UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK will extend residency rights and a path to citizenship for up to 3 million people in Hong Kong, a move which was criticized as a “hypocritical” offer.
History serves as a strong dose of sobriety. The British National Overseas (BNO) Passports were issued by the UK government right before Hong Kong’s handover in 1997. At that time, some people in Hong Kong were uncertain about the future and wanted to come to the UK, but the UK was worried that it would increase its own employment difficulties.
As a compromise, the passport is basically a travel document which allows its carriers to visit Britain visa-free for six months, but they do not have the right of abode and cannot work in the country, nor do they have access to public funds, like government benefits.
Under the British government’s current plan, about 350,000 BNO passport holders, and 2.6 million others eligible, will be able to come to the UK, including the right to work and study, for five years. At this point, they will be able to apply for settled status, and after a further year, seek British citizenship.
Last year, a group of Hong Kong residents holding BNO passports signed a letter calling for the UK to give BNO passport "comprehensive British citizenship", and the British government made it clear to refuse. Why it changed its mind in over a year and at this specific moment is something worth thinking about.
The Chinese Embassy in Britain expressed China’s firm opposition to this offer on Thursday. “All Chinese compatriots in Hong Kong are Chinese citizens, whether they hold a BNO passport or not,” the spokesperson said.
In memoranda exchanged between the two sides, the UK declared it would not confer the right of abode to Chinese citizens in Hong Kong holding BNO passports. "If the British side makes unilateral changes to the relevant practice, it will breach its own position and pledges, as well as international law and basic norms governing international relations," the spokesperson added.
The spokesperson also urged the UK to view objectively and fairly the national security legislation for Hong Kong SAR, respect China's position and concerns, and refrain from interfering in Hong Kong affairs in any form.
Back to the country itself, it is facing serious unemployment problems under the double pressure and uncertainty of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Data from the UK National Statistics office shows the number of people claiming unemployment benefits rose to 2.8 million in May, the highest since 1993. And experts predict this could surge to 3.5 million this year. How will the UK settle BNO passport holders when the strain on the country's job system has already been so intense? And why bother?
In addition, the country has been taking a tough stance on immigration, and taking back control of its borders was one of the UK's main focuses in Brexit. The British government introduced a points-based system for migrants in February, setting a high bar on income levels and work experience.
However, surprisingly, there would be no income test requirement for the path to citizenship, or a cap on numbers for BNO passport holders from Hong Kong.
Examining from the angles of intention and feasibility, the UK’s new attempt on BNO passports is essentially a “hypocritical” offer based on a political agenda, far from a “real concern” for the people in Hong Kong. British politicians simply want to politicize the BNO passport, holding this group of Hong Kong compatriots as a political leverage.