Raab hints at future policy change paving the way to British citizenship for BNO holders in Hong Kong
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has said that the government could change policy to open up a road to UK citizenship for British National Overseas [BNO] passport holders in Hong Kong, should China refuse to axe plans for a new national security law there.
Chinese MPs recently backed calls which would criminalise any undermining of Beijing’s authority within the territory, with China able to bring a security presence into the region permanently for the first time once enforced.
The UK, US, Australia and Canada have jointly opposed Beijing’s proposal, warning that the new law would undermine the agreement which saw Hong Kong transferred from British rule over to China back in 1997. The “one country, two systems” framework established at the time as part of that deal granted Hong Kong a unique autonomy along with rights and freedoms which citizens in mainland China are not entitled to.
However, China has rebuffed condemnation of its plans and could enforce the new law by the end of June.
The chairman of the Chinese parliamentary committee, Li Zhanshu, said that the new law would be “in line with the fundamental interests of all Chinese people”, including those in Hong Kong.
In the wake of Raab’s statement, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian warned that the 1997 agreement outlines that BNO holders should not have the right to reside in the UK.
Zhao said: "All such BNO passport holders are Chinese nationals and if the UK insists on changing this practice it will not only violate its own stance but also international law.”
There are currently 300,000 holders of BNO passports in Hong Kong which grant holders the right to visit the UK for up to six months without requiring a visa.
Should the UK change its BNO policy, Raab assured that the six-month cap on visa-free stays would be abolished.
Raab said: "If China continues down this path and implements this national security legislation, we will remove that six month limit and allow those BNO passport holders to come to the UK and to apply to work and study for extendable periods of 12 months and that will itself provide a pathway to future citizenship.”
It would be a significant u-turn for the government to alter the policy, having previously rejected calls to grant BNO holders in Hong Kong full British citizenship amid concerns that such a move would breach the 1997 agreement.
Yet, the prime minister’s official spokesman said on Thursday that the government is concerned by China’s new national security law.
He said: "We have been very clear that the security legislation risks undermining the principle of one country, two systems.
"We are in close contact with our international partners on this and the Foreign Secretary spoke to US secretary [Mike] Pompeo last night.
"The steps taken by the Chinese government place the Joint Declaration under direct threat and do undermine Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy."
Pompeo said that the change in law in Hong Kong could see it treated in the same manner as China under US law due to its loss of autonomy, which could compromise its unique status as a trading hub and have more severe implications for the territory as a whole.
Meanwhile, shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy believes the UK should now take a more hard-line response with China.
Speaking to the BBC, Nandy said: "This is the latest in a series of attempts by China to start to erode the joint declaration which Britain co-signed with the Chinese government when we handed over Hong Kong, and protected its special status."
"We want to see the UK government really step up now.”