British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday reiterated the UK's plans for some of the “biggest changes” to the country's visa system in order to allow around three million Hong Kong nationals a path to British citizenship if China does not back off over a new controversial national security law.
Writing in ‘The Times', the UK prime minister said the offer would be triggered only if China presses ahead with the new law which threatens to strip the former British colony of its traditional freedoms.
An estimated 3,50,000 Hongkongers hold British National (Overseas) passports and another 2.5 million would be eligible to apply for them. At present, these BNO passports only allow visa-free access to the UK for up to six months.
“If China imposes its national security law, the British government will change our 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 could place them on a route to citizenship,” writes Johnson.
“This would amount to one of the biggest changes in our visa system in history. If it proves necessary, the British government will take this step and take it willingly,” he said.
The offer was laid out by UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in the House of Commons on Tuesday and Johnson stressed that he hopes things don't have to come to it as China risks “inflaming” the situation in Hong Kong with the new law.
He added: “As China plays a greater role on the international stage — commensurate with its economic prowess — then its authority will rest not simply on its global weight but on its reputation for fair dealing and magnanimity.
“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.”
China is facing mounting international criticism over the planned new law, which many in Hong Kong fear would end their unique freedoms not enjoyed in the rest of China.
Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 as part of an agreement signed at the time, covered in what is called Basic Law. The UK believes that China's latest moves are in violation of that agreement.
The National People's Congress in China, adopted a proposal last month for a national security law for Hong Kong.
China's Foreign Minister, State Councillor Wang Yi, subsequently made clear that the legislation will seek to ban “treason, secession, sedition and subversion” and it is expected to be published in full shortly.
“If China proceeds, this would be in direct conflict with its obligations under the joint declaration, a legally binding treaty registered with the United Nations. Britain would then have no choice but to uphold our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong,” Johnson said in his warning.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian reiterated China's stance that the agreement with the UK, known as the Sino-British Joint Declaration, was essentially null and void.
“The UK has had no sovereignty, governance or supervision over Hong Kong since its return (to Chinese rule)," Zhao said at a daily briefing.
“Therefore, the British side has no right to cite the Sino-British Joint Declaration to make irresponsible remarks on Hong Kong affairs and interfere in China's internal affairs," Zhao said.