Britain will create a path to citizenship for some 3 million Hong Kong residents, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday following through on a plan his government made to overhaul its visa system if China imposed a draconian national security law upon the former British colony.
“We made it clear that if China continued down this path, we would introduce a new route for those with British national overseas status to enter the U.K., granting them limited leave to remain with the ability to live and work in the U.K. and thereafter apply for citizenship and that is precisely what we will do now,” Johnson told lawmakers in Parlament.
Britain announced the plan early last month after China’s rubber-stamp parliament passed the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region National Security Law that criminalizes acts of secession, sedition, subversion, terrorism and working with foreign agencies to undermine the national security of the People’s Republic of China in Hong Kong.
Once a British colony, Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 after signing a U.N.-filed joint declaration with Britain promising to maintain Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy from the mainland for 50 years.
Johnson said the new law “constitutes a clear and serious breach” of their agreement while also being in direct conflict with Hong Kong’s mini-constitution known as the Hong Kong Basic Law that created the so-called One County, Two System government it functioned under.
“The national security law also threatens the freedoms and rights protected by the joint declaration,” he said.
The announcement came in retaliation to China imposing the new law Tuesday night, attracting widespread condemnation from Western countries and rights groups who say it all but spells the end for the unique governmental framework that permitted it rights mainland China lacked.
Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, explained in Parliament that the new law violates their agreement and Hong Kong’s own constitution, including shifting the power from picking judges from the chief justice to Hong Kong’s political leader, threatening the independence of its legal system; creating a Chinese government office to safeguard national security that is run by mainland authorities; and that it was imposed by Beijing, not by Hong Kong, among a slew of other issues.
“China has broken its promise to the people of Hong Kong under its own laws and has breached its international obligations to the United Kingdom under the joint declaration,” he said.
Under the new visa rules, Britain will permit Hong Kong residents with British national overseas status and their dependants to work and study in the European country for five years after which they will be able to apply for a one-year settlement status before they will be eligible for citizenship.
“This is a special, bespoke set of arrangements developed for the unique circumstances we face and in the light of our historic commitment to the people of Hong Kong,” he said.
In the first day the law was instituted, Hong Kong police said at least 10 people had been charged under it for waving pro-independence flags or having material supporting the movement.
Lisa Nandy, a member of Parliament, called the new law “deeply shocking.”
“This will have a chilling effect on democracy,” she said, calling for legislation to pass so they can impose targeted sanctions against those who breach human rights in Hong Kong.
“Overnight, pepper spray and water cannon were used against the pro-democracy protesters,” she said. “It is now time for Britain to lead on an inquiring into police brutality.”
China has yet to respond to the move but has repeatedly accused nations of meddling in its internal affairs. After Britain made the threat in early June, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said “China reserves the right to take corresponding measures.”