The UK has set itself on a collision course with China after broadening its offer on extended visa rights from 350,000 to almost 3m Hong Kong residents.
After Beijing announced plans this week to proceed with the imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab retaliated with an “unprecedented” pledge to expand visa rights for British National (Overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong from six to 12 months and “provide a pathway to future citizenship”.
About 350,000 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.
However, the Home Office clarified on Friday that the pledge to extend visa rights would apply to anyone eligible to apply for a BNO passport currently living in Hong Kong, of which there are estimated to be about 2.9m. Most of the additional 2.55m people have held a BNO passport in the past but not renewed it.
The move was made because “the new security law will undermine the existing legal commitments to protect the rights of Hong Kong people”, the Home Office said. It is symbolic of the UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s new willingness to adopt a tougher stance towards Beijing.
With increasing concerns that Beijing did not disclose the initial scale of the coronavirus outbreak, Mr Johnson is under pressure from his own backbench MPs to reset relations with Beijing.
The latest display of defiance against China comes after Mr Raab announced an end to “business as usual” and the government started drawing up plans to force a full phase-out of the Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei from Britain’s 5G networks within three years.
China on Friday hit back at the UK’s pledge to extend visa rights, arguing that the two countries had previously agreed a memorandum stating that the UK would not give Hong Kong BNO passport holders right of residency.
It has argued the agreement was reached alongside the 1984 Joint Declaration, which established the “one country, two systems” arrangement that guarantees Hong Kong a level of autonomy.
“All of our Hong Kong Chinese compatriots are Chinese citizens,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Friday. He threatened that if the “UK unilaterally changes its approach” on the matter of British Nationals (Overseas), China would “resolutely oppose” and “reserve the right to use appropriate countermeasures”.
Peter Goldsmith, a former attorney-general, advised ministers earlier this year that granting BNOs the right to live in the UK would not breach the Joint Declaration.
Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford China Centre, said the offer to BNOs signalled a response “to something the Chinese government has been saying over the last few years, which is that some aspects of the Joint Declaration don’t really apply”.
He said: “In some sense this potential move could be a statement that if China is not willing to accept that all aspects of the Joint Declaration are valid, then the UK feels that it too can look at aspects of it and decide where it wants to alter things. That may be part of the logic behind this particular move.”
Prof Mitter added that the threat of offering visa extensions and a path to potential citizenship would be “particularity worrying” for the Chinese government if large numbers of wealth creators connected to the business community decided they wanted to take up the offer and become resident in London.
“That would be really problematic for the [Chinese] government”, he said. “It would be an international sign of lack of confidence in Hong Kong and harm its status as an international business centre.”
Cui Hongjian, head of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, a foreign ministry think-tank, said the BNO pledge would have a “negative” effect on the mutual trust between China and the UK but that it was more of a “political and diplomatic gesture”.
China was prepared for “this negative reaction and will not retreat”, added Cheng Xiaohe, deputy director of Renmin university’s Center for China’s International Strategic Studies. “But I think China will not treat the countries the same way. China will focus on its main target, the ‘Big Brother’ — the US.”