On 28 May 2020, China’s legislature approved controversial national security laws to be implemented in Hong Kong. With these new laws, Beijing is trying to discourage and stop the protests against the mainland’s tightening grip on Hong Kong which have been taking place for over a year now.
The new laws have been criticised internationally as anti-democratic. Critics fear that the laws will undermine the city’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework which was created when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997. Under this system, Hong Kong was returned to the mainland on a number of conditions, including a certain level of autonomy in the region as well as the maintenance of certain defined freedoms that do not exist in mainland China, such as the freedom of expression.
In the ten years leading up to the handover, people from Hong Kong were entitled to apply to register for British National Overseas (BNO) status. Many did, either to retain a connection to the UK, or simply because this was their only way to obtain a passport at that time. For Hong Kong residents, the final deadline to apply for BOC was 1 July 1997, when Hong Kong was handed back to China.
Where a Hong Kong British Dependant Territory Citizen (BDTC), which is what Hong Kong residents were called under British rule, was left stateless due to the handover because they lost their BDTC status and China did not recognise them as Chinese nationals, they automatically received British Overseas Citizenship (BOC) by operation of law, even if they failed to register by the deadline. This means that although there may be relatively few people who actually hold a BNO passport, many more of them received a BOC or BNO status automatically. As such, as of February 2020, there are only about 350,000 holders of BN(O) passports in Hong Kong, but Home Office estimates of the amount of BNOs actually living in Hong Kong lie closer to 3 million. All of them would be eligible for a BNO passport should they request one.
Neither BOC or BNO status include the right of abode, meaning that holders do not have any automatic right to live and work in the UK. BNO and BOC citizens are not considered British citizens; they must comply with all immigration rules the same way that third-party nationals do. The status does not provide the holders with a “home country,” only to legal and consular protection. In light of the new national security laws passed by Beijing, however, the Home Office announced that the government was going to “explore options to allow BN(O)s to apply for leave to stay in the UK, if eligible, for an extendable period of 12 months.” Foreign secretary Dominic Raab explained that the government plans on granting everyone with BNO or BOC status in Hong Kong 12-month extendable periods of leave, providing a clear “path to citizenship” not only for the 350,000 current BNO passport holders in Hong Kong, but including the more than 2.9 million residents eligible to apply for the passport.
The Prime Minister called the opening of this path to citizenship one of the “biggest changes” to the British visa system, as nearly 3 million Hong Kong citizens could be eligible to move to the UK as a consequence of it. He stood by the US, Canada and Australia joint statement that Hong Kong , which “flourished as a bastion of freedom," now needs and deserves protection against an increasingly encroaching Chinese state.
The Prime Minister’s proposal, however, needs to be put into a wider context. Clearly, the government is not solely concerned for the people of Hong Kong. There are other motives for this seemingly radical move. One of them is – unsurprisingly so – financial. If BNO’s apply for a 12-month extendable period of leave, and are then required to extend their status year after year until they reach the usual 10-year threshold of long residency before being able to apply for British citizenship, the cost of those successive applications could be as high as £20,389.40 per person. That is an astronomical potential profit for the Home Office.
Additionally, in light of the new points-based immigration system which the Johnson government is planning to implement in January 2021, a cynic might suggest that the proposal to Hong Kong residents is more of a calculated political move than a human rights initiative. Under the points-based system, it will become much harder for EU citizens, of which the Home Office estimates there are currently about 3.7 million living in the UK, to move and work here. As the PM realises the ramifications of closing the borders to EU workers, his offer to Hong Kong residents could help filling the void that Brexit leaves in the British economy and job market. After all, the people of Hong Kong the PM is appealing to, who were born before 1997, are now in their twenties and older – the prime age to move and work abroad, or who are financially secure and will be able to give the economy a much needed boost.
Maybe the rules could be adapted for Hong Kong nationals to lighten the financial burden, or fast-track applications so that the 10-year threshold does not have to be met. The Foreign Secretary and PM have confirmed that the changes are conditional upon China implementing the newly proposed laws. The details of the plan are still being worked out, and no changes to the Immigration Rules or citizenship legislation have been announced yet. The Chinese government, on their end, have firmly opposed the move by the UK, stating that it is a violation of the 1997 handover agreement that stipulates BNO passport holders do not enjoy UK residency. It remains to be seen how much of an impact the PM’s threat will have on China’s expansionist plans, and to what extent the UK government is willing to press on the issue.