The UK says it may expand the privileges of Hong Kongers who hold a British National Overseas (BNO) passport—which could eventually allow them citizenship—if Beijing enacts a national security law in Hong Kong.
“If China goes down this path and implements this national security legislation, we will be required to change the status of BNO passport holders and set in train arrangements which allow them to come to the UK for longer than the current six month period and to apply for extendable periods of 12 months to work and study,” says UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
China's proposed national security law for Hong Kong is in direct conflict with its obligations under the Joint Declaration. If enacted, this law would violate Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms. UK and 🇺🇸🇦🇺🇨🇦 are deeply concerned.
— Dominic Raab (@DominicRaab) May 28, 2020
This extension of privileges would “itself provide a pathway to citizenship,” he added.
Raab’s statement is perhaps the most significant pronouncement the UK government has made since Beijing said it would be imposing a law to target secession, sedition, terrorism and foreign interference in Hong Kong.
There were around 314,800 BNO passport holders in Hong Kong as of the end of 2019, the British government said in March. The limited-time passport, which has a cover design identical to the UK passport, was granted to those who were born in Hong Kong before the UK handed the city over to China in July 1997.
Those who have previously owned a BNO passport are able to renew it anytime. Last year’s anti-government protests over a proposed extradition bill triggered a surge in renewal applications. Now, fears that the implementation of a national security law in Hong Kong could further strip the city’s autonomy has prompted even more interest in the travel document.
The number of applications has reportedly increased sharply in the past few days.
Johnny Patterson, Director of London-based human rights group Hong Kong Watch said: “We have been campaigning for the UK to take the rights of HKers and BNOs seriously since we launched. A long way to go but this a momentous step.”
During the protests last year, around 100,000 people signed a petition calling for the UK to grant BNO passport holders full citizenship. The UK government responded by saying that only UK citizens and certain Commonwealth citizens had the right of residence in the country.
According to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the UK is responsible for protecting Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms upon the end of British rule.
More and more international leaders have spoken out against Beijing’s national security law in recent days. On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that Hong Kong was no longer sufficiently autonomous from mainland China, a statement that could have significant ramifications on the city’s special trade status in the eyes of Washington.
On Thursday, the US, Australia, Canada and the UK signed a joint statement expressing concern over the impact that the national security law could have on Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.
“Direct imposition of national security legislation on Hong Kong by the Beijing authorities… would curtail the Hong Kong people’s liberties, and in doing so, dramatically erode Hong Kong’s autonomy and the system that made it so prosperous,” the statement reads.