Boris Johnson is promising millions of Hong Kongers a potential escape route from China's harsh new security law: a path to UK citizenship.
In a column published in British and Hong Kong newspapers Wednesday, Johnson pledged massive changes to his country’s immigration rules to allow as many as 3 million Hong Kongers to live and work in the U.K., in response to Beijing’s proposed national security law that has set off massive street protests in Hong Kong. Johnson said the Chinese law, targeting subversion, sedition and foreign interference in the territory, would undermine the city’s freedoms and autonomy, in breach of the terms of Britain’s handover of the city to China in 1997.
“Many people in Hong Kong fear their way of life — which China pledged to uphold — is under threat,” he wrote. “If China proceeds to justify their fears, then Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away.”
If the Chinese law was introduced, he wrote, Britain was prepared to make “one of the biggest changes to our visa system in history” by extending the rights of holders of British National (Overseas), or BNO, passports — a special category of British passport that was offered to Hong Kong residents at the time of the handover.
At present, the passports only allow for visa-free access to the UK for up to six months, and do not automatically grant holders the right to work. But under the proposed changes, Johnson wrote, passport holders would be eligible to stay for 12 months on a renewable basis and given the right to work, “which could place them on a route to citizenship.”
He added: “If it proves necessary, Britain will take this step and take it willingly.”
Currently about 350,000 Hong Kongers hold BNO passports. But Johnson’s column suggested the extended rights could be offered to the 2.5 million others in the city who were eligible for the passport by virtue of being Hong Kong citizens born before the handover in 1997.
BNO passport holders have long lobbied for the UK to grant them greater rights, especially as fears of tightening Chinese control of the city have grown. According to reports, long lines have grown at courier offices in the city in recent weeks, as people renew or apply for the passports.
The move to open the door to millions of Hong Kongers comes only months after Johnson’s government voted against an amendment, accepted by the previous Conservative administration, which would have allowed unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with family members in the UK. Opposition MPs criticized the vote as “inhumane” at the time of the January vote.
China responded angrily to Britain’s proposal, with foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian warning that Britain must “immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs and China’s internal affairs, or this will definitely backfire.”
“We advise 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, Zhao said at a briefing Wednesday. China insists that the law — which is being drafted by senior officials, and is expected be imposed directly on the city around September — is needed to tackle “terrorism” and “separatism” in a city which has been roiled by unrest.
The comments came amid growing calls for Britain to stand up to China over its treatment of Hong Kong, amid fears that the national security law will spell an end to the city’s way of life. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, told British MPs Wednesday that it was crucial that Britain stand up to China for Hong Kong’s unique identity to have any chance of survival.
“If China cannot keep their word with Hong Kong, when will they keep their word?” he said. “We must stand up to China’s bullying.”
Cover: Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture date: Wednesday June 3, 2020. Credit: House of Commons/PA Wire URN:53991507 (Press Association via AP Images)