Tens of thousands of people mobbed Hong Kong's Immigration Department today, the last day to apply for permission to move to Britain and escape Communist rule when the British colony reverts to China in 1997.
Laborers, doctors, clerks, homemakers and teachers squeezed into a line that snaked hundreds of yards through downtown Hong Kong. At least 50 people had spent the night, and several children fainted in the hot, humid weather.
Immigration officials estimated that at least 45,000 people stood in line. By 9 p.m., 9,673 heads of households had applied for the nationality package, they said. This was in addition to an estimated 26,000 who submitted applications in previous days.
"If we don't apply, we'll lose out and become poor like all Communists," said John Lam, a 41-year-old office manager in a trading house, who had been waiting for six hours.
"I'm doing this for my son," he said, pointing to a baby sleeping in a pink stroller.
The British government is offering about 225,000 Hong Kong residents the right to live in Britain. According to Hong Kong immigration officials, about 3.5 million of Hong Kong's 5.7 million people are eligible for consideration under the package.
Already more than 1,000 people a week are emigrating, mainly to Australia and Canada, because they fear a loss of rights and opportunities when Hong Kong comes under Chinese rule.
Mothers waiting in line today carried children strapped to their chests. Old women leaned on walkers and business people spoke into portable phones, cutting deals as they waited their turn.
C. B. Chan, assistant director of immigration, said the department would stay open until midnight to accommodate the crowd.
To gain consideration under the British nationality package, applicants first have to become permanent residents of Hong Kong. That is achieved by birth, by marriage or by living and working in the territory for a certain number of years.
Once they become permanent residents, they can apply for the right to live in Britain.