The launch of the UK’s visa citizenship scheme has sparked fresh political discord – and China could yet respond with further measures
The aftershocks of a diplomatic fallout between the UK and China are continuing to rumble. Hong Kong became a bilateral battleground in 2020, after a controversial national security law passed in June of that year cast major doubts over the territory’s autonomy, triggering a spat with far-reaching repercussions.
The former British colony was returned to China in 1997, with the agreement stipulating a “one country, two systems” model of governance. However, the UK believes that the security law breaches the terms of the agreement and that it has eroded the territory’s status as a semi-autonomous region of China. In response, Boris Johnson announced his intention to offer citizenship to almost three million Hong Kong residents and their dependants.
This citizenship offer went live on 31 January, via a visa scheme that is open to holders of a British National (Overseas) (BNO) passport and their immediate dependants. The scheme will provide a fast-tracked route to UK citizenship. Those who are granted a visa can apply for settlement after five years, and then for British citizenship after a further 12-month period. The visa will cost £250 per person for a five-year stay – or £180 for a 30-month tenure – and there is an immigration health surcharge of up to £624 per year for each person.
China’s response to the visa launch was swift. Boris Johnson had barely finished hailing a scheme that pays tribute to the UK’s “profound ties of history and friendship” with Hong Kong before China announced that it would no longer recognise the BNO passport. While Johnson declared that “we have stood up for freedom and autonomy”, China responded by claiming that the scheme will make a prisoner of those who apply, with foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, declaring that “Britain is trying to turn large numbers of Hong Kong people into second-class British citizens”.
China’s decision to ban the BNO passport is unlikely to have major consequences for Hong Kongers travelling to the mainland, who typically use their Hong Kong passport or identity card. However, the symbolic move has done little to thaw tensions that have been barely concealed over the past months.
Large questions marks remain, however, as to how many people will take advantage of the citizenship offer. Top-end estimates peak at 322,000, out of 2.9 million eligible citizens, plus a further 2.3 million of their dependants. Some 7,000 arrived before 31 January under the Leave Outside the Rules programme, which affords the government discretion over immigration rules on compassionate grounds.
This early flow, clear evidence that the scheme is not merely for symbolic show or political posturing, could turn into a torrent in the coming months, with the government predicting that between 123,000–153,700 ‘Hong Kongers’ and their dependants will arrive in the first year alone. Migration agencies in the territory have reported a surge of interest in the wake of the application scheme’s go-live date at the end of January.
The government estimates that if 300,000 arrive, this could result in net gains of up to £2.9 billion for the British economy by 2025. Viewed through a different lens that amounts to a serious hit to Hong Kong’s treasury. A recent study by Bank of America Corp. suggests that it could face capital outflows of up to $36 billion in 2021, as a result of residents emigrating to the UK.
China and Carrie Lam’s government are unlikely to remain passive amid this drain on Hong Kong’s coffers, and what Beijing sees as a challenge to its authority. Anti-UK messaging in pro-China Hong Kong newspapers has ramped up. There have been reports that Hong Kong International Airport is being monitored by covert teams of national security police, while a planned amendment to the Immigration Ordinance includes a clause that would allow border guards to prevent flights or other forms of transportation out of the territory. Rumours also abound regarding a future exit ban.
Hong Kong’s authorities have insisted that the rights of citizens to enter or exit the territory remain unaffected, but a suggestion by Executive Council member Regina Ip, who has compared the visa scheme to “emigration prison”, that the Special Administrative Region should adopt China’s nationality law, which prohibits dual nationality, has done little to quell the anxiety.
The ball, one could argue, is firmly in the court of China and Hong Kong. If the take-up of the visa scheme is as high as has been forecast and the trickle becomes a flood, the pressure will ramp up. There is political face to save, as well as economic damages to consider. High numbers of departures could yet force Beijing’s hand. The suppression of pro-democracy activists and opposition politicians shows no signs of abating, as the pro-China government continues its crackdown on dissenting voices via the enabling national security law legislation. The imposition of the law is a case in point: China is likely to respond with an iron fist when it feels its influence in Hong Kong is being undermined.
By honouring the 1997 commitment to protect the democratic rights and freedoms of the territory’s citizens, Boris Johnson has thrown down something of a gauntlet. Recent history suggests that China is unlikely to take the challenge lying down.