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Britain’s duty to Hong Kong: the case for granting full UK citizenship

The time has come to right an historic wrong

When the fate of Hong Kong was last seriously considered by a British prime minister, the world looked very different. It was argued — naively — that not much would change when the colony was handed back to China in 1997. A deal had been struck. Beijing would run defense and customs control, but otherwise Hong Kong would still be self-governing. It was always unlikely that China would honor this promise, but the pretense was useful to a Tory party terrified of admitting the alternative: that Britain had a moral duty to let the Queen’s subjects stay British. Which meant allowing them to settle in the UK if they wished.

The deal is now in tatters. After gnawing away at Hong Kong’s liberties for years, Beijing is now engaged in an all-out assault. The street protests which had been going on for almost a year ended with the COVID lockdown, but China has used the interregnum to come back with the biggest crackdown yet. Last month, it said that Hong Kong will become subject to Beijing laws on ‘subversion’ — currently used to jail Tibetan and Uighur dissenters — with other crackdowns on free speech. This would mark the end of the one-country, two-systems treaty agreed in the handover and raises the question: what is Boris Johnson going to do?

The answer, so far, is quite a lot. The Prime Minister has offered a full–throated defense of the Hong Kong Chinese in a way that would have been unthinkable in the coalition years. George Osborne’s policy on China was to secure a big slice of its economic pie. As he knew, there are unwritten rules for countries playing this game: never receive the Dalai Lama as a guest; never raise the subject of human rights during foreign visits (the Chinese press praised Theresa May for perfecting this art); and never challenge Xi Jinping’s ambitions to control China’s periphery. In addition, no support should be given to Taiwan, Tibet or (especially) the young protesters waving the Union flag in the streets of Hong Kong. If any of these rules are broken, then so are relations with Beijing.

It is also extraordinary how fast Boris Johnson is dumping the policy now. The Prime Minister has emerged from the COVID crisis shaken by the extent of Britain’s reliance on China and ready to reset relations. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, has declared China to be in breach of international law with its latest crackdown and talks about Britain’s ‘historical responsibilities’. His plan, for now, is to let people come to the UK on a 12-month visa, rather than the standard six months. This is described as a ‘pathway to citizenship’.

The offer would apply to almost three million who qualify for British national (overseas) status, a consolation prize given to the Hong Kong Chinese which entitles holders to virtually nothing. It will now mean more: the right to stay in Britain for a year, with the possibility of permanent citizenship dangled tantalizingly. But this is still studded with doubt: what would actually happen at the end of the 12 months? What does ‘pathway’ mean? Few of the high-skilled migrants Britain seeks are likely to emigrate on such a promise. There is an opportunity now to go the whole way and offer full citizenship. The case for that can be made anew.

We can start with the moral argument. Most of the territory was only ever Britain’s under a 99-year lease and it had to revert. But its citizens ought never to have been parceled up with it. At the time, as Charles Moore writes hereThe Spectator argued that the Sino-British Agreement of 1984 afforded them no real protection. ‘We are giving them nothing in which they can have confidence,’ the editorial said. ‘Hong Kong is a colony, which means that Britain has an absolute responsibility to its people. Particularly as, unlike in our other colonies, the people have not asked for independence.’ Full citizenship, we argued, was the only decent offer to make.

The pretense that Hong Kong’s independence would be respected by the agreement until 2047 was impossible to keep up even when Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary. When he commemorated the 20th anniversary of handover in 2017, he ascribed the territory’s success to a ‘high degree of autonomy, as enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration’. Beijing rubbished this, with a foreign ministry spokesman dismissing the Sino-British treaty as an ‘historical document’ which ‘no longer has any practical significance’.


Beijing has since been as good as its (broken) word. In 2014 pro-democracy protesters used umbrellas to defend themselves against the tear gas of the police: the protests failed, and umbrellas became a symbol of the movement. Beijing has meanwhile been sending over increasingly authoritarian legislation for Hong Kong authorities to approve. The extradition law brought 12,000 on to the streets in March. Last month, it proposed to make booing during the Chinese national anthem (a ruse beloved of Hong Kong soccer fans) punishable by five years’ imprisonment. This bodes ill for the future, as does the growing military build-up in nearby Shenzhen.

It’s absurd now to think that Tories quivered at the idea of granting free movement to three million in Hong Kong, given that hundreds of millions of EU citizens had the same right. Britain has since proven itself to be the world’s most successful melting pot, integrating five million migrants over the past decade, with none of the far-right political backlash seen on the Continent. It’s hard to argue that there would be any problem in settling the Hong Kong Chinese, the best-educated and most highly skilled and productive immigrants any country could ask for. A 2016 study found that one in five Hong Kong adults planned to launch a business within the next three years.

The Brexit debate exposed several misunderstandings about concern over immigration. It’s not that people feel Britain is ‘full’, a claim made even in 1984, when our islands accommodated 10 million fewer people than they do now. The concern is about the ability to control immigration. Brexit has brought that control and, as a result, concern about immigration has plunged. Polls show Britain to be one of the most welcoming nations in the world.

At a time when countries compete for high-skilled people, Britain’s moral duty and economic self-interest have become aligned. As one Tory MP puts it, ‘The biggest question is how many of them we can win over.’ But here, Britain is at a distinct disadvantage. The Foreign Office has calculated that those leaving Hong Kong are more likely to go to countries with a large diaspora — Canada and Australia score strongly on this front, having acted to take in tens of thousands when Britain did not. Our behavior, then, will have led to a loss of confidence in Britain, and that is something we will need to make up for now. It may be that even the offer of full citizenship is not enough: paperwork fees may also have to be waived, to underline that this time we are serious.

There is plenty of precedent. In the 1960s, Uganda’s Asians were facing persecution from Idi Amin, who said he had been told in a dream to expel them. The Heath government arranged airlifts, and some 28,000 people arrived in 1972. They became, as David Cameron later put it, ‘one of the most successful groups of immigrants anywhere in the history of the world’. Among the new arrivals were Sushil and Anjana Patel, whose daughter Priti is now the Home Secretary. The parallels with today’s situation are not lost on her. For months she has been working with Dominic Raab — whose Jewish father came to Britain from Czechoslovakia to escape the Nazis — to set up a fast-stream solution for Hong Kong.

To both of them, this question is about the UK’s role in the world. As one cabinet member puts it: ‘Look around the cabinet table. There’s Dominic, Priti, Rishi Sunak: all children of immigrants who just see this whole question in a different way — that there’s a British tradition that needs to be lived up to. The PM has been absolutely rock solid on all this: he’s the one leading it.’ The pressure from Tory backbenchers this time is for the government to stand behind Hong Kong and not give in to Beijing.

To emigrate from Hong Kong requires a ‘certificate of no criminal conviction’. Demand for such certificates has recently surged to 2,500 a month, a rise of 50 percent, in a sign that there may be about to be an exodus. Portugal’s former Europe minister Bruno Maçães argues that Britain can now make itself a Eurasian capital by welcoming the best and the brightest from Hong Kong. One option, he said, is to use Brexit powers to create a Hong Kong-style low-regulation ‘charter city’ in Britain, perhaps in the north of England, and encourage the same culture of entrepreneurship. This could be combined with No. 10’s ‘leveling-up’ agenda. The opportunities are huge.

But to make the most of them, Britain will have to act fast. The decision not to offer full citizenship is understandable: a bill would take time to pass parliament and risks legal challenge from those who say other immigrant groups deserve the same. The plan for 12-month visas along with the offer of a ‘path to citizenship’ is a backdoor means of achieving the same result. So why, ministers ask, take the harder route of full citizenship and risk a backlash? The answer is that Britain has, alas, lost credibility. We let Hong Kong down badly last time, so we need to make firm assurances this time.

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Some argue that an exodus from Hong Kong would suit Beijing, removing the pro-democracy troublemakers. Perhaps that is so, but we can no longer regard them as pawns to be deployed on a diplomatic chessboard. The choice should be theirs. The past 23 years have shown that Hong Kong is not making China more democratic but China is making Hong Kong more autocratic — contrary to Britain’s promises at the time. This is precisely why the offer of full citizenship should be made now.

The Prime Minister is up for the fight. He has urged China to back down, and said Britain stands ready to act. The ‘global Britain’ agenda was his soundbite, never really given life when he was Foreign Secretary. Even presenting the option of full citizenship would empower those who wish to stay — by letting Beijing know that, if they push things too far, people will flee Hong Kong just as so many of the island’s inhabitants fled Mao’s China.

At the time of the handover, The Spectator argued that even the offer of British citizenship is a powerful form of help, because it offers ‘an insurance policy, in case the worst comes once Peking takes over’. In all other circumstances, we argued, it would be strongly in people’s interests to stay put. The worst has not (yet) come. Hong Kong remains one of the most prosperous places in the world, and for two decades its liberty has been preserved. But with Xi now pushing his authority to the limit, the time has come to offer the full citizenships that were once denied — and to right an historic wrong.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the US edition here.


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