were from Hong Kongers already in Britain, The Times reported, citing unidentified sources. Some 5.4 million Hong Kongers could ultimately be eligible for British citizenship under the scheme. Those people had already been offered a temporary settlement in the UK after fleeing China’s security crackdown while waiting for the visa change. Britain’s Home Office declined to comment on the leaked information. A spokeswoman said the data will be released in the coming months. Britain and China have been arguing for months about what London and Washington say is an attempt to silence dissent in Hong Kong after the pro-democracy protests in 2019 and 2020. The British flag was raised over Hong Kong when the colony was returned to China in 1997 after more than 150 years of British rule, imposed after Britain defeated China in the First Opium War. Hong Kong’s autonomy was guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” agreement enshrined in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration signed by then-Chinese Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. China says Britain’s views on Hong Kong are clouded by an imperial hangover and that the territory needs national security law to counter harmful unrest. China and Hong Kong have said that they will no longer recognize the BNO passport as a valid travel document as of January 31. BNO status was created by Great Britain in 1987 specifically for Hong Kong residents. The British government has predicted that the new visa could attract more than 300,000 people and their dependents to Britain. Beijing said it would make them second-class citizens.