London and Canberra offer citizenship for Hongkongers

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Author: Tim Summers, Chatham House and CUHK

Following the announcement and enactment of a national security law for Hong Kong by China’s National People’s Congress, both the British and Australian governments have offered ‘pathways to citizenship’ for some of Hong Kong’s population. Why have they done this, and what are the implications?

A couple hugs each other as police fire tear gas into the crowds to disperse anti-national security law protesters during a march on the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from Britain to China, Hong Kong, 1 July 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Tyrone Siu).

A couple hugs each other as police fire tear gas into the crowds to disperse anti-national security law protesters during a march on the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from Britain to China, Hong Kong, 1 July 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Tyrone Siu).

The United Kingdom’s decision was announced in late May, confirmed in parliament on 1 July and set out in detail on 22 July. The government said that it would offer flexible five-year visas to those who qualified for the British National (Overseas) passport (BNO), after which they could begin the process of applying for citizenship. Ministers described this as a major change to UK immigration rules which would ‘change the status’ of BNOs and offer a ‘pathway to citizenship’.

The BNO status was enacted into law following the exchange of memoranda between the British and Chinese sides at the same time that the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed in December 1984. Those memoranda — negotiated by the two governments — essentially set out a quid pro quo: Beijing would allow eligible Hong Kong Chinese to travel on a BNO passport after 1997, while London would recognise their People’s Republic of China (PRC) nationality and not grant them right of abode in the United Kingdom.

As a result, individuals who were born before 1 July 1997 and registered for what was previously called the British Dependent Territories Citizenship (BDTC) status are entitled to a BNO passport. According to the British government, about 2.9 million individuals are eligible for the status. The question of right of abode for BNOs was discussed again in the early 1990s, resulting in the much more limited British Nationality Scheme which offered citizenship to 50,000 families.

The issue was revived in 2018 and lobbying gathered steam in the United Kingdom before and during last year’s unrest in Hong Kong. So while the national security law appears to have prompted the policy change, we need to look beyond it to try to understand the motivation.

There is no logical link between the BNO scheme and the implications of the national security law itself. The scheme is neither targeted at all Hongkongers, nor at the minorities who might find themselves considered ‘dissidents’ as a result of the national security law. Had that been the goal, then a targeted asylum policy would have made more sense.

Nor does the scheme obviously support Hong Kong in other ways. On the contrary, it sends a message that London has lost confidence in one of its most significant economic partners in Asia, a city which is a regional hub for British firms and a global financial centre (companies themselves are more circumspect in their responses).

The clue to interpreting London’s scheme is in the ‘BNO’ status. This legacy identity was agreed at the time of the Joint Declaration as a successor to the BDTC, itself a watered-down version of the colonial subject that did not allow right of abode in the United Kingdom.

What has prompted the current policy — and the importance attached to Hong Kong more widely — is therefore as much a reflection of historical angst as a realistic desire to influence Beijing today or to shape a better UK–Hong Kong relationship tomorrow. It has been suggested it brings to the fore the imperialist roots of ‘Global Britain’, coming to the aid of former subjects in a way that reinforces illusions of British influence after Brexit.

Having been put back on the agenda by effective lobbying in Westminster, the granting of eventual citizenship rights to BNOs allows politicians in London across the political spectrum to feel they have ‘done the right thing’ 23 years after the handover. It is an emotional policy response, not a strategic one.

How many people take up the scheme remains to be seen. If the numbers are too large, they could be difficult for the United Kingdom to absorb in a short space of time. A low take up would suggest most people do not agree that the risks of the national security law are as great as London fears. That would be good for Hong Kong and give the British government some space to row back to a position on Hong Kong’s future that better serves Britain’s economic and other interests.

A related plank of British policy has been to try to encourage other ‘five eyes’ partner countries to offer similar schemes. Australia has responded by offering a pathway to citizenship to Hongkongers who are already in the country for work or study. This is a more manageable approach, which allows the numbers to be controlled through visa issuance. But like the UK scheme, while Australia’s response will help some individuals, it will not do much for Hong Kong as a whole. Meanwhile, it has joined the list of irritants in the bilateral relationship between Canberra and Beijing, a list which at the moment is much longer than London’s.

All of these responses (along with other moves, such as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom suspending their extradition treaties) reflect a desire to punish Beijing for introducing the national security law, which was greeted with outrage in Western capitals.

The Chinese government has threatened counter-measures. It is considering withdrawing recognition of the BNO passport, and it could be awkward for the individuals involved if the citizenship obtained through these schemes was not recognised too. But Beijing is probably less concerned about migration outflows from Hong Kong today than it was in the 1980s, given China’s development since then. Ultimately the impact of these citizenship packages will be felt more by the receiving countries than by those in Beijing who make policy towards Hong Kong.

Tim Summers is a Senior Consulting Fellow of the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House and Lecturer at the Centre for China Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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