Britain offers a home to Hong Kong citizens after China crackdown

British National (Overseas) passports are held by 350,000 people in Hong Kong, with a further 2.5 million eligible for them. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Boris Johnson's government will allow almost three million Hong Kong citizens to move to Britain, risking a further escalation of tensions with China after it enforced a sweeping security law on the former British colony.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday, the British prime minister said the new legislation contravenes the 1984 treaty between London and Beijing, which set out the "one country, two systems" approach to protect Hong Kong's autonomy when it returned to Chinese control in 1997.

Under the UK plan, the status of British National (Overseas) passport holders will be upgraded to offer them a path to British citizenship. BNO passports are held by 350,000 people in Hong Kong, with a further 2.5 million eligible for them.

China accused Britain of meddling in its internal affairs after the proposal was first put forward in May.

"The enactment and the imposition of this national security law constitutes a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British joint declaration," Mr Johnson said. "It violates Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and is in conflict with Hong Kong's Basic Law."

Mr Johnson said he'd made clear "that if China continued down this path we would introduce a new route for those with British National Overseas status to enter the UK, granting them limited leave to remain, with the ability to live and work in the UK and thereafter to apply for citizenship - and that is is precisely what we will do now".

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the new "bespoke immigration route" will allow holders of BNO status to come to Britain without the current six-month limit, granting them five years limited leave to remain, with the ability to live and work in the UK. After these five years, they will be able to apply for settled status and, after a further 12 months with that status, for citizenship.

Family dependents will also be allowed into Britain and there will be no limit on the numbers allowed to apply, he said. However, Mr Raab made clear he expects "a large number" of those who are eligible to remain in Hong Kong or move elsewhere in the region.

The spat over passports is one of a series of flash-points in Britain-China relations, which have deteriorated on issues ranging from the British response to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong to the ongoing debate over whether Huawei Technologies can retain a role in building the Britain's next-generation 5G telecommunications networks.

In an interview with Sky News in June, Mr Raab said Britain would be prepared to sacrifice a post-Brexit free trade deal with China to protect Hong Kong citizens.

"We want a positive relationship with China," Mr Raab told Parliament on Wednesday (July 1). "It is precisely because we respect China as a leading member of the international community that we expect the Chinese government to meet its international obligations to live up to its international responsibilities."

Britain is not alone in criticising China's new national security law, which came into force just ahead of the July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule, a symbolic occasion usually marked by mass protests against Beijing.

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said Hong Kong can no longer be considered sufficiently autonomous, and US President Donald Trump is considering revoking some or all of its special trade privileges.

Meanwhile the G-7 group of nations has said the law would jeopardise a system "which has allowed Hong Kong to become one of the world's most prosperous regions". The national security law is aimed at punishing acts of secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and "collusion" with foreign and external forces. Separately, Hong Kong lawmakers passed legislation on June 4 that would punish anyone who shows disrespect for China's national anthem - something that is already a crime in the mainland.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is supported by Beijing, has defended the plan, insisting it has wide public support and the city's freedoms would be preserved.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.