On Wednesday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson published an op-ed in Hong Kong’s largest English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, that directly warned Beijing against imposing a national security law on Hong Kong by threatening a major reform to the visa rights of some Hong Kong residents.
“If China imposes its national security law [on Hong Kong], the British government will change our immigration rules and allow any holder of [British National Overseas] passports from Hong Kong to come to the U.K. for a renewable period of 12 months and be given further immigration rights, including the right to work, which could place them on a route to citizenship,” Johnson wrote, claiming the move would be “one of the biggest changes in our visa system in British history.”
There have been calls in recent weeks, from within U.K. Parliament and elsewhere, for the British government to respond to what critics see as China’s erosion of the “one country, two systems” principle enacted when Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
Under that principle, Beijing pledged Hong Kong’s “current social and economic systems” would remain unchanged for 50 years and that Hong Kong would maintain a “high degree of autonomy.”
Beijing’s pledge was enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration—a binding UN treaty—which a chorus of international observers say Beijing has now violated by unilaterally imposing a law against “treason” on Hong Kong.
“Many people in Hong Kong fear their way of life—which China pledged to uphold—is under threat. If China proceeds to justify their fears, then Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away; instead we will honor our obligations and provide an alternative,” Johnson said.
British National Overseas (BNO) passports were created in 1985 specifically for Hong Kong citizens born prior to Hong Kong’s handover in 1997. However, BNO passports afford holders few rights as “British nationals.” Currently, BNO holders can visit the U.K. for six months without a visa and are denied the right of abode—meaning BNO holders have to go through regular immigration channels if they want to settle permanently in the U.K.
According to Johnson, there are currently around 350,000 BNO holders in Hong Kong and a further 2.5 million people who “would be eligible to apply.” Many BNO holders have let their passports expire, since holding one offers few advantages. However, as both pro-democracy protests and the pro-establishment response intensified last year, applications for BNO passport renewals surged. There were 120,000 applications last year, compared to 14,000 in 2018.
Yet Johnson’s announcement on Wednesday falls short of calls made by some members of parliament to grant BNOs the right of abode. Johnson also doesn’t say whether family members of BNO holders will be eligible to apply for BNO status, too. (Currently, they are not.)
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