Fleeing Hong Kong: British Visas Offer ‘Lifeboat’ for Pro-Democracy Activists

Britain is preparing for tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens to apply for special visas to settle in Britain after the government launched a new plan offering fast-track citizenship to some residents of the former British colony, in response to China’s crackdown on basic freedoms.An online application process was launched last month, and Britain says it expects around 300,000 Hong Kong citizens to apply in the first five years.Among them is Finn Lau, a 27-year-old exile who is now living in London and studying part time at a university.As a student in 2014, Lau was a key player in the “umbrella” pro-democracy protests against interference from China. A new job took him to Britain in 2019, just weeks before protests reignited over Beijing’s attempt to impose an extradition bill on the territory that would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China.FILE – Protesters gather with flags to mourn the loss of Hong Kong’s political freedoms, in Leicester Square, central London, Dec. 12, 2020.Lau has just submitted his application.“Some people may think that the BN(O) scheme is not a direct tool that could [be used as] leverage against the [Chinese Communist Party], because the CCP won’t be hurt by the BN(O) scheme,” Lau told VOA.“But on the other hand, some people may think that this offers a kind of lifeboat to Hong Kongers. And perhaps there is a third group of people who may think that the BN(O) scheme or lifeboats could offer people [the chance] to carry capital out of Hong Kong, which is indirectly [antagonizing] … Beijing.”While grateful, Lau and other Hong Kong exiles want Britain to do more.“We just think that maybe some more actions could be carried out by the U.K. government. For example, maybe some sort of Magnitsky-style sanctions under which the assets of some Hong Kong government officials, like Carrie Lam, could be frozen by the U.K. government.”Britain has said it is considering such sanctions. Reacting to new legislation passed Thursday by Beijing, which will effectively allow China to choose candidates in Hong Kong’s elections, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, “This is the latest step by Beijing to hollow out the space for democratic debate in Hong Kong, contrary to the promises made by China itself.“This can only further undermine confidence and trust in China living up to its international responsibilities and legal obligations as a leading member of the international community,” Raab said, adding that Britain was assessing the legislation for a possible breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.Meanwhile, Lau and other exiles continue to fight for Hong Kong’s freedom — buoyed by Britain’s BN(O) visa. But Lau said that even on the streets of London, he does not feel safe from the long arm of China’s Communist Party.