Beijing hits back after Boris Johnson promises to relax British visa rules for Hongkongers

Catherine Wong

Britain should relinquish its colonial and Cold War mentality, China said on Wednesday after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to overhaul his country’s visa system for Hongkongers if Beijing pushes ahead with plans for a national security law for the city.

“The UK has recklessly commented on Hong Kong and made groundless accusations to interfere in Hong Kong affairs,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

“China expresses its strong dissatisfaction and opposition, and has lodged stern representations with the UK.”

His comments came after Johnson said in an opinion piece published in the South China Morning Post and The Times of London on Wednesday that many Hong Kong citizens feared their way of life was under threat after the National People’s Congress (NPC) – Beijing’s rubber-stamp legislature – endorsed a resolution to enact a national security law at its annual session last month.

“If China proceeds to justify their fears, then Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away; instead we will honour our obligations and provide an alternative,” he said.

“Britain would then have no choice but to uphold our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong.”

Beijing was swift to condemn the prime minister’s comments.

“We urge the UK side to pull back before it’s too late, abandon its Cold War and colonialist mentality, and understand and respect the fact that Hong Kong has returned to Chinese rule as a special administrative region,” Zhao said.

Boris Johnson says Britain will uphold its “profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong”. Photo: AFP

Critics of the NPC decision say Beijing’s move contravenes the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984 ahead of the city’s return to China in 1997. That document states that a “one country, two systems” framework guaranteeing a high degree of autonomy, Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong, and a capitalist way of life should remain unchanged until 2047.

London regards the declaration as an international treaty, but Beijing has said repeatedly that it no longer has meaning and does not give Britain the right to interfere in Hong Kong affairs.

Zhao said it was neither a Chinese commitment to Britain nor an international obligation.

US may open doors to Hongkongers in response to national security law

“Since the handover, the legal grounds for China’s governance of Hong Kong has been based on the constitution of the People’s Republic of China and the Basic Law of Hong Kong, rather than the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” he said.

In his article, Johnson promised to implement “one of the biggest changes in our visa system in British history” if the law was enacted. It would allow 3 million Hongkongers who qualify for a British National (Overseas) passport and their dependents to work or study in Britain for extended periods of 12 months, creating a path to citizenship.

The opinion piece came after British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Britain had been discussing “burden sharing” with the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand to handle a possible exodus of Hongkongers.

He said he hoped Beijing would change its mind on the national security law, but said London would not turn away from its historical and moral duty.

The NPC resolution on the legislation came after almost a year of anti-government protests in Hong Kong. Beijing has accused foreign agents of influencing the disruption and accused those involved of engaging in acts of terrorism, claims they have rejected.

Critics said that by circumventing Hong Kong’s legislature, Beijing was jeopardising the city’s liberties under one country, two systems, but government supporters said the move was necessary after a previous attempt to introduce a national security law in 2003, based on Article 23 of the Basic Law, failed amid widespread public opposition.

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