The UK government has opened a path to citizenship for more than 300,000 Hong Kong residents in a bold riposte to China’s security crackdown on its former colony.
Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, has pledged to extend visa rights for British National (Overseas) passport holders and facilitate their path to British citizenship unless Beijing rows back from plans to impose national security laws on Hong Kong.
The offer is a striking move from a government that is committed to restricting immigration and shut the door to free entry to the UK for EU citizens after voting through its Brexit deal last year.
It came after China formally approved a plan to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong, following increasing frustration in Beijing at the city’s failure to clamp down on pro-democracy protests. It will mark the first time the country has introduced a law that imposes criminal penalties into Hong Kong’s legal code, bypassing the city’s legislature.
About 315,000 people hold valid BNO passports, a document issued to Hong Kong residents born before the handover of the territory from UK to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
Those residents who registered for BNO status before the handover have the right to consular assistance but they are not British citizens and only have the right to come to the UK for six months.
Speaking on Thursday, Mr Raab announced this period would be extended to 12 months and “provide a pathway to future citizenship”. UK government officials said it was “the right thing to do”.
Mr Raab said: “If China continues down this path and implements this national security legislation, we will . . . allow those BNO passport holders to come to the UK and to apply to work and study for extendable periods of 12 months and that would itself provide a pathway to future citizenship.”
Some called for him to grant automatic citizenship to the BNOs. Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, welcomed the pledge and called for the government “to go further and recognise the full rights of British nationals”.
The governments of the US, UK, Australia and Canada released a rare joint statement on Thursday condemning Beijing’s latest move, saying it would undermine the “one country, two systems” framework put in place after the 1997 handover.
That framework laid out how Britain would end its century-and-a-half long rule over Hong Kong when its lease terminated and has guaranteed the territory a level of autonomy.
The agreement also ensured that Hong Kong enjoyed rights not seen on the Chinese mainland.
In 1972, a previous Conservative government made a similar gesture when it accepted more than 28,000 Ugandan Asians with British passports after they were banished by the Ugandan President Idi Amin — less than a tenth of the number of Hong Kong residents who would qualify under the new proposals.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “We are deeply concerned about China’s legislation related to national security in Hong Kong. We have been very clear that the security legislation risks undermining the principle of one country, two systems.
“We are in close contact with our international partners on this and the foreign secretary spoke to US secretary [of state Mike] Pompeo last night.”
The spokesman added: “The steps taken by the Chinese government place the Joint Declaration under direct threat and do undermine Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.”