BNO and SAR passports Photo: Asia Times

More Hong Kong families could consider moving to the United Kingdom as the British government will reportedly loosen visa requirements for British National (Overseas) passport holders.

The British government will allow one of the parents to stay and work in Hong Kong while his or her spouse could bring their children to study in the United Kingdom, the Apple Daily reported on Saturday, citing two unnamed sources.

Such an arrangement was dubbed the “astronaut plan” in Hong Kong, and was used by tens of thousands of the territory’s people who were separated from their spouses for their migration plans before 1997.

Emily Lau, a former lawmaker of the Democratic Party, was quoted as saying in a report that the British government originally expected that BNO passport holders would apply to move to the UK as a family without leaving anyone in Hong Kong.

However, she said the UK’s consulate-general in Hong Kong had told her that if the applicant wanted to stay and work longer in Hong Kong, the application could be handled flexibly.

According to guidance released by the UK government on July 22, any BNO passport holder who applies to move to the UK should arrive as a family unit. Another statement published by the UK Home Office on October 22 showed that the applicant and his or her family members must all apply at the same time.

“If your family members do not apply with you, they will not be able to apply for the Hong Kong BNO visa to join you later,” according to the statement.

The possible relaxation of the BNO visa scheme was good news as it would provide more flexibility to families who wanted to move, said Ng Chi-sam, a TV program host and commentator.

Those who were several years away from receiving pensions would benefit because they would get a big cut in their funds if they had to apply for early retirement, Ng said. However, many younger families would probably not consider becoming “astronauts” as the political situation was deteriorating rapidly in Hong Kong, he said.

Chau Sze-tat, a political commentator and popular YouTuber, said it was good to have more flexibility for BNO visas but families could benefit only if the person who would stay and work in Hong Kong could not be persecuted.

Chau said in the coming few years that not only civil servants would have to take an oath that they would uphold the Basic Law. Teachers and employees of all public organizations would probably be required to do the same, he said.

Chau added that it was unclear whether the Hong Kong government would forbid people from leaving the city and implement a social credit system to limit people’s freedom in the future.

On November 12, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Beijing’s imposition of rules to disqualify elected legislators in Hong Kong constituted a clear breach of the legally binding Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in a file photo. Photo: AFP

Raab said China had once again broken its promises and undermined Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. He said the UK would stand up for the people of Hong Kong, and call out violations of their rights and freedoms.

On November 23, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office published its Six-Monthly Report on Hong Kong: January to June 2020. It said Hong Kong’s Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen said in June that the government would seek to strengthen civil servants’ national identity and their understanding of “one country, two systems” and “was considering whether civil servants should take an oath of allegiance.”

The UK government said it “would be concerned if new requirements on civil servants undermined the provision in the Joint Declaration that the ‘appointment and promotion of public servants shall be on the basis of qualifications, experience and ability.’”

Nip wrote in a statement to the Legislative Council on December 2 that if any officer who had already assumed duty on the date of the circular but neglected or refused to take the oath or sign the declaration, he or she would be regarded as refusing to accept the duties of a civil servant and hence not suitable to perform the duties of a civil servant.

The appointment authority would terminate the service of the officer concerned, he added.

Many civil servants have said that they were worried that they would lose their rights to UK citizenship after they took the oath to the Basic Law, which now includes the national security law.

A UK-based Hong Kong YouTuber said in his channel “King & Prince” that those who were about to retire could buy time with this “astronaut plan”, but he would not recommend younger families to stay in Hong Kong.

He said when more and more Hong Kong families moved out with their money, it was very likely that the Hong Kong government would impose new rules to block people from withdrawing their funds. He said many people were worried after a pro-democracy lawmaker had his and his family members’ bank accounts were frozen by Hong Kong police.

Ted Hui, a former lawmaker who was on bail for protest-related offenses, announced last week that he was going into exile in the UK. He claimed that at least five accounts belonging to him and his relatives had been frozen by banks including HSBC. The accounts were said to contain millions of dollars of the family’s life savings.

An HSBC spokesman said on Monday that the bank would not comment on individual cases, but it was “extremely disappointed” that facts had been distorted.

The spokesman said the bank would closely monitor any negative reports in the market and strengthen monitoring of relevant accounts based on the circumstances. It said its operations must comply with the law in relevant jurisdictions.

Police said they were investigating Hui for national security offenses and potential money-laundering relating to a crowd-funding initiative. Officers said HK$850,000 (US$109,666) had been frozen. Hui said money he raised to pay for private prosecutions in protest-related cases had been held by a law firm.

According to the Telegraph, the British Foreign Office said the number of Hong Kong residents holding BNO passports will more than double to 733,000 by the end of this year from 349,881 in February. There are still 200,000 BNO applications pending, the report said.

Ted Hui from the pan-democrats is expelled from the legislature in Hong Kong. He says the freezing of his and his family bank accounts is political revenge. Photo: Alan Siu/EYEPRESS/AFP

Citing data provided by the UK’s Home Office, another media report said 216,000 Hong Kong people had been granted BNO passports in the first 10 months of this year. In October, 59,798 BNO passports were issued. Based on eight working hours per day, the UK government issued five BNO passports per minute.

The British government had expected that in the first year.

British Consul General in Hong Kong and Macau Andrew Heyn said on RTHK TV’s The Pulse that the British government expected that 250,000 to 320,000 Hong Kong people would go to the UK in the next five years. He said about 120,000 to 150,000 Hong Kong residents would travel to the UK with BNO visas next year.

According to a leaked video of an interview at i-Cable TV’s studio, Chief Executive Carrie Lam told an anchor during a break that she thought the exodus topic had been exaggerated. Lam said there was no better place for people than Hong Kong.

Read: UK will pay for issuing BNO visas, says Beijing

Read: Pension fund withdrawals fail to back up HK exodus