London opens door for 2.9 million Hongkongers with BN(O) passports to stay at least year in Britain

Laura Westbrook

Britain will offer up to 2.9 million Hongkongers who are eligible for a British National (Overseas) passport the chance to stay in the European nation for 12 months, potentially putting them on the path to citizenship.

The offer comes after Beijing adopted a resolution on Thursday that paves the way for a new national security law to be instilled in the former colony. The resolution has been condemned by several Western governments.

In a statement to the Post, British Home Secretary Priti Patel said she was deeply concerned at China’s proposals for legislation related to national security in Hong Kong.

“If China imposes this law, we will explore options to allow British Nationals Overseas to apply for leave to stay in the UK, including a path to citizenship," she said, adding that the UK would continue to defend the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong. The Home Office said on its website that the 12-month period could be extendable for eligible parties.

The Chinese foreign ministry said London had agreed the passport holders should not enjoy residency rights and that the offer violated international law, while warning of retaliation.

“China reserves the right to take necessary measures,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said, adding Beijing considered Chinese residents in Hong Kong as Chinese citizens, regardless of which passport they held.

BN(O) passports were issued to Hongkongers born before the 1997 handover, and under current rules, they can visit Britain for up to six months but the documents do not automatically allow them to work or reside there.

According to new figures from the Home Office, there were 2.9 million Hongkongers eligible for the status, and 349,881 holding valid passports as of February 24.

Hong Kong has gone through many confidence crises in the past 40 years

Regina Ip, New People’s Party chairwoman

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Thursday the six-month limit on stays in Britain for BN(O) passport holders would be scrapped if China did not suspend plans for the security law.

New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee described Britain’s plan to lengthen the allowed period of stay as “lip service”, saying she was not worried about skilled workers leaving Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong has gone through many confidence crises in the past 40 years, many of those who immigrated [had] returned because they found there’s no better place for them,” Ip said.

But some Hongkongers are already making plans to leave. BN(O) passport holder Bryan Chan, who worked as a freelance sports marketing consultant, said he was taking a wait-and-see approach to the announcement by the British government. But he hoped it would consider giving those who held the passports the right to work.

Regardless of Britain’s decision, Chan has started the process of applying for residency in Canada via its express entry programme for skilled workers. He has been offered a job there and hopes to secure permanent residency.

Chan said the events of the past year were the catalyst for his decision to leave the city of his birth.

Some 349,881 Hongkongers hold valid BN(O) passports. Photo: Fung Chang

“The social unrest was not a factor, but rather how Chinese authorities and the Hong Kong government handled the situation,” he said, adding he worried whether the city would be able to retain its status as an international city.

Ip conceded the introduction of the national security law had made some Hongkongers worried about their future and considering moving. But Ip, a former security minister, stressed residents were still entitled to legal protection under the common law system, even after the law came into force.

Raab’s statement came after Britain, the United States, Australia and Canada issued a joint condemnation of Beijing’s plan, saying imposing the law would undermine the “one country, two systems” framework agreed before Hong Kong was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997.

The new legislation bans treason, subversion and sedition in Hong Kong and follows months of anti-government demonstrations last year.

Critics say the proposal will erode the city’s treasured freedoms, and thousands took to the streets on Wednesday to protest both the law and a proposed national anthem bill, which will criminalise insults to March of the Volunteers.

Democratic Party district councillor Ramon Yuen Hoi-man told the Post he had received more than 100 inquiries this week from BN(O) passport holders, while the party had received more than 1,000 calls.

One of the common questions was whether those who were born before 1997 but who had not yet applied for the passport were still eligible. Yuen said he would reflect their views at an upcoming meeting the Democratic Party had requested with the British consulate general.

Those BN(O) holders are now middle-aged, ready to retire and not ready to leave Hong Kong

Lau Siu-kai, vice-president, Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau studies

The vice-president of Beijing’s top think tank on Hong Kong dismissed Britain’s offer as a political move without significant implication.

“Those having BN(O) [status] are those who were born before 1997, meaning Britain has no plans to assist those younger generations, those involved mainly in the anti-government protests,” said Lau Siu-kai of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau studies.

“The situation is very different compared to the 1990s, in which people would like to emigrate as they worried about the handover. Those BN(O) holders are now middle-aged, ready to retire and not ready to leave Hong Kong,” he said.

Lau said Britain’s move looked good politically but would not be a concern for either Beijing or the Hong Kong government. The central government “would not mind seeing people leaving Hong Kong”.

He also doubted London would really grant emigration rights to Hongkongers, noting Brexit was the result of some British disliking other countries and races.

One protester, who asked not to be identified, said her mother applied for the passport when she was born in 1997. The 23-year-old said she welcomed the announcement but said it offered only temporary shelter and did not go far enough for people who wanted to live in Britain permanently.

Citing the upcoming national security legislation as the driving force behind her decision to leave, the protester plans to move to Britain in October on a working holiday visa in the hopes of finding a permanent job.

“If you don’t agree with the Chinese government, I think you need to leave now or keep quiet,” she said.

A protester holds a BN(O) passport during a lunch hour anti-government demonstration at IFC Mall in Central on May 29. Photo: Winson Wong

Another resident, who also asked not to be named, said he was making plans to leave the city. The 41-year-old administrator intends to move to Scotland but will try to secure a job there before going. Rather than citizenship, he hopes the British government will consider the option of right of abode for the passport holders.

Experts called the move a first step by the British government, while still giving it room to manoeuvre.

“It is a very smart strategy,” said Natalie Wong, a visiting fellow at the department of public policy at City University of Hong Kong. “It gives the British government time to see what the Chinese government will do in the following months, and will allow them space to adjust their strategy.”

Some British MPs want their country to go further and offer automatic citizenship. In a statement to the Post, the chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat, said Britain should not have stripped Hongkongers of their British citizenship in 1981 and should now right that wrong.

“We owe them a duty of care as we would any other British national. Now [that] the security law looks likely to criminalise democrats, we must take action,” Tugendhat said.

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