British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Wednesday that the United Kingdom could extend as many as 3 million visas to Hong Kong residents if China follows through with plans to enact a draconian legal measure subsuming control of the island city-state’s government and imposing their own law enforcement.
The New York Times reports that Johnson opened the doors to the 3 million Hong Kong residents who are eligible to live and work in the U.K., full access. Many Hong Kong residents are eligible for a British “overseas passport” because they lived on the island at the time the U.K. returned control of Hong Kong back to China under the promise that China would allow Hong Kong to remain a democratic country.
“Describing what he proposed as one of the biggest changes in Britain’s visa regime in history, Mr. Johnson said the 350,000 Hong Kong residents who hold British national overseas passports, as well as some 2.5 million who are eligible to apply for them, would be granted 12-month renewable visas that would put them on a path to citizenship,” the Times said, basing its report on an op-ed by Johnson printed in the U.K.’s Telegraph.
Johnson did not specify how the immigration process would work or whether Hong Kong residents would be fast-tracked or treated like political refugees. He also made no mention of what action, on the part of China, would trigger the immigration changes — but the plans, he said, are in place.
“Many people in Hong Kong fear that their way of life — which China pledged to uphold — is under threat,” Johnson wrote. “If China proceeds to justify their fears, then Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away; instead we will honor our obligations and provide an alternative.”
China decided, in late May, to take an aggressive approach to ongoing political unrest in Hong Kong — unrest that stems from a Chinese effort, in mid-2019, to force Hong Kong’s Chinese-friendly government, and its chief executive, Carrie Lam, to pass a measure allowing Chinese law enforcement to identify, conduct surveillance on, and even arrest Chinese “dissidents” living in Hong Kong.
That measure set off months of increasingly violent protests, many involving a majority of Hong Kong’s 7 million people. In some cases, as many as 3 million Hong Kong residents gathered to oppose the bill.
Lam was eventually forced to table the legislation, but that did little to quell concern. Using Hong Kong’s inability to control the unrest as an excuse, and the coronavirus-related lockdown as cover, China began moving in to handle the protests on their own, eventually proposing a law, which passed the Chinese legislature last week, allowing China to take over law enforcement inside Hong Kong.
The U.K. and the United States have been united in their opposition to the measure, with the U.S. calling the law a violation of China’s 1980s, United Nations-ratified treaty with Britain, and proposing major tariffs and trade consequences. Wednesday’s announcement by Johnson, however, is the west’s most aggressive move by far.
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