Hong Kong has been fighting for its right to remain an independent and democratic society since March 2019. Many thousands have taken part in protests, some of which have been peaceful, and others much less so. Allegations of serious police brutality have also sparked further unrest, and as time rolls on, there are tentative signs that Hong Kong may be sliding further towards the control of China. The National People's Congress has recently unanimously given its backing for deeply contentious security legislation, which bans secession, subversion of state power, terrorism, and foreign intervention. The new national security law will also allow the state security apparatus of China to operate in the city for the first time. The new law will now be drafted (a process expected to take two months). According to CNN, the new law "will then be implemented upon promulgation by the Hong Kong government, bypassing the city's legislature via a rarely-enacted constitutional backdoor. The law will drastically broaden Beijing's power over Hong Kong, which last year was roiled by anti-government protests calling for greater democracy and more autonomy from mainland China".
To make matters far worse, the US, seeing the writing on the wall, and has declared that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China, and hence may revoke its special trading relationship. Such a move will seriously undermine the economy of Hong Kong and its status as a leading international financial hub.
Since the end of the First Opium War when Britain gained control of Hong Kong in 1842 and became part of its rapidly expanding empire, the UK has had a rich and chequered past with the island city. Since Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, any person born prior to the handover has been eligible to apply for a British National (Overseas) passport, also referred to as a 'BNO'.
Boris Johnson has now indicated that he is ready to step in to assist those people with BNO passports if China continues on its current path. In what Johnson referred to as one of the "biggest changes" in the British immigration system, he may provide a lifeline to around three million people who are eligible for a BNO, allowing them to work and live in the UK. The new proposal is not yet official government policy; whether it will be will depend on whether Beijing implements its new national security law. In an article penned by Boris Johnson and printed in the Times, entitled 'We will meet our obligations, not walk away' he affirms, "Many people in Hong Kong fear that their way of life — which China pledged to uphold — is under threat. 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". Explaining the outline of his proposal, he states, "at present, these passports [BNO] allow visa-free access to the United Kingdom for up to six months. 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".
There has been something of a mixed reaction to the idea floated by Mr Johnson. On the positive side it has been described as a "remarkable intervention" by the director of the human rights NGO 'Hong Kong Watch', Johnny Patterson, who stated, "It is a watershed moment in Sino-British relations. No sitting PM has made a statement as bold as this on Hong Kong since the handover". Tories minsters, including Dominic Raab, appear to be less clear. Rabb has recently stated that the UK offer was limited to the existing BNO passport holders; "We have said that we will allow the 300,000-plus passport holders, along with their dependants, to come to the UK in the way I described". Raab's statement has now been overridden by Johnson's piece article in the Times.
Revered barrister and former Hong Kong politician, Martin Lee (also nicknamed the 'Father of Democracy", believes the idea does not go far enough and that many people will miss out. He told the Guardian newspaper, "because no matter how generous you are in the provision of passports and so on, there are still large numbers of people who are not eligible for one reason or another".
Anyone currently in Hong Kong considering taking up Boris Johnson on his proposed offer should not wait to take action. Whether you have a BNO passport or you are entitled to one, consider engaging the services of UK based immigration Solicitors who will be able to explain your options as they currently stand, and will help prepare the groundwork for your possible move to the UK. By taking action early and gathering the necessary paperwork you will need now, you can ensure that the time to acquire immigration clearance can be compressed by a matter of weeks or even months. And should you and your family decide to make the move based on future events, you will help put yourself to the front of the queue.
There is much to play for in Hong Kong in the second half of 2020. There is every reason to believe that the UK Prime Minister's offer is entirely genuine and intended to honour the shared history between Hon Kong and Britain. In his own words, "Hong Kong succeeds because its people are free. They can pursue their dreams and scale as many heights as their talents allow. They can debate and share new ideas, expressing themselves as they wish. And they live under the rule of law, administered by independent courts". By offering to allow BNO passport holders a route to UK Citizenship, this way of life can be maintained and continued for millions of people worried about their future.
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