A UK plan to offer a pathway to citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people offers too little detail and does not go far enough to protect them from an increasingly authoritarian Beijing, campaigners say.
Dominic Raab, UK foreign minister, on Thursday pledged to extend visa rights for British National (Overseas) passport holders in the territory that he said could be used to obtain citizenship unless Beijing reversed plans to impose national security laws on Hong Kong.
Craig Choy, spokesman for campaign group Equal Rights for British National Overseas, said Mr Raab’s comments were encouraging but were “meaningless” if the path to citizenship was no different to the existing route open to BNO holders.
Mr Raab’s offer would allow BNO holders “to work and study in the UK for extendable periods of 12 months and that would itself provide a pathway to future citizenship”.
Under the existing scheme, BNO holders are entitled to consular assistance but not British citizenship. They are allowed to stay in the UK for up to six months only with no right to work.
Hong Kong residents who registered before the handover of the territory from the UK to China in 1997 are entitled to BNO status. About 315,000 people hold these passports.
China on Thursday approved plans for national security laws in what would be the first time Beijing has imposed criminal penalties into Hong Kong’s legal code, bypassing the city’s legislature. The law has sparked fears among Hong Kong residents that they could be prosecuted for speaking out against Beijing.
Mr Choy questioned what would happen under Mr Raab’s offer if a person was unable to secure long-term employment.
“If, after 12 months, the Hongkongers can’t find a job, will they be deported? It would be rather scandalous if the UK deports its own nationals back to the hands of the CCP,” he said, referring to the Chinese Communist party.
The relatively short duration of the visa might not appeal to BNO holders with established careers, said April Cheung, a 35-year-old researcher and BNO passport holder. “We are grateful they still care about us but I don’t know if it is helpful,” she said.
It can take up to six years to qualify for British citizenship under existing rules.
Other BNO holders, such as Priscilla Wong, 37, said the UK could offer full citizenship in stages by giving priority to certain professions.
Samson Ling, who has campaigned for greater rights for BNO holders for three years, said the lack of detail meant the statement was just a “signal to the Chinese Communist party”. Mr Ling said the UK should also help those born after 1997, because this group made up the bulk of anti-government protesters last year.
Calls for full British citizenship for BNO holders grew during anti-government demonstrations in 2019.
Mr Raab’s statement came after Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, said her government would welcome Hong Kong residents wishing to escape the national security law.
Interest in migration picked up last year with many now expediting their plans.
John Hu, director of John Hu Migration Consulting, described a state of panic in the week since the national security law was announced as hundreds booked consultations to examine their options to move overseas.