British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Tuesday that the United Kingdom is ready to offer refuge and citizenship to nearly three million Hong Kong citizens should China implement a restrictive national security law that is currently pending.
“Many people in Hong Kong fear their way of life — which China pledged to uphold — is under threat,” Johnson wrote in an op-ed published Wednesday in the South China Morning Post, which is based in Hong Kong. “If China proceeds to justify their fears, then Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away.”
Johnson said that Beijing’s new national security law violates the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the agreement the UK reached with China after Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
The prime minister wrote that if necessary, Britain will allow Hong Kong residents who hold British National Overseas passports 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.” The move would be “one of the biggest changes in our visa system in British history,” Johnson added.
Currently, about 350,000 Hong Kong residents hold such passports and another 2.5 million would be eligible for them, the prime minister said.
China last month approved national security laws that would allow Beijing to wield expanded power over Hong Kong. Pro-Democracy activists and other critics say the national security laws would effectively scrap the “one country, two systems” policy that has allowed Hong Kong its political freedoms and civil liberties despite still being technically governed by China.
China claims that the laws, which have not yet been implemented, are necessary to crack down on separatism, subversion, terrorism, and foreign intervention in Hong Kong in the wake of the pro-democracy protests against Beijing. The measure would also allow China’s state security agencies to operate in the territory, although details of the legislation have not yet been released.
China has also argued that the agreement between China and Hong Kong no longer applies.
“The U.K. has had no sovereignty, governance or supervision over Hong Kong since its return (to Chinese rule),” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Tuesday. “Therefore, the British side has no right to cite the Sino-British Joint Declaration to make irresponsible remarks on Hong Kong affairs and interfere in China’s internal affairs.”