China has announced that starting from the 31st of January, it will no longer recognize Hong Kong residents with British National Overseas passports. The Hong Kong government has since followed China’s lead, announcing that the British National Overseas Passport will no longer serve as proof of identity and will be denied at immigration centers These announcements come shortly after the U.K. has launched a new visa scheme, allowing all Hong Kong residents with a British National Overseas passport to live and work in the U.K. The U.K.’s No 10 has declared that this scheme has been launched to aid all Hong Kong residents who are looking to flee the country following the new security laws designed to ‘’crush dissent’’ against the Chinese government.
The U.K. prime minister, Boris Johnson, has praised the scheme as a reflection of the U.K.’s commitment to ‘’honor the ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong’’ and to ‘’stand up for freedom and autonomy’’. Up to three million people in Hong Kong are now eligible to apply for this scheme and can now get a chance to ‘’ live, work and make their home’’ in the U.K.
Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson has criticized the visa scheme as an unsubstantiated interference between Hong Kong and China’s internal affairs, stating that China will no longer recognize the British National Overseas Passport as valid travel and ID documentation and ‘’reserves the right to take further actions’’ against residents looking to flee Hong Kong through this scheme. He has described the scheme as an attempt from the U.K. government to ‘’turn a large number of Hong Kong people into second-class British citizens’’.
China’s new security laws passed in Hong Kong on the 30th of June are certainly worrying, with the U.K. government criticizing them as being in breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which constituted an agreement to create ‘’a country with two systems’’, under which freedom of speech and expression would be protected. The laws have introduced new crimes with severe punishments, including life imprisonment while granting permission for Chinese mainland security personnel to operate within Hong Kong with full impunity. For example, the new security laws state that ‘’anyone conspiring to provoke hatred towards the Chinese government or the authorities in Hong Kong’’ might be charged with a criminal offense. Furthermore, Articles 41 and 46 states that trials can be held in secret without a jury.
It is no surprise that these new laws have struck fear within Hong Kong residents, as anyone participating in protests or raising any concern seen as opposing the Beijing and Hong Kong governments, can now be criminally charged in secrecy. A legal scholar at the University of Hong Kong stated that ‘’the law will have a severe impact on freedom of expression if not personal security, on the people of Hong Kong’’.
The British National Overseas visa scheme came in retaliation to these new security laws, to aid Hong Kong residents looking to flee the new Beijing legal system. However, with the strong opposition from the Chinese government and the current Ban on British National Overseas passports, Hong Kong residents now find themselves in a difficult situation, either stay and conform to the new legal measures or risk leaving the country under the current unclear circumstances.
However, the tension between China and the U.K. over the visa scheme might lead to even further consequences. Recent reports have emerged stating that British National Overseas passport holders might no longer be eligible to run for office. With the Chinese ambassador in the U.K., Liu Xiaoming, stating that ‘’No one should underestimate the firm determination of China to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests’’ and the foreign ministry’s statement to ‘’take further action’’, new measures preventing a massive Hong Kong exodus are expected.
New measures should be imposed by the UK and Hong Kong government, as well as all international organizations, to ensure not only the safe exodus of Hong Kong residents but also to ensure a path to create a safe life for those choosing to remain in the country. The Co-founder of the Hong Kong Watch, Benedict Rogers, has stated that while the visa scheme is ‘’generous and welcome’’, more effort needs to be put into ensuring the livelihood and freedom of Hong Kong residents choosing to stay, with ‘’rescue remaining as a last resort’’.