The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has pledged to protect millions of Hong Kong nationals by providing provisions to allow them to settle in the UK.
This announcement comes as protests erupt across Hong Kong in response to the new draconian national security law which grants wide reach powers to the security forces. The measure poses a serious threat to Hong Kong’s autonomy and the freedom of Hong Kong nationals.
Johnson’s proposed plan would protect an estimated 3 million Hong Kong nationals by granting them a renewable 12-month visa which may lead to British citizenship. The British Prime Minister has described the decision as part of the biggest changes in the history of the UK visa system.
Tensions with China
Chinese officials have been hostile to the proposal by the UK Prime Minister as they insist that Hong Kong nationals are Chinese national, and the UK had no right to offer such support to Hong Kong.
Tensions with China have risen in recent years. China has engaged in aggressive action on the South China Sea and has been accused of a litany of human rights violations.
With respect to the coronavirus, Chinese officials failed to adequately report on it and attempted to crack down on dissidents who had reported on it.
According to the chairman of the UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat, China is not only undermining the global rule of law but is replacing it with the rule of force.
Britain’s duty to Hong Kong
In 1984, then British Prime Minister, Margret Thatcher, signed into an agreement with Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang, the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
This declaration established the “one country, two systems” structure which guaranteed Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy except for matters in foreign affairs, defence, or emergencies. This system was intended to remain in place until 2049 but is now being undermined by actions of the Chinese government.
Hong Kong is able to enjoy a great deal of freedom and social rights which are not permitted in China. This is one of the reasons the pro-independence movement is so popular in Hong Kong.
Recently, China has cracked down on pro-independence protesters and have supported the passage of the national security law, which will criminalise activism towards a pro-independence movement.
Currently, Hong Kong nationals who hold a British National (Overseas) passport is entitled to visa-free access to the UK for up to six months. Johnson’s proposal intends to extend this to 12 months and to enable 2.5 million more people to apply for said visa. Currently, only 350,000 people hold this passport.
By allowing for extensions and renewals, a pathway to citizenships for Hong Kong nationals is made clear.
Whilst Johnson’s ambitious plans are much applauded, there has been concern over the economic impact over the possible mass exodus.
These concerns are particularly acute given the economic havoc caused by the coronavirus and Britain’s recent decision to leave the European Union. One of the key reasons behind this decision was to “regain control of British borders” and end free movement with the European Union. It is expected that there will be concerns over plans for mass migration from Hong Kong; however, most of the British public have also voiced support for the Hong Kong people.
Considering international students
In the short term, the clear winners are international students from Hong Kong.
These students are on temporary visas, and many had attended pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. They may find themselves eased by this announcement as they may be able to set up a new life in the UK.