Newton Emerson: UK is failing the people of Hong Kong for a second time

Assertive diplomacy with China would be more use than talk of extending nationality

Thousands took to the streets in Hong Kong on Sunday in protest against Beijing’s plan to impose national security laws on the semi-autonomous region. Video: Reuters

 

Debate has sparked up again in the UK about extending full British nationality to Hong Kong citizens, following Beijing’s latest threats against the city.

Atonement and pride drive much British support for this idea.

About half of Hong Kong’s seven million residents are entitled to a British National (Overseas) passport, a third-class form of nationality created solely for them.

People in smaller, whiter overseas territories are entitled to full British passports but fear of mass immigration saw this being stripped from Hong Kong.

The BN(O) passport is just a travel identification document, granting visa-free visits to the UK in theory, if not always in practice, but no citizenship or residency rights.

It is a sign of desperation, as well as huge generational change, to see young pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong adopt the United Kingdom flag

It was already in place when London negotiated its 1984 deal with Beijing to return Hong Kong. China does not permit dual citizenship and the UK gave an understanding it would not compete with China on citizenship for Hong Kong people.

This caused years of guilty debate in the UK leading up to the 1997 handover.

The British government’s spinelessness was exposed in 1987 when Portugal agreed the handover of Macau without denying its residents full Portuguese citizenship, entitling them to EU free movement in the UK.

There were frequent speeches in Westminster imploring a rethink for the sake of British honour, but in Hong Kong itself people had been insulted enough.

I lived there in the early 1990s and remember the mood: Europe was the past, Asia was the future and Hong Kong would be China’s democratising gateway to the world. Anyone who wanted a back-up passport looked to Canada, while anyone who actually wanted to emigrate dreamed of the United States.

Most people were sanguine, despite the Tiananmen Square massacre, believing China would make a success of its 50-year deal with the UK in order to peacefully absorb Taiwan – its ultimate goal.

Above all, Hong Kong people were Chinese without question. They had never considered themselves British, so were not having their identity taken away. The colonial power was an offensive but increasingly quaint quirk of history, and nothing compared to the tragedy of 20th-century China, from which it had offered protection.

All this confidence and optimism has of course proved horribly misplaced. It is a sign of desperation, as well as huge generational change, to see young pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong adopt the United Kingdom flag. Their parents must find it grimly ironic.

The UK’s final legacy before the handover was refusing to implement modest democratic reforms, again in deference to Beijing.

The protesters have lobbied for full British citizenship for BN(O) holders, forming an “Equal Rights” campaign for right of abode that has inspired new interest in Westminster.

The British government has continued to claim it cannot breach its 1984 understanding but legal advice last week has contradicted this, on the grounds that British nationality law has changed and China has abandoned its side of the deal.

Responding to the advice, one Conservative backbencher said: “It would be a stain on our country’s reputation if other nations were to open their arms, metaphorically speaking, to Hong Kong BN(O) folk in their hour of need before the UK did so.”

This is where atonement meets national pride.

Other British supporters of right of abode have felt it necessary to promise Hong Kong residents will not arrive in the UK en masse, as only 150,000 of them bother to hold BN(O)s. So where is the protection for everyone else?

For some campaigners in Hong Kong, antagonising Beijing is the point – and it is working

Extending right of abode to the millions entitled to these passports would be aggressive, as four in 10 Hong Kong voters are pro-Beijing, and counterproductive to the democracy movement, as there is a cap on overseas nationality for elected representatives.

A simpler solution would be guaranteeing political asylum to anyone who asked for it, which comes with a five-year right to live and work in the UK, followed by the option to apply for citizenship. Taiwan is inching towards this but has said it is not worth making it official unless China sends troops into Hong Kong, as otherwise it gives Beijing “an excuse to say Taiwan is behind [the democracy] movement.”

For some campaigners in Hong Kong, antagonising Beijing is the point – and it is working. On Monday, the Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper, said it was a “brazen interference in China’s internal affairs” for British MPs to even discuss right of abode.

Hong Kong’s former chief executive was quoted saying anyone moving to the UK should get round trip tickets, in case they caught coronavirus in “the sunset empire”.

It must be asked how this focus on passports is helping Hong Kong, where nearly everyone wants to stay where they are. A serious response would involve the UK engaging in patient but assertive diplomacy with international partners, recognising its limitations yet still prepared to defend its values.

If it would not do that in 1984, it is certainly not capable of it now.

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