Boris Johnson has opened the path to what he called one of the “biggest changes” to the British visa system, stating he was ready to offer a right to live and work in the UK to any of the nearly 3 million Hong Kong citizens eligible for a British National Overseas passport.
Ministers have been ambivalent since last Thursday on whether the UK government’s offer of an extendable 12-month visa would be available only to the 350,000 current BNO passport holders in Hong Kong, or would also include the more than 2.5 million eligible to apply for the passport.
In the Commons on Tuesday, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, implied the offer was available only to the narrower group, stressing the government needed to be realistic about what it could offer. However, writing in the Times on Wednesday,, Johnson appeared to make a far wider offer to all those eligible to hold a BNO passport.
The prime minister’s offer would come into play only if China presses ahead with new security laws that strip Hong Kong of its traditional freedoms.
Johnson wrote in the Times that if the security laws were pursued, “Britain would have no choice but to uphold our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong”.
He said: “Today about 350,000 people hold British Nationals (Overseas) passports and another 2.5 million people would be eligible to apply for them. At present these passports allow for visa free access for up to six months.
“If China imposes its national security law, the British government will change its immigration rules and allow any holder of these passports from Hong Kong to come to the UK for a renewable period of 12 months and be given further immigration rights including the right to work which would place them on the route to citizenship.”
He added: “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.”
In the Commons, Raab seemed more circumspect, saying: “We have said that we will allow the 300,000-plus passport holders, along with their dependants, to come to the UK in the way I described.”
It is not known how many of these eligible for a BNO passport would apply, but Raab said in the event of a mass exodus he would hope the burden would be shared internationally.
The ambiguity in the UK government position about the precise extent of its offer to Hong Kong citizens, and the pathway to citizenship, may reflect differences within the cabinet. It could also reflect a British desire to leave China guessing about the potential scale of a British-enabled brain drain from Hong Kong, if Beijing seeks to suppress human rights in the territory.
Johnson also used his article to make a final appeal to China to reconsider its actions, urging the leaders in Beijing to realise that with power came the need for magnanimity.
He wrote: “Britain does not seek to prevent China’s rise; on the contrary we will work side by side on all the issues where our interests converge, from trade to climate change. We want a modern and mature relationship, based on mutual respect and recognising China’s place in the world.
“And it is precisely because we welcome China as a leading member of the world community that we expect it to abide by international agreements.”
Martin Lee, a barrister, former legislator and co-drafter of the basic law, said the offers by foreign governments to help people from Hong Kong people were generous, but not enough.
“Because no matter how generous you are in the provision of passports and so on, there are still large numbers of people who are not eligible for one reason or another,” Lee told the Guardian.
This included young people who protested over the past year, more than 8,000 of whom were arrested and feared further charges under the national security laws.
“So I want more, and I want the international community to put their heads together and come up with a multinational sustainable solution for Hong Kong.”
He said Beijing had clearly breached its treaty obligations. The then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had made great efforts in 1997 to have the declaration supported by the international community and registered in the United Nations, Lee said, precisely to ensure Hong Kong’s elite residents and businesses did not flee. “When I say I want them to do more I mean hold China to the original policy.”
Johnson’s article was welcomed as a “remarkable intervention” by Johnny Patterson, director of the human rights NGO Hong Kong Watch. He said: “It is a watershed moment in Sino-British relations. No sitting PM has made a statement as bold as this on Hong Kong since the handover.
“It reflects two things, first the severity of the situation on the ground, and second the fact that the British government genuinely, and rightly, feel a sense of duty to citizens of Hong Kong and are going to do all they can to stop them becoming the collateral damage of escalating geopolitical tensions.”