Johnson told Parliament on July 1 that the enactment of the “Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region” by Hong Kong authorities was a “clear and serious breach” of the 1985 Sino-British joint declaration. The legally binding international agreement outlined how certain freedoms would remain protected for 50 years after China gained sovereignty in 1997.
The law, which has been condemned by the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States as undermining freedoms that China promised Hong Kong, gives Beijing vast powers to crack down on various political crimes, including subversion, separatism and collusion with foreign elements, which could be punishable with life imprisonment.
In just the first day following the law’s enactment, Hong Kong police fired water cannon and tear gas at demonstrators, and made hundreds of arrests, as people took the streets to hold an annual march marking the anniversary of the territory’s 1997 handover from the U.K. to China.
“We made clear that if China continued down this path we would introduce a new route for those with British National Overseas status to enter the U.K., granting them limited leave to remain with the ability to live and work in the U.K. and thereafter to apply for citizenship,” Johnson said. “And that is precisely what we will do now.”
British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders in Hong Kong were granted special status in the 1980s, but currently have restricted rights as they are only allowed to come to U.K. without a visa for six months. Under the government’s new plans, Hongkongers eligible to apply for a BNO passport will be able to remain in the country, with the right to study and work, for five years. At that point, they will be able to apply for settled status and after a another year, seek citizenship. The same rule will apply to their dependents.
Currently, there are 350,000 BNO passport holders in Hong Kong and a further 2.6 million people are eligible. Hong Kong residents were able to register for a BNO passport from 1987 to June 30, 1997, the last day before Hong Kong’s reunification with China. Anyone born after that date is not entitled to a BNO passport.
In a column published online by a Hong Kong newspaper in early June, Johnson wrote that “This would amount to one of the biggest changes in our visa system in British history” but said then that he hoped it would not “come to this.”