At last some action from the British government over Hong Kong. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced today that Britain is prepared to extend visa rights allowing British Nationals Overseas (BNO) passport-holders in Hong Kong to work and study in the United Kingdom. The government will change the current BNO visa conditions from the current six month period to twelve months, if China continues to impose a new draconian national security law on the island.
Raab announced the UK’s policy today outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, explaining that: “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 6-month period and to apply for extendable periods of 12 months to work and study, which itself will provide a pathway to citizenship.”
The news comes after several crucial developments in Hong Kong’s political landscape in the last week. Ever since the Chinese authorities announced their intention to extend a new national security law, without the consultation of Hong Kong’s legislative council, to the island, there have been diplomatic repercussions.
Yesterday, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the United States will suspend the special status of Hong Kong under US law, in retaliation at China’s efforts to “fundamentally undermine Hong Kong’s authority and freedoms”. Beijing, Pompeo charges, is now absorbing this region into the grasp of the mainland’s authoritarian system.
The law, it is widely feared, would provide the basis from which Beijing could impose a police state upon the region and its citizens. In the process, it would undermine the Sino-British joint declaration, by which Britain and China remain morally and legally bound, to uphold Hong Kong’s freedoms and limited democracy until the year 2047.
Over the last week, images and videos have been coming out of Hong Kong which show armed authorities arresting civilians and clashing violently with those that dare protest against them. Without consultation or consent, the once-free city is already being transformed beyond recognition into a punitive police state.
Finally, today, the National People’s Assembly, the Chinese Communist Party’s own legislative institution, rubber stamped a new resolution to establish the new security law in Hong Kong.
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The British Foreign Secretary’s announcement today also follows on the heels of a joint-statement issued by the UK, along with the United States, Australia, and Canada, which expressed “deep concern regarding Beijing’s decision”.
The statement describes Hong Kong as a “bastion of freedom” and calls on Beijing “to find a mutually acceptable accommodation that will honour China’s international obligations under the UN-filed Sino-British Joint Declaration”.
Britain’s move to extend visa rights today is an undoubtedly significant act, and it may encourage other countries to follow suit. This diplomatic challenge provides Boris Johnson’s government with a chance to set the tone for the type of nation a post-Brexit, global Britain will aspire to be on the international stage. It owes a great deal to figures such as Raab, Priti Patel, and many others who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to promote the interests of Hong Kong’s citizens.
But while this ought to be welcomed as a step in the right direction, the government could – and should – go even further than this.
At the moment, the policy appears to only extend these opportunities to those who will be able to find “work and study”. And the BNO passport is also only held by those Hong Kongers who registered as British nationals overseas before 1997. It does not, notably, include the families of holders or a whole generation of younger Hong Kongers born after the end of the British handover to Beijing.
The aim should be to provide permanent right to abode in the United Kingdom for all Hong Kong’s citizens fleeing Beijing’s war on civil liberties, the old and the young.
There is already a private members bill which would provide the permanent right to abode for all Hong Kong residents. Put forward by the Liberal Democrat Alastair Carmichael, it passed its reading in the House of Commons on 25 February, but has been postponed in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.
It’s time to bring it back before the House. The government should provide Hong Kong’s courageous citizens with full British citizenship.
Let these industrious people, who know the value of liberty and cherish their right to democratic freedom, come to our country. Let them come and claim the human rights that are rightfully theirs. They will enrich our civic culture and help to rebuild our economy in the wake of the Covid-19 catastrophe.
For a government which says it is committed to building a truly global Britain, this would be one hell of way of letting the world know how serious the UK is about defending the values of free speech and free markets throughout an uncertain world. It would send a message to our allies around the globe that Britain is prepared to speak up for its values and will not give in to the bullying diplomacy of Xi Jinping and his acolytes in Beijing.