London vs Beijing: How a pathway to British Citizenship has ignited a diplomatic dispute over Hong Kong

Ben Askew | Thursday 8th April 2021

Hong Kong has long been a valued bridge between China and the West. Over the past 18 months, however, the former British colony has increasingly become a stage for China to showcase a more aggressive foreign policy.

Last summer, the Chinese Communist Party passed The National Security Law. The piece of legislation permits mainland Chinese police to operate within Hong Kong. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has labelled the controversial new law as a “serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration”. The Declaration, signed in 1984 by Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, transferred Hong Kong’s sovereignty from Britain to China, establishing “one country, two systems”. Hong Kong became part of China but maintained its own economic and administrative systems. 

Hong Kongers greeted the new law with outrage, with tens of thousands of protesting on the city’s streets. The Vice-Chairman of China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress Wang Chen has stated that China has introduced the law to tackle the “increasingly notable security risks” in the special administrative region, but British Foreign Secretary Dominic Rabb has argued that China is “curtailing” the freedoms of Hong Kong citizens. In recent years, Hong Kong has been the scene of mass protests, which worries neighbouring Mainland China, where citizens do not have the right to protest against the Government. The city has a strong pro-democracy movement, which aims to loosen Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong’s leadership and maintain the freedoms eroded by Chinese interference – namely the rule of law, freedom of speech, and democratic elections. The unrest in 2019 amounted to “one of the largest mass protests in history”, and campaigners were even nominated for the Nobel peace prize in February by US lawmakers.

The British Government recently responded to the new law by introducing a visa pathway scheme, which offers some Hong Kong residents the right to live in the U.K. and a pathway to British citizenship that is not otherwise as easily available. Those eligible include those who hold a British National Overseas (BNO) Passport and their dependents. Up to three million Hong Kongers have received an offer to join the scheme – 70% of its population – and experts expect that around 300,000 will take it up over the next three years. 

Over the past few weeks, the Chinese government has attempted to halt the use of the BNO, instructing 14 governments to stop accepting the passport as a valid form of identification. What has followed has been a series of rebuttals by China, which has argued that the west has fabricated claims of western claims of autocratic Chinese interference in Hong Kong. A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry has said that the U.K. has “no supervisory power or so-called moral responsibility for Hong Kong after Hong Kong’s return to its motherland and has no qualification or legal basis to interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs”.

Only time will tell whether the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, alongside possible Western sanctions against China, will have an impact on the ground, but for now, what remains is a diplomatic war of words between China and the U.K., with Hong Kong bearing the brunt of the damage.

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