Clara has been a regular face outside the Cabinet Office in London in recent weeks, chanting “Do not betray Hong Kong!” and hoping her words reach ministers discussing Brexit inside.

Her new campaign group is one of a growing chorus of voices pushing for Britain to offer full citizenship to the people of Hong Kong as the former colony endures its worst political crisis since its handover to China in 1997.

As pressure increases on the government to honour its historic relationship with the Asian financial hub, hundreds of protesters also gathered outside the British Consulate in Hong Kong late last month urging London to upgrade Hongkongers’ status.

File Photo: Isaac Yee/HKFP.

Three months of pro-democracy protests have seen violent clashes, sweeping arrests and police brutality, with the ever-present uncertainty of what Beijing might do next to bring the semi-autonomous Chinese city to heel.

The formal withdrawal last week of the bill that sparked the protests, which would have allowed Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to China for trial, shows little sign of assuaging public anger on the wider issues of eroding freedoms, democratic reform and governance of the city.

Concerns have grown in recent years that Beijing is trampling over the “one country, two systems” set-up enshrined in the handover deal with Britain, which gives Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy from China.

With the resolution of the crisis far from guaranteed, groups like Clara’s UK-based “Friends of Hong Kong” have intensified demands for Britain to upgrade the British National (Overseas) passports that were offered to residents before the city was returned to China and which do not include the right to live and work in the UK.

Photo: Friends of Hong Kong.

A change in passport status would be “the best way to show Beijing that Britain really means it when it says it stands by Hong Kong”, said Clara, an IT worker who was born in Hong Kong. She gained British citizenship ahead of the handover by living and working in the UK for five years, spurred by anxiety over what life would be like under Chinese Communist Party rule.

Now she feels “guilty” about her advantage and wants to help other Hongkongers find an escape route. Keenly aware her demands will be a hard sell, given that Britain’s vote to leave the European Union was partly driven by anti-immigration sentiment, she argues most Hongkongers see British citizenship as a safeguard for the future, rather than wanting to immediately flee to the UK.

“(Hong Kong people) have very good skills. We’re one of the best-educated peoples in the world. Even if a large number come over, they will be contributing a lot to the economy,” she said.

“We’re under no illusion that the BN(O) upgrade will be straightforward, so we’re prepared for a long fight ahead,” she added.

A protest on June 26 in Hong Kong. Photo: Darius Chan Ho Shun/CHRF.

Clara did not want to give her full name for fear of repercussions against family members still living in Hong Kong.

Historic duty

Currently, around 170,000 Hongkongers hold valid BN(O) passports, with interest in renewals rising.

Many who hold the document feel a deep sense of unfairness at what they see as a second-rate status that recognises them as British nationals and gives them the right to vote in UK elections, yet classes them as foreigners at immigration.

Since the Hong Kong protests began in June, and calls to upgrade BN(O) status have grown louder, the demand has gained more traction with some MPs. Tom Tugendhat, chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, has said that full citizenship rights should be extended to BN(O) holders as a form of reassurance of British support.

Conservative MP Steve Double has presented a petition in parliament on behalf of BN(O) holders asking for an urgent review of their status and believes Britain has a “historic duty” to stand by them. Double backed Brexit and now sees it as a chance to address the passport issue.

“By ending free movement within the EU, it provides the opportunity for the UK to become much more outward-looking globally. There are many very educated, very talented — particularly young people — in Hong Kong who I think could make an incredible lasting contribution to the UK,” he said.

Conservative MP Steve Double. Photo: Wikicommons.

BN(O) passport holders should be given “the full set of rights” and more should also be done to enable Hong Kong students in the UK to remain after they finish their studies, Double added. Hongkongers born after 1997 cannot hold a BN(O) passport and the status cannot be handed down by their parents.

He acknowledged one of the biggest challenges will be to square support for BN(O) holders at a time when Britain needs trade deals with China.

“We don’t want to overstep the mark and completely sour our relationship with China, but equally there are times when you have to stand up and say if something is wrong,” Double said.

The issue has been taken up by other British political parties. The Chinese Liberal Democrats group, which promotes closer links between the party and the Chinese and South-East Asian community in the UK, has submitted an emergency motion for debate at its conference later this month calling for right of abode in Britain for BN(O) holders.

Executive member of the group Larry Ngan said the issue had “good support” from some senior party members.

“If something goes really wrong in Hong Kong, at least they would have somewhere to go, rather than being trapped,” Ngan added.

Johnny Patterson, director of Hong Kong Watch, an NGO that researches and monitors threats to Hong Kong’s basic freedoms, described the number of MPs across all political parties discussing Hong Kong as “striking”.

A protester holds a colonial flag outside the UK consulate in Hong Kong. File photo: HKFP.

“The British government should use every available means to stand with the people in Hong Kong. One of the best ways of doing that would be to extend the rights of BN(O) passport holders,” he said.

‘I’m British’

BN(O) holders in Hong Kong see the change in status as a moral duty for Britain, not just a pragmatic step.

They emphasise that they were born before the handover, under British rule, and that is a fundamental part of their identity.

“I’m British and (yet) I feel like a foreigner in Heathrow or Gatwick. That’s a hard feeling,“ said Gary Law, 32, a primary school teacher in Hong Kong, who is a member of a BN(O) support group.

“It’s against human rights (for Britain) to discriminate against their nationals mostly based on our ethnicity,” he added.

Others pointed out that Hongkongers were not given the chance of self-determination before the city returned to China and feel they were abandoned by the retreating colonial power. Upgrading BN(O) passports would offer some compensation.

Photo: Friends of Hong Kong.

“Britain should allow Hongkongers to have a choice, given the deteriorating situation we are facing,” said Bruce, 38, who is a BN(O) holder living in Hong Kong. “It’s time for the UK to right the wrong.”

There are also calls for help from young BN(O) holders already in the UK on short-term visas who fear going back to Hong Kong.

Hotel worker Baron, 25, who said his two-year youth mobility visa, which allows him to live, work and travel in the UK, will expire in four months, suggested Britain could prioritise young people already in the system who are paying taxes to stay and work.

“I have faced some racial discrimination issues in the UK, but at least here you can see hope, you can set your goal,” he said. “I can’t see hope in Hong Kong.”

Edwin Fung, 24, also on a youth mobility visa and employed by a marketing firm, said he hoped to apply for a higher level professional visa when his current permit ends in 2021.

Despite the fact that Britain has had its own mass protests recently against “anti-democratic” decisions by the current Conservative government, Edwin sees it as a better bet for him than Hong Kong.

“When I go back, I could get caught because of my political stance…I could get monitored by the Chinese Communist Party and the cops. You are being watched in your every step — any time, any place, a real lack of freedom,” he explained.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

Jake, a Hong Kong-born student in his 20s who is based in the UK but administrates two large BN(O) support groups in Hong Kong on the messaging app Telegram, said that people are also beginning to talk about the need for Britain to offer asylum to those under threat of political persecution.

Political will

Author Devyani Prabhat, associate professor in law at Bristol University, who specialises in migration, citizenship and nationality, says that Britain has a “moral obligation” to Hong Kong as it created a separate nationality status that has little practical value.

“British National Overseas status has created a population which has no right of abode in the UK but yet are entitled to consular protection from the British government,” she said.  “This is a confused situation and gives people no effective legal right or protection if they are caught in political turmoil and violence.”

Dr Prabhat added that Britain should allow those already in the UK under visas that are due to expire to remain. “There is a duty not to return them to areas of conflict,” she said.

She pointed out that refugee status is usually only given to non-nationals, potentially putting any asylum seekers with BN(O) passports at a disadvantage.

“It is strange if their situation becomes worse than that of foreign asylum seekers. At the minimum, they should be able to seek safety without having to make more applications,” she said.

Dr Prabhat believes Brexit offers an opportunity to reconsider what BN(O) status actually means. “The real question is of political will,” she added.

Hong Kong-based BN(O) campaigner and barrister Craig Choy said citizenship is the ultimate aim for BN(O) holders, but an extension of the youth mobility programme and asking other Commonwealth countries to include Hong Kong people when they consider freedom of movement are also ways the British government could more immediately help.

A protest in the UK on August 17. Photo: HKFP.

But the demands may yet still fall on deaf ears. Asked whether they were considering reviewing BN(O) status, the Home Office said: “We continue to believe that the best solution for Hong Kong, and the British National (Overseas) passport holders that live there, is full respect for the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

Pressed on the subject in parliament last week, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said Britain was “seriously concerned” about the situation in Hong Kong but was not going to change BN(O) status “at least at this time”.

Political commentator and legal scholar Thom Brooks, who is Dean of Durham University’s law school, said he does not see much hope for a change of policy since successive governments have been “choking off” former subjects for decades as the concept of citizenship has narrowed.

“Hong Kong falls into this,” he added. “The UK has tried to cut off more and more of the people that were its citizens in its attempt to have a kind of nation-bound, land-bound view of who can be British.”

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Laura Mannering

Laura Mannering has 20 years of experience as a journalist. She was previously AFP’s bureau chief for Hong Kong and Taiwan where she covered major international stories including the Umbrella Movement. She is now based in Europe focusing on politics, human rights and social issues.