Tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents, worried about their future after China's takeover in 1997, flooded the Immigration Department on Wednesday, the last day to apply for a special program to emigrate to Britain.
More than 18,000 heads of households submitted applications for the nationality package by 12:30 this morning when police clanged shut a portable gate 30 minutes after the deadline.
At least 45,000 people, including children and other dependents, waited in line throughout the day and no one appeared to have been turned away, immigration officials said.
The nationality package will grant full British citizenship to 50,000 families, or about 225,000 Hong Kong residents. Hong Kong immigration officials said that about 3.5 million of Hong Kong's 5.7 million people are eligible.
With Hong Kong scheduled to return to Chinese control in 1997 after 99 years of British colonial rule, more than 1,000 people a week are emigrating. Britain offered the program in an attempt to stop Hong Kong's most skilled people from fleeing the territory.
China opposes the British plan and has threatened not to acknowledge the British passports of Hong Kong residents.
On Wednesday, people were packed 12 deep outside the Immigration Department. The line snaked for almost a mile from morning until late in the night. About 50 people spent Tuesday night sleeping on an overpass.
"If I don't get out of Hong Kong by 1997, I'm finished, I know it," said Li Qiang, a 42-year-old laborer who fled Communist China during China's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. "I hate the Communists and I'm afraid they want to get me."
Most of those eligible don't have to formally apply, because they already can prove they are British subjects, either with British-Hong Kong passports or Hong Kong birth certificates. Officials said thousands of people needlessly lined up.