LONDON - Britain and China are engaged in a heated dispute over plans to make it easier for some Hong Kong residents to emigrate to Britain.
The British government announced the proposal last month in response to China’s ongoing attempt to impose a new security law on Hong Kong, following violent anti-government protests in 2019. Critics say the proposed legislation would make any form of anti-government criticism or protest a criminal act, with the potential to be charged with terrorism. They fear it could also allow Chinese security agencies to set up bases in the city.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, whose 2017 appointment was approved by Beijing, said Monday the proposed security law was needed in the territory. “The people of Hong Kong want to see stability again. They want a safe environment to work and live in,” Lam said at a news conference in Hong Kong. She described opponents of the security law as “enemies of the people.”
Britain says the security bill represents a clear breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed when it handed over the territory to China in 1997. That agreement established a constitution called the Basic Law giving Hong Kong semi-autonomy, alongside the “one country, two systems” principle which gave the people of Hong Kong certain rights including freedom of speech and an independent judiciary.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab reiterated Britain’s commitment to that agreement Monday. “We've made a historic commitment to the people of Hong Kong to protect their autonomy and protect their freedoms. And more importantly, so has China. So we will hold them to those responsibilities,” Raab told reporters.
As part of that commitment, it seems Britain may offer Hong Kong residents an “emergency exit.”
Britain issued so-called British Nationals Overseas passports to people who were Hong Kong residents before the 1997 handover. The government says around 350,000 people currently hold such a passport and over 2.5 million people who lived in Hong Kong before the British handover are eligible to apply.
The British government is proposing to make it easier for holders of those passports and their immediate families to move to Britain, with what it calls a “clear pathway to citizenship” after five years.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined the plans in an article for The Times newspaper June 3. “This would amount to one of the biggest changes to our visa system in history. If it proves necessary Britain will take this step and take it willingly,” Johnson wrote.
The proposal is targeted both at Hong Kong residents and at the Communist Party in Beijing, according to Professor Steve Tsang of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, who spoke to VOA on Monday via Skype.
“Implicit in the British plan is the possibility that Hong Kong could lose a very significant percentage of its talented people,” Tsang said. “From the perspective of Beijing, they want Hong Kong to do well. They are not, however, prepared to pay any price to keep the talent in place in Hong Kong, particularly if those talents also happen to be ‘troublemakers’ for Beijing.”
“Beijing believes that they have millions of very well-educated Chinese on the mainland with Western educations who are perfectly capable of backfilling people who leave Hong Kong and continue to make Hong Kong a success and be very loyal to the Communist Party,” Tsang added.
Until the policy is finalized, British ministers have proposed emergency measures to allow BNO passport holders easier entry rights into Britain. It’s the biggest change in policy since the handover, said Johnny Patterson of advocacy group Hong Kong Watch. “It signals not only an incredibly generous and meaningful immigration shift but also a sea change in Sino-British relations potentially,” Patterson said in a recent VOA interview.
Professor Tsang said there is a notable lack of policy detail: “I think the ambiguity is very much by design. What the British government has offered Hong Kong essentially is to send a message both to people in Hong Kong that they are not forgotten and a message to China that there will be responses from the U.K., (and) hopefully the Chinese government will back off.”
Beijing has warned that the British citizenship offer would itself breach the 1997 Joint Declaration. Until recently Britain agreed with that verdict. China’s attempt to impose the new security law appears to have changed the calculation in London.