UK Offers Refuge and Path to Citizenship for Nearly 3 Million Hong Kongers if China Imposes Security Law

The Chinese and Hong Kong flags flutter at the office of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in Beijing, China, June 3, 2020. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged Wednesday to overhaul immigration rules to grant almost 3 million Hong Kong residents a pathway to British citizenship, a response to Beijing’s move to impose a far-reaching security law here that many fear will dismantle the city’s political freedoms.

Johnson’s vow comes as the United States, Canada, Australia and others face pressure from lawmakers and human rights groups to offer residency to Hong Kong people fleeing deteriorating political circumstances in the former British colony, which was promised a high degree of autonomy under the terms of its 1997 handover to China.

London’s move, which Johnson said he would implement when China formally enacts the security law, could emerge as among the most significant ramifications of Beijing’s effort to undercut Hong Kong’s freedoms and bring the city more closely under the Communist Party’s authoritarian rule. It would potentially grant British residency and working rights to up to 40 percent of Hong Kong’s population, raising the specter of a brain drain from the Asian financial center.

In op-eds published in the South China Morning Post and the Times of London, Johnson said the Chinese security law — which will criminalize broadly worded offenses such as sedition, subversion and foreign interference — gives Britain “no choice but to uphold our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong.”

Specifics of the new law are scant, but the approved proposal will allow Chinese security forces to operate in Hong Kong for the first time, enabling them to crush dissent as they do on the Chinese mainland. Hong Kong has been rocked in recent times by widespread protests calling for greater democracy and opposing Beijing’s tightening grip.

Johnson wrote that his government would allow holders of British National (Overseas), or BNO, passports to come to Britain for a renewable period of 12 months and gain the right to work. The move “could place them on a route to citizenship,” he said.

These passports, a holdover from British rule issued to people born before 1997, currently allow holders to stay in Britain for six months but do not afford work rights or residency. About 350,000 people in Hong Kong hold these documents, but an additional 2.5 million are eligible.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Shibani Mahtani