The UK could offer a path to citizenship for British passport holders in Hong Kong, should China persist with plans to impose a new security law on the territory.
The law, recently approved by the National People’s Congress, makes it a crime to undermine Beijing’s authority and has prompted fears that Hong Kong’s unique status could end.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the U.K. would allow British Nationals (Overseas) passport holders to come to the country for an extendable period of 12 months, lifting the current six month cap.
China said it reserved the right to take “counter-measures” against the UK.
There are 2.9m people in Hong Kong eligible for the passport.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the UK and China had agreed that holders of British National (Overseas) – or BNO – passport should not enjoy UK residency.
“All such BNO passport holders are Chinese nationals and if the UK insists on changing this practice it will not only violate its own stance but also international law,” he added.
There are 300,000 BNO passport holders in Hong Kong who already have the right to visit the UK for up to six months without a visa.
But the Home Office confirmed that the proposed new rights, allowing those eligible to spend 12 months in the UK without a visa, could be offered to anyone with BNO status as long as they applied for and were granted the passport – opening it up to 2.9m Hong Kong residents.
Mr. Raab’s statement came after the UK, US, Australia and Canada issued joint condemnation of Beijing’s plan, saying imposing the security law would undermine the “one country, two systems” framework agreed before Hong Kong was handed over from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
The framework guaranteed Hong Kong some autonomy and afforded rights and freedoms that do not exist in mainland China.
China has rejected foreign criticism of the proposed law, which could be in force as early as the end of June.
Li Zhanshu, chairman of the parliamentary committee that will now draft the law, said it was “in line with the fundamental interests of all Chinese people, including Hong Kong compatriots”.
British National (Overseas) passports were issued to people in Hong Kong by the UK before the transfer of the territory to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
The government has in the past rejected calls to give BNO holders in Hong Kong full citizenship.
Last year more than 100,000 people in Hong Kong signed a petition calling for full rights. The government responded by saying that only UK citizens and certain Commonwealth citizens had the right of abode in the UK and cited a 2007 review which said giving BNO holders full citizenship would be a breach of the agreement under which the UK handed Hong Kong back to China.
However in 1972 the UK offered asylum to some 30,000 Ugandan Asians with British Overseas passports after the then-military ruler Idi Amin ordered about 60,000 Asians to leave.
At the time some MPs said India should take responsibility for the refugees, but Prime Minister Edward Heath said the UK had a duty to accept them. (Source: BBC)