Hong Kong will from Wednesday accept applications for dependant visas from people who've entered into same-sex unions abroad, as immigration policy is revised in light of the government's defeat in a Court of Final Appeal (CFA) case over the summer.
But in announcing the changes, the administration stressed that the move only affects non-local dependants and has no bearing whatsoever on Hong Kong's stance on gay marriage or same-sex unions, which are not legally recognised in the city.
Eligibility for dependant visas will be extended to people who have entered into an overseas same-sex civil partnership, same-sex civil union, same-sex marriage, opposite-sex civil partnership or opposite-sex civil union. Gay marriage is singled out in the government statement by being put in quotation marks.
The government said it had decided to revise its immigration policy after a review conducted in view of a court case involving a British woman – known as QT in legal proceedings – who had been denied a dependant visa when her female partner moved to Hong Kong for work in 2011. The two women had earlier entered into a civil partnership in the UK.
QT initially lost a judicial review over the visa arrangements in March 2016 at the Court of First Instance, but won an appeal in September 2017.
In July this year, the government lost a challenge against the Court of Appeal ruling at the city's top court, which said there was no rational connection between the policy of only granting dependant visas to spouses in a marriage consisting of one man and one woman, and the administration's aim of attracting foreign talent and maintaining strict immigration control.
The government's statement on Tuesday said the new policy only applies to non-local dependants, does not affect the city's definition of a "spouse" and has no bearing on any other policies or rights under Hong Kong law.
"As the CFA recognised in its judgement in the QT case, a valid marriage under Hong Kong law is heterosexual and monogamous and is not a status open to couples of the same sex," a statement said.
"The revision has nothing to do with legal recognition of same-sex civil partnership, same-sex civil union, 'same-sex marriage', opposite-sex civil partnership or opposite-sex civil union in Hong Kong. Nor should there be any expectation of such [a] plan by the government."
Sponsors for people seeking dependant visas can be local SAR residents, a government spokesman said, enabling Hongkongers who have a same-sex union abroad to bring their partners to the city.
Human rights lawyer Michael Vidler said the policy change was long overdue and even with it, Hong Kong still lags behind many other places on such matters.
"The Hong Kong government, for reasons best known to the Hong Kong government, is refusing to take the lead on this issue, refusing to recognise reality. And yet again, this policy or this statement is a recognition of that fact. They cannot see the writing is on the wall," Vidler told RTHK's Candice Wong.