Beijing attacks 'colonial' mentality after Boris Johnson offers citizenship pathway to 3m Hong Kongers

Nicola Smith
A protester holds up British National passports in a shopping mall during a protest against China's national security legislation - AP Photo/Vincent Yu

China today accused Britain of a "colonial mentality" after Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to let up to three million Hong Kongers into the UK if  Beijing proceeds with a controversial national security law. 

“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.”

The comments came after Mr Johnson wrote an article for The Times and South China Morning Post saying that Britain could not "shrug our shoulders and walk away" if the Chinese Communist Party imposes a law that would crush dissent in the former colony. 

Under the proposed visa reform, every one of the three million Hong Kongers eligible for British National Overseas status (BNO) would be granted the right to relocate to the UK for a renewable period of 12 months.

"This would amount to one of the biggest changes in our visa system in British history," Mr Johnson said. 

Hong Kong residents have welcomed Mr Johnson's pledge to extend immigration rights for those with BNO status - a holdover from the colonial era that affords consular assistance and a travel document, but not the right of abode in the UK. 

But some, including outspoken media tycoon Jimmy Lai - a pro-democracy supporter - have highlighted that as BNO status is only accorded to those born before the colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the UK should focus more on younger people who are looking to flee the city.

“They're our hope and should be given the priority, over old people like me who are near the end of their lives,” Mr Lai wrote on Twitter. 

Meanwhile the heads of the foreign affairs committees in the British, New Zealand, Australian and Canadian parliaments have urged the United Nations chief to appoint a special envoy to safeguard human rights in Hong Kong.

The joint open letter to Antonio Guterres, signed for the UK by Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, asks the Secretary General to work with national prime ministers to push the UN Security Council to approve a mandate for an envoy.

It also appeals to the United Nations to protect the “joint declaration” signed between the UK and China to underpin the handover of Hong Kong to Beijing in 1997, ensuring the city’s freedoms and way of life until 2047.

“We have a collective responsibility. The Joint Declaration is an international treaty lodged with the UN, and we are countries who share the Common Law and desire to uphold the integrity of the justice system,” the letter stated.

The call from Mr Tugendhat, with his Canadian, New Zealand and Australian counterparts, echoes similar demands last week by Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong.

It follows a decision by Beijing’s rubberstamp parliament to approve a national security law which will tighten its control of Hong Kong by criminalising separatism, subversion, terrorism, foreign interference and “acts” that threaten national security.

Western nations and legal experts warn this will end Hong Kong’s special autonomy, and effectively railroad the “one country, two systems” principle behind the legally binding joint declaration.  

Hong Kong activists fear the sweeping law, which has yet to be fleshed out, will be used to put a stop to pro-democracy protests that have rocked the Asian financial hub since last June. Their angst is reflected in the letter.

“Our concerns are heightened at this time in light of the Chinese Communist Party’s record of abuses when faced with dissent from its rule, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre which occurred 31 years ago this week,” it says.

“We believe it is imperative that the international community move rapidly to ensure there is a mechanism for observing and transparent reporting on the impact of the new law on what are currently legal freedoms in Hong Kong.”

Although the legislation would effectively bypass Hong Kong’s parliament, the Legislative Council, Carrie Lam - the city’s embattled chief executive - told state media ahead of a visit to Beijing today to discuss the national security law: "I felt at ease after the decision was made.”

But she added: “As chief executive, I have to confess it is almost impossible to have the national security legislation enacted by the local legislative council in the near future.”

Despite a pro-Beijing majority in the city’s parliament, contentious legislation has been difficult to push through.

Last year, an extradition bill that could have seen suspects from Hong Kong face trial in mainland China’s murky courts sparked mass protests for months. In 2003, national security legislation was scrapped after major demonstrations.

However, the most recent decision is expected to provoke more protests in Hong Kong this week and has also created unease in the United States, which on Wednesday revised its travel advisory, warning citizens are at risk of being netted in the broader political tussle with Beijing, 

"US citizens travelling or residing in Hong Kong may be subject to increased levels of surveillance, as well as arbitrary enforcement of laws for purposes other than maintaining law and order," the updated notice stated.

Americans may also be targeted by Beijing's broader propaganda campaign, "falsely accusing the United States of fomenting unrest in Hong Kong", especially as the new national security law's "intent is to target acts of secession or subversion of state power, the organisation or carrying out of terrorist activities, and activities interfering with Hong Kong’s internal affairs by foreign or external forces".

Amid rising tensions, the US government is also reportedly looking to sell the consular staff quarters it owns in Hong Kong. 

All this comes after the US said last week that it would revoke special status for Hong Kong, which has long afforded preferential treatment that helped the city become a global financial hub.