British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday said that he would offer millions of Hong Kongers visas and a possible route to UK citizenship if China persists with its national security legislation for the territory.
“Many people in Hong Kong fear their way of life — which China pledged to uphold — is under threat,” he wrote in an article for the Times and the South China Morning Post.
“If China proceeds to justify their fears, then Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away; instead we will honour our obligations and provide an alternative,” he wrote.
About 350,000 people in Hong Kong currently hold British National Overseas (BNO) passports, which allow visa-free access to Britain for up to six months, Johnson wrote.
Another 2.5 million people would be eligible to apply for one.
“If China imposes its national security law, the British government will change our immigration rules and allow any holder of these passports from Hong Kong to come to the UK for a renewable period of 12 months and be given further immigration rights, including the right to work, which could place them on a route to citizenship,” he wrote.
“This would amount to one of the biggest changes to our visa system in history,” he added.
The new legislation was proposed after a wave of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and approved by China’s National People’s Congress as necessary to tackling “terrorism” and “separatism.”
Opponents fear it will lead to political oppression in the territory, eroding freedoms and autonomy supposedly guaranteed in the 1997 handover from Britain to China.
Johnson said the Hong Kong legislation would “curtail its freedoms and dramatically erode its autonomy.”
If implemented, “Britain would then have no choice but to uphold our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong,” he wrote.
London has already announced plans to extend visa rights to those eligible for BNO passports and joined international condemnation of Beijing.
Yet Johnson’s personal intervention significantly ups the pressure.
“I hope it will not come to this,” he wrote, insisting that “Britain does not seek to prevent China’s rise.”
“It is precisely because we welcome China as a leading member of the world community that we expect it to abide by international agreements,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, British Secretary of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Dominic Raab on Tuesday said that he has spoken to “Five Eyes” allies about potentially opening their doors to Hong Kongers if Beijing’s plans to impose national security legislation on the territory sparks an exodus.
In parliament, Raab said that he had reached out to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US about contingency plans if the legislation creates a deluge of Hong Kongers looking to leave.
“I raised it on the Five Eyes call yesterday — the possibility of burden-sharing if we see a mass exodus from Hong Kong,” Raab told lawmakers, referencing the intelligence-sharing alliance between the five countries.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) yesterday said that Beijing would not back down on plans for national security legislation.
Additional reporting by the Guardian and Reuters
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