It has to do with giving expanded rights to Hong Kong residents with unique travel documents known as British National (Overseas), or BNO, passports, and to those considered to be eligible for them. The U.K. created the passports before handing Hong Kong back to China in 1997. They allow holders to visit the U.K. visa-free for up to six months, but don’t automatically confer the right to live or work there. Holders also aren’t eligible to access public funds and can’t pass their BNO status on to their children.
Under the proposal, holders of BNO passports would be able to apply to work and study in the U.K., and could remain in the country for extendable periods of a year, providing “a pathway to future citizenship,” according to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, speaking in a pooled television interview on May 28. While details still need to be worked out and remain unclear, the proposal, outlined by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a Times article on June 3, is a significant new commitment by the British government to those people in Hong Kong qualifying for the special status.
There were about 350,000 holders of BNO passports as of February, according to the U.K. Home Office. Others born before the July 1, 1997 handover were eligible to apply before that date, however, and the U.K. Home Office says it estimates there are “around 2.9 million BNOs currently in Hong Kong.” That’s almost 40% of the population. Those born after the handover are not eligible, which excludes many of the students who have participated in street protests over the past year against proposed changes to Hong Kong’s extradition and national security laws.
4) What is the U.K. saying about its offer?
Johnson, writing in the Times, said that the U.K. will not “walk away” from its obligations to its former colony and that, if China imposes its national security law on Hong Kong, the British government will change its immigration rules. While saying that “I hope it will not come to this,” he also said that “if it proves necessary, the British government will take this step and take it willingly.” In an interview with Sky News on June 3, Raab said the U.K. was prepared to sacrifice a free trade deal with China to protect Hong Kong citizens.
5) What has the reaction been in China?
The Chinese government said Johnson’s comments amounted to foreign interference in its internal affairs and that China has fulfilled all its obligations under the handover agreement. It said the U.K. should “abandon its Cold War and colonial mindset.” On June 4, China’s embassy in London said Johnson’s offer of citizenship violated the U.K.’s assurances that Hong Kong residents eligible for a BNO passport wouldn’t be granted the right of abode in Britain. In a statement, China said the pledge was made in a memorandum of understanding exchanged as part of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that paved the way for Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997.
6) And what’s the response in Hong Kong?
The city’s most prominent activist, Joshua Wong, said people in Hong Kong welcome Johnson’s offer of a path to citizenship to those eligible, but added the ideal situation would be for the U.K. to pressure China into abandoning the imposition of new national security legislation that could curb political dissent in the former British colony. “We need to stand up and fight back,” he told Bloomberg Television.
7) Why didn’t Hong Kong people get regular British passports in 1997?
People born in Hong Kong after the 1997 handover, who were both Chinese citizens and permanent Hong Kong residents, became eligible for the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) passports. While then-Conservative Prime Minister John Major cited Britain’s “continuing responsibilities to the people of Hong Kong” in a speech in the city in March 1996, at the same time there was concern within his Tory party back home about the potential scale of arrivals from Hong Kong, according to Jonathan Dimbleby in his book “The Last Governor.”
8) How would Britain handle a large influx now?
The government doesn’t expect one. Raab told lawmakers that he had held talks with the U.K.’s so-called ‘Five Eyes’ security allies, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, on the potential for sharing the burden of migrants if there is a “mass exodus” from Hong Kong in the months ahead. He said he believes that prospect is unlikely.