British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised to provide a path to British citizenship for potentially millions of Hong Kongers, as China prepares to impose a draconian new national security law on the city.

That law, Johnson said in an op-ed published in the South China Morning Post Wednesday, "would curtail (Hong Kong's) freedoms and dramatically erode its autonomy," contravening the Sino-British Joint Declaration which laid the groundwork for the city's handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997. Should it come to pass, the United Kingdom will "uphold our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong," by changing immigration laws to allow more Hong Kongers to settle and work in the country.

"This would amount to one of the biggest changes in our visa system in British history. If it proves necessary, the British government will take this step and take it willingly," Johnson said.

His announcement formalizes a proposal made by UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last month to extend rights granted to holders of British National (Overseas), or BNO passports. At present, the some 350,000 people currently holding BNO passports can travel to the UK visa free for six months. The new system, Johnson said, will "allow any holder of these passports from Hong Kong to come to the UK for a renewable period of 12 months and be given further immigration rights, including the right to work, which could place them on a route to citizenship."

That idea has already been met with outrage by Beijing, which accused London of breaching its treaty obligations, even as a foreign ministry spokesman argued that the Sino-British Joint Declaration was "completely fulfilled" and no longer in effect.

"All Chinese compatriots residing in Hong Kong are Chinese nationals, whether or not they are holders of the British Dependent Territories Citizens passport or the British National (Overseas) passport," spokesman Zhao Lijian said last week. "China reserves the right to take corresponding measures."

In his op-ed, Johnson said it was China who was "in direct conflict with its obligations under the Joint Declaration, a legally binding treaty registered with the United Nations."

"Instead of making false allegations -- such as claiming that the UK somehow organized the protests -- or casting doubt over the Joint Declaration, I hope that China will work alongside the international community to preserve everything that has allowed Hong Kong to thrive," he said, referring to China's continued insistence that last year's pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong were orchestrated by foreign agents.

Hong Kong and Chinese officials have argued that concern over the law is overblown, and defended it as necessary for targeting "terrorists" and separatists in the city. Speaking to CNN last month, Hong Kong's Chief Secretary, Matthew Cheung, said that "99.99% of the Hong Kong population will not be affected, they'll go about their lives, they continue their investment in Hong Kong."

What is a BNO passport?

During negotiations over Hong Kong's future in the 1980s, there were fears in both London and Beijing that a large proportion of the city's population -- which was not consulted during handover talks -- would choose to leave rather than remain under Chinese rule.

For over 100 years, anyone born in the then-colony of Hong Kong was a British subject, though without many of the benefits and rights of those born in the UK. As decolonization took hold worldwide, however, and some in London feared that former colonial citizens would move en masse to the UK, these rights were gradually stripped away.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration took this even further, creating for those born in British Hong Kong the new category of British National (Overseas), which did not confer the right of abode and effectively made them citizens in name only, while providing limited benefits such as easier travel to the UK and other parts of the world.

Paddy Ashdown, a Liberal politician who campaigned against the change, said in 2018 that "the BNO, sarcastically referred to by Hong Kongers as 'Britain says no', was viewed as a betrayal as the UK just canceled the citizenship of her former colonial subjects."

BNO holders have long campaigned for the UK to provide them a path to citizenship in the country that ruled their city for 150 years. The campaign has grown in recent years, as Hong Kong's system of semi-autonomous governance grows ever-shakier under increased Chinese pressure.

A local pressure group, Britons in Hong Kong, has held rallies to call for London to look at its "inescapable legal, historical and moral responsibility for Hong Kong and British Nationals (Overseas)."

What benefits do BNO passports provide?

Since 1997, the benefits of a BNO passport have been very limited. BNO holders are entitled to British consular services around the world, except in Hong Kong, Macao and China, and also enjoy the right to vote in Britain.

In terms of global travel, however, holders of a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) passport issued by the Chinese government can actually visit more countries visa free (168), than those traveling on a BNO document (118), according to the Henley & Partners Passport Index. Both HKSAR and BNO passports grant holders six-month visa-free travel to the UK.

Of the almost three million people in the city born before handover and therefore eligible for BNO passports, only some 350,000 currently hold one.

Speaking to CNN before Johnson's announcement this week, Samantha Chan, a 27-year-old Hong Konger, said she saw her BNO passport more as a backup travel document, in case the city one day faces the same visa restrictions as residents of the Chinese mainland.

"If one day the Hong Kong passport loses its visa-free agreement with many countries due to political reasons, at least I still have another passport that allows me to travel around," Chan said.

How will this change?

China's national security law, coming on the back of months of increasingly violent anti-government pro-democracy protests last year, has renewed a desire among many Hong Kongers to leave the city, or at least have the right to do so in case of the worst.

As well as criminalizing "treason, secession, sedition (and) subversion" against the central government, the law will also enable Chinese national security organs to operate in the city "to fulfill relevant duties to safeguard national security in accordance with the law." While the city's government has insisted it will only affect a handful of people, even they admit they do not know the full scope of the legislation, and critics point to the broad application of national security laws against all manner of dissent in China.

"Many people in Hong Kong fear their way of life -- which China pledged to uphold -- is under threat," Johnson said. "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."

To this end, the UK will massively extend the rights granted BNO holders, providing them a path to citizenship in the UK. Raab, the Foreign Secretary, had previously suggested that this right would only apply to existing BNO holders, but in his op-ed Johnson appeared to suggest that anyone eligible for the document would be treated the same way.

"We have tried to proceed at the right moment and in the right way, with the generosity of spirit that defines this country at its very finest and in a way that reaches out to and shows people in Hong Kong that if China follows through on this they can come to the warm embrace of this country," Raab said Tuesday in the House of Commons.

He added that London has been in discussion with other Five Eyes nations -- the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand -- about "the possibility of burden sharing if we see a mass exodus from Hong Kong."

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that Washington "is considering" enabling more Hong Kongers to immigrate to America if the Chinese law goes ahead.

In his op-ed, Johnson made clear that he hopes the growing international pressure will cause China to step back from the proposed law, though most experts agree this is unlikely, and part of the justification for the legislation is fears in Beijing of foreign "interference" in Hong Kong.

"I still hope that China will remember that responsibilities go hand in glove with strength and leadership," Johnson said. "As China plays a greater role on the international stage -- commensurate with its economic prowess -- then its authority will rest not simply on its global weight but on its reputation for fair dealing and magnanimity."

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