The UK has responded to Hong Kong's draconian new national security law by confirming it will offer a pathway to citizenship for up to 3 million people, giving them a potential escape from Beijing's tightening grip on the city.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday that the sweeping national security law imposed over the city on Tuesday was a "clear and serious breach" of the 1985 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which guaranteed that the city's autonomy and freedoms would be protected for 50 years after the 1997 handover.
In response to the new law, he said, the UK would follow through on its pledge to extend citizenship rights to a large group of Hong Kongers who hold a special type of British passport — the British National (Overseas), or BNO, passport — to allow them to live, work, and eventually gain citizenship in the UK.
Johnson said the law, drafted by Beijing and immediately applied in a sweeping crackdown on protesters Wednesday, "violates Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and threatens the freedoms and rights protected by the joint declaration".
"We made clear that if China continued down this path we would introduce a new route for those with British National (Overseas) status to enter the UK, granting them limited leave to remain with the ability to live and work in the UK and thereafter to apply for citizenship. And that is precisely what we will do now."
The BNO is a special category of British passport, with restricted rights, that was offered to Hong Kong residents at the time of the handover. Currently, about 350,000 Hong Kongers hold the passports, but an estimated 3 million of the city’s 7.5 million residents are eligible for them, by virtue of being Hong Kong citizens born before the handover in 1997.
BNO passport holders were previously only allowed visa-free access to the U.K. for up to six months, and did not automatically receive the right to work. But the British Foreign Office said Wednesday that, under the new rules, eligible Hong Kong residents could live and work in the UK for five years, then apply for settled status, and then for citizenship a year later.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said there would be no quotas applied to the new pathway, meaning that an estimated 3 million Hong Kongers eligible for the passports would have the right to move to the UK.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, told VICE News that "certainly not all" those eligible would make the painful decision to leave.
"I think the number who will take this up will be relatively small, as most do not want to leave Hong Kong," he said. "But the extent and the viciousness of the new law is such that there are plenty of very frightened people in Hong Kong, particularly among the better educated and the younger ones who are unwilling to keep their mouths shut."
Other Western countries, such as the United States, Canada or Australia, remained more popular destinations for Hong Kongers looking to leave.
"But those who are frightened of their prospects and safety in Hong Kong, and have no option of going to the USA, Canada or Australia, will take up the offer," he said, adding that the British government’s move was a "a positive step in discharging the UK’s responsibility to people in Hong Kong" as the city’s former colonial ruler.
Simon Cheng Man-kit, a BNO passport holder who has been granted political asylum in the UK, told VICE News he welcomed Britain’s moves to extend citizenship rights to Hong Kongers.
Cheng is a former employee of the British consulate in Hong Kong, who Britain says was tortured by Chinese secret police while he was detained for 15 days during a work trip to Mainland China in August last year. Cheng has been living in exile in London since November, and announced at a press conference Wednesday he had been granted political asylum in the UK.
He said the decision reflected Britain's evaporating confidence in China respecting the "one country, two systems" policy that had protected freedoms in the former British colony.
Beijing responded angrily when Britain announced the proposal last month, accusing the UK of meddling in China’s internal affairs. In a briefing to reporters, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian warned the UK "to step back from the brink, abandon their Cold War mentality and colonial mindset, and recognise and respect the fact that Hong Kong has returned" to China.