In Depth

Reaction: China warns Britain against ‘opening doors’ to Hongkongers

Chinese ambassador says UK’s offer to three million of the territory’s residents breaches international law

China has warned Britain against granting residency to Hongkongers fleeing harsh new security laws, in an escalation of tensions after Boris Johnson pledged to honour the offer.

The prime minister told MPs yesterday that the UK would open its doors to the three million residents of the former colony with British National Overseas (BNO) status, after Beijing passed “draconian” legislation aimed at cracking down on dissent. 

But just “hours after the Chinese ambassador to the UK was summoned to the Foreign Office”, the Chinese embassy in London released a statement “reasserting its view that all Hong Kong residents are Chinese nationals” and vowing to take “corresponding measures” to prevent any from claiming UK residency, The Times reports.

The Chinese embassy also accused the British government of “breaking its promise in a UK-China memo not to extend the right of abode to Hong Kong residents with BNO passports”, the newspaper adds.

It is “clear... that all Chinese compatriots residing in Hong Kong are Chinese nationals, whether or not they are holders of the British Dependent Territories Citizens passport or the British National Overseas passport”, said China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming. 

“The UK has no sovereignty, jurisdiction or right of ‘supervision’ over Hong Kong.”

China’s harsh rebuke came after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab admitted that the UK could not “coercively force” Beijing to allow Hongkongers to leave the territory.

However, Johnson described the new security legislation as a “clear and serious breach” of the Sino-British joint declaration, which as The Guardian explains, “aimed to smooth the transition when the territory was handed back to China in 1997”.

Speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions, Johnson added: “It violates Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and is in direct conflict with Hong Kong basic law.”

The PM is taking a “bold” stance with his offer to Hongkongers, says Bloomberg’s Therese Raphael.

“Hong Kong is a matter of historical obligation and pride, since China has ignored the terms on which Britain handed back the territory,” he writes.

The residency offer “fits more with Johnson’s former liberal views on immigration than the poisonous rhetoric of the Brexit era”, Raphael continues, although “it won’t have been lost on this government that many of the potential newcomers have fairly deep pockets and are well educated”.

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BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg notes that “this kind of citizenship was not offered, despite some calls to do so, at the time when Hong Kong was handed back to China”. 

“That handover took place on the basis that its partial democracy and market economy would be respected,” she continues, but those principles have “been eroded so visibly in recent years”.

“The decision also reflects a souring of the atmosphere around relations between the UK and China,” Kuenssberg adds.

Responding to a question in the Commons about economic and political ties with the Asian superpower,  Johnson said:  “I’m not going to get drawn into Sinophobia because I’m not a Sinophobe.” 

But challenging China over the rights of Hong Kong residents means “the characteristics of the relationship between the two countries have definitely changed”, Kuenssberg concludes.

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