The government has appeared to invite hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents to make UK citizenship bids amid concerns over China’s planned national security law, which critics warn would eviscerate the notion of “one country, two systems”.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said the UK would allow the roughly 300,000 people in Hong Kong who hold British national overseas (BNO) passports to stay in the country for 12 months, instead of the current six, unless China scraps the proposed law.
He added that by allowing BNO passport holders to apply to work and study for extendable periods of 12 months, this would “provide a pathway to future citizenship” – stopping short of pledging definite amnesty.
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The diplomatic gambit came as Mr Raab and his counterparts in the US, Canada and Australia published a joint statement warning the law “would curtail the Hong Kong people’s liberties, and in doing so, dramatically erode Hong Kong’s autonomy and the system that made it so prosperous”.
Noting that “Hong Kong has flourished as a bastion of freedom”, they emphasised their “deep concerns” and warned China’s planned law was “in direct conflict” its obligations under the principles of the Sino-British declaration, agreed when Britain returned the former colony to China in 1997.
The foreign ministers warned the unprecedented move risked undermining trust in Beijing during the coronavirus pandemic, when governments should be striving to enhance it, with Mr Raab adding: “We urge China to step back from the brink.”
However, 2,878 members of China’s mostly rubber-stamp parliament voted in favour of the law on Thursday. One delegate voted against, and six abstained.
The legislation will make “any act of treason, secession, sedition or subversion” in Hong Kong a criminal offence, and will allow China’s national intelligence agencies to set up bureaux in the city.
Communist Party officials will now draft the new legislation and it could be in force before the end of the summer.
The violent protests that rocked the city for much of 2019 after a proposed extradition bill quickly reignited with the new proposals, with tear gas once again stinging streets pounded by thousands of masked demonstrators and armed police.
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Activist Joshua Wong called Beijing’s decision “a direct assault on the will of Hong Kongers”, cautioning that it could kill democratic movements.
It came after the US declared it would no longer treat Hong Kong as autonomous from China as a result – a move that could have major ramifications for the city’s designated special trading status by the US, which has, until now, underpinned the city’s role as a global financial powerhouse.
Asked if a tightening of control had been inevitable post-handover, the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, said: “No. What has changed is Xi Jinping: Xi Jinping is a very different sort of dictator and he is one who wants to export what he thinks is China’s power.”
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said on Sunday that Hong Kong affairs were an internal matter for China, and “no external interference will be tolerated”.
“Excessive unlawful foreign meddling in Hong Kong affairs has placed China’s national security in serious jeopardy,” he said.
“[The proposed legislation] does not affect the rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents. And it does not affect the legitimate rights and interests of foreign investors in Hong Kong.”
While Beijing has not yet reacted to the UK’s threat to extend visa rights, some insisted Mr Raab had fallen short of pledging sufficient protection for Hong Kongers, with the Lib Dems calling for all the city’s residents to receive extended visa rights.
Bob Seeley, a Tory MP at the forefront of calls to help Hong Kong citizens, said: “It’s a good start, but more is needed, such as the right to work in the UK and fast-track to UK citizenship.”
Hong Kong-born playwright and King’s College London academic Dr Jingan Young said: “I can’t even begin. I am shaking with anger right now. This is the best they can come up with?
“Extending a f***ing worthless document for Hong Kongers (who can pay for themselves to be here for longer than 6 months). They are already here, Raab.
“This is a worthless 12 month tourist visa unless he is saying if you live here for a year, UK will give you citizenship.
“I have had every UK visa under the bloody sun. I’ve worked and studied here for 10 years (as a Hong Konger). I have no recourse to public funding. My life under Covid-19 is f***ed. Telling China you’re [going to] let a chosen few with BNO fuel your economy for 12 months is infuriating.”
Additional reporting by agencies