Hong Kong: does British offer of citizenship to Hongkongers violate Thatcher’s deal with China?

Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong in November 2019. Jerome Favre/EPA

China has reacted angrily to an offer by the UK government to allow all Hong Kong citizens with a British National (Overseas) passport the right to come and live in the UK and give them a pathway to citizenship. China alleges that the offer violates the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration over the resumption of Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong.

The offer by the British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, followed the adoption of a resolution by China’s National People’s Congress to enact a national security law for Hong Kong. China’s move drew sharp criticism from western democracies, including the US, which announced it would begin revoking Hong Kong’s preferential trade treatment as the city was “no longer autonomous” from China.

According to the Home Office’s latest estimate, there are close to 350,000 Hongkongers who hold British National (Overseas) passports – or BN(O) passports – which were granted to all people born in Hong Kong before it was handed over from Britain to China in 1997. Since then, BN(O) passport holders have had the right to stay in the UK for a six-month period. Raab’s offer would give them the right to work and study in the UK for extendable periods of 12 months and provide “a pathway to future citizenship”.

The government further confirmed on May 29 that the offer would extend to all Hongkongers who are eligible for the BN(O) status but had not renewed their passports after expiry. This could be almost 3 million people.

Some MPs have been clamouring for the government to grant full British citizenship to BN(O) passport holders. In a letter to the British home secretary, Priti Patel, the Conservative MP Bob Seely cited the latest advice from a leading QC on nationality law, who argued that there was no legal obstacle to giving a right of abode to BN(O) passport holders. Seely said this contradicted a previous claim by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) that doing so would contravene the 1984 Joint Declaration.

Origins of BNO status

To grasp the significance of Raab’s gesture, we need to trace the origins of BN(O) back to 1981. That year, the British Nationality Act was approved, creating three separate categories of citizenship. British subjects in Hong Kong became “British Dependent Territories Citizens” (BDTCs), but they were not given the right of abode in the UK.

The 1981 Act was introduced in a period of uncertainty over the future of Hong Kong. During Anglo-Chinese negotiations over Hong Kong from 1982 to 1984, China made it plain that all Hong Kong residents of Chinese race were “Chinese nationals”, while refusing to recognise dual nationality and the status of BDTCs after 1997.

Precious. Lynn Bobo/EPA

By the time Britain and China signed the Joint Declaration in December 1984, they had reached a compromise on the nationality issue, which took the form of an exchange of memoranda. The Chinese memorandum defined all Hong Kong Chinese compatriots, including holders of BDTC passports, as “Chinese nationals”. But after 1997, people who formerly held the BDTC status would be permitted to use “travel documents” issued by the UK government.

According to the British memorandum, all British subjects in Hong Kong would cease to be BDTCs but would acquire “an appropriate status” from July 1 1997 onwards. These people would be entitled to use British passports but would not have “the right of abode in the UK”.

The “appropriate status” referred to in the British memorandum was given the title of BN(O) under the Hong Kong (British Nationality) Order of 1986. With China’s tacit agreement, the BN(O) passport stipulated that its holders had “the right of abode in Hong Kong”. With the exception of those who could afford to emigrate before the 1997 handover, the majority of the BN(O) passport holders regarded Hong Kong as their permanent home.


Read more: Why the US dollar remains crucial for Hong Kong’s economic prosperity


Reluctance of British prime ministers

The suggestion by China and, until now, the FCO that granting British citizenship to BN(O) passport holders would be in breach of the Joint Declaration may have some truth to it. The British memorandum of 1984 explicitly denied BDTCs “the right of abode” in the UK. Nevertheless, it is within the power of the UK to decide its own immigration policy towards BN(O) passport holders, even though it is bound to attract Chinese criticism.

But China’s opposition to British citizenship for Hong Kong Chinese does not tell the whole story. In the 1980s, the government of Margaret Thatcher was fearful of a massive influx of Hong Kong’s BDTCs, estimated to be 3.2 million, to the UK. Thatcher and the Home Office were determined not to open the floodgates to Hong Kong Chinese, who they deemed to have no close connection with Britain. As my own research has shown, racially and culturally, Chinese were considered to be “just different” from white Britons.

But this changed somewhat in response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown by the Chinese authorities. In 1990, the Thatcher government decided to offer British citizenship to 50,000 families in Hong Kong, selected from among over 3 million BNO passport holders.

It’s unclear what the government of Boris Johnson means by the “pathway to future citizenship”. If it means Hong Kong’s BN(O) passport holders will need to secure jobs, stay for a period of five years, and satisfy the requirements of the UK’s new points-based immigration system, then it is a far cry from fulfilling Britain’s moral responsibility for the Hong Kong people as Seely and other pro-Hong Kong activists have demanded.

One thing is clear, though. At a time when the British nation is facing an uncertain economic future due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit, with or without a deal, the last thing Johnson and Brexiteers want is a possible influx of 350,000 – or possibly 3 million – immigrants from Hong Kong.

If history is any guide, Raab’s offer, made under pressure from some MPs and possibly America, is likely to be an empty gesture. Perhaps like Thatcher, Johnson’s government will actually only be happy to grant the right of abode to a fraction of BN(O) passport holders, mainly entrepreneurs, professionals and people deemed politically sensitive.

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