By Stand with Hong Kong

Hongkongers are facing an attack on their freedoms and universal human rights. The leading democracies, while showing concerns to the struggle of Hongkongers, have yet to take real and meaningful action to stand with Hong Kong. When human rights are threatened in one country and the rest of the world just stands by, the very principle of ‘universal’ rights becomes utterly undermined. Human rights are universal rights. The whole world should be fighting for these rights together.

The world needs to stand up to fight for the rights that are so crucial to us all. Here’s how the UK can help—by expanding rights which are currently available to British National (Overseas) [BN(O)], the UK could provide a form of security for those continuing to fight for their freedom.

A protester showed her British passport. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

More than most, the UK has a unique historical and moral duty to protect the executive, legislative and judicial independence of Hong Kong. When the sovereignty of Hong Kong was handed to China from the UK, the handover was based on the assumption that several conditions would be respected, as specified under the legally binding Sino-British Joint Declaration, a treaty that was signed by both countries.

This treaty, lodged with the United Nations, guarantees Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy… vested with independent executive, legislative and judicial powers”. These crucial guarantees have been dismantled by the Hong Kong authorities and China on several accounts over the past year, resulting in the political chaos and strong protest movement that has subsequently unfolded.

The BN(O) status was created in the run-up to the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong. It is a symbol of Hongkongers maintaining links with the UK, yet being a passport issued by the UK, the BN(O) provides no substantial rights.  Hongkongers with BN(O) passports can access consular services outside of China and Hong Kong, and have the right to visit the UK for a period of merely 6 months.

Hong Kong handover ceremony in 1997.

A BN(O) passport bearer has even less rights in the UK than EU nationals under current terms, as they cannot work or study without obtaining a visa like other foreign nationals.  The fact that BN(O)s have such limited rights shows a real problem now when many Hongkongers are fearing their safety in their own homes.  The UK must do more to defend Hongkongers’ universal rights and provide them with a safe sanctuary as they continue to fight for a democratic future.

Through the Joint Declaration, the UK promised Hongkongers that upon the end of British rule, they would retain the freedoms and way of life that is unheard of in mainland China for at least 50 years. The Declaration specifies that “the current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the life-style, rights and freedoms. Yet, many of these vital rights have been taken away.

Freedom of assembly has been decimated through brutal police suppression of the right to protest. Freedom of speech has been destroyed through the police’s persecution of journalists and human rights observers. Just last week, Hong Kong police arrested three veteran pro-democracy figures without warrant or notice. The Hong Kong government is using intimidation and force to take revenge on those standing with Hongkongers on the front lines.

Police arrest protesters on CUHK campus. Photo: Stand News.

The UK’s promise to the people of Hong Kong has been broken on countless occasions. The Joint Declaration has been breached. Many of the very basic rights and freedoms that were guaranteed to Hongkongers have been quashed. It is time for the UK to act.

Liberal Democrats MP Alistair Carmichael offers a much-needed support to Hongkongers. He has said this week that “we [the UK] must uphold the promises we have made to the people of Hong Kong” by expanding rights which are available to holders of BN(O) status. Mr Carmichael has proposed a Bill which will guarantee two things. Firstly, he wishes to renew applications for BN(O) passports.

Secondly, he wants to ensure that all of those with BN(O) passports are entitled to reside in the UK permanently. Currently, some 248,000 people hold BN(O) status in Hong Kong, however a further 2.73 million would become eligible if his proposal is adopted. This would mean that half of Hong Kong’s population could seek refuge and a safe home here in the UK should it become necessary.

As its former colonial ruler and protectorate of Hong Kong’s legal and democratic independence from China, we have a responsibility to protect its people. If passed into law, the UK would truly offer a long-term solution to an equally long-term problem. Please ask your local MP to support this meaningful Bill which, if accepted, can provide some Hongkongers with a sanctuary so that they can continue their fight for freedom with some certainty of a safe way out. It will not be passed into law without the support of other parliamentarians.

Alistair Carmichel MP is not alone in supporting Hong Kong. Many politicians from a vast spectrum of political parties are similarly beginning to listen to the needs of Hongkongers. But the British Government has been reluctant to fully collaborate. In the past, both the Foreign Office and Home Office had been claiming they could not expand BN(O) citizenship because Lord Goldsmith QC, the former Attorney General, advised that expanding these rights would cause a breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Yet, it has been revealed this week that such a claim is a fallacy.

Goldsmith personally wrote to both the Home and Foreign Office to explain that he advised no such thing. Much to the contrary, Goldsmith explained: “it is my view that the UK government can extend full right of abode to BN(O) passport holders without breaching its side of the Sino-British Joint Declaration”. He also stated that the UK government is able to “make it easier for those on working holiday or student visas from Hong Kong to access indefinite leave to remain”.

The BN(O) passport. A distinctive feature is that it does not have “European Union” on top. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Goldsmith’s words are powerful. They come from a highly respected source and one that cannot be refuted.  The UK government needs to listen to members of its own parliament, who on many occasions have lobbied for the expansion of BN(O) rights. The sentiments of British citizens are admirable and heart-warming too, with a recent poll by Hong Kong Watch demonstrating that British voters are more than twice as likely to support granting right of abode to BNO Passport holders as they are to oppose it.

When Hong Kong was handed to China in 1997, Hongkongers were cautiously optimistic about their future. 23 years later, the rights were once promised to them are now being crushed and cast aside. It’s time for the UK to take up her responsibility and provide tangible assistance to Hongkongers.  The most immediate way would be to expand their citizenship rights here in the UK as a way of providing them with vital lifeline, so Hongkongers could gain more confidence for their future when they continue the fight for democracy.

“Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” is a grassroots organisation fighting for the freedom of Hong Kong. Members of “Stand with Hong Kong” come from all walks of life and range widely in age and profession. Some of them are based in Hong Kong while others are based here in the UK and across Europe; however, they all call Hong Kong their home.

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.