Hong Kong’s last colonial governor Lord Chris Patten says Britain’s move to offer Hongkongers who hold British National (Overseas) passports and close family members a pathway to citizenship has won support “across the board” in the UK, thanks to Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his Communist regime that “made life difficult” in the city.

In an interview with HKFP last week, Patten said the UK was not trying to act as a “magnet” for Hong Kong people. But the ex-governor who served from 1992 to 1997 and oversaw the handover to China, said British authorities felt a responsibility for those who found recent developments “much too difficult to take.”

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“I think every person who leaves Hong Kong for elsewhere is a loss to Hong Kong,” he said. “It would be a sad sign of what happens if you allow the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to replace the bauhinia as Hong Kong’s emblem with handcuffs and chains.”

London announced it would extend the immigration rights of Hongkongers with the right to a British National (Overseas) passport on July 1, a day after Beijing imposed a controversial national security law on the semi-autonomous region. BN (O) holders previously had no automatic right to live or work in Britain,

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the sweeping security law a “serious breach” of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration setting out arrangements for post-handover Hong Kong. The law criminalises secession, subversion, collusion with foreign powers and terrorist acts with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

The new BN (O) visa – open for applications from January 31 – will allow holders to stay in Britain to work and study for up to five years. They may then apply for “settled” status and seek citizenship after the sixth year. The scheme also covers a BNO holder’s adult children, their spouses and their underaged children.

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Photo: May James/HKFP.

Patten said the issue of immigration often triggered political arguments in the UK, but the question of extending residency rights to many Hongkongers had not stirred many grievances or met much pushback.

“I’m delighted and surprised that the question of giving rights to BN (O) passport holders is accepted right across the board and it is supported by some of our most rightwing newspapers and politicians,” he said.

“This is the fantastic success of Xi Jinping, to unite the Conservative Party in favour of doing the decent thing by BN (O) passport holders,” he added.

Following last year’s anti-extradition bill protests and the enactment of the security law, Hong Kong has seen an exodus to the UK. Among those who left their home city were prominent pro-democracy activist Nathan Law and former Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui, both facing criminal charges in Hong Kong.

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A photo of frontline protesters taken at a protest on August 24, 2020. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Asked if he sees the UK as a true refuge from potential threats by the Chinese authorities, Patten said there was “certainly no question” that people would be safe from being sent back to China under the national security law.

“[P]artly because we don’t have an extradition agreement and partly because it would bring down a government if anybody tried to do that,” he said.

The UK suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong in late July in protest at the Beijing-imposed security law. Countries including the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand did likewise.

Despite the halt in extradition arrangements, the extraterritorial powers asserted in the national security law have sparked fears among those living outside the city. Individuals, including non-Hong Kong permanent residents, who are deemed as committing offences against the HKSAR, could risk legal repercussions if they pass through Chinese territory.

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Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Asked whether he himself could be barred from Hong Kong due to his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government and the security law, Patten questioned why the local and central authorities are “scared” of political figures like him.

“Am I such a terrifying figure?” he asked. “It’s a profound weakness of the Communist system of governance in China that they are scared of people like me… like Martin Lee and Margaret Ng and others.”

Lee and Ng were among 15 high-profile democratic figures apprehended in April for allegedly organising and taking part in unlawful assemblies during last year’s citywide protests. Patten slammed the wave of arrests at the time as an assault on the city’s freedoms and an attempt by Beijing to “throttle” Hong Kong.

The former British governor said under the foreign interference stipulations in the new security law, he has been cautious in speaking out about the city. He said he did not want to make any remarks that would make the future more difficult for people in Hong Kong.

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Chris Patten (centre) in Hong Kong during his years as the governor. Photo: Frank Fischbeck Collection/The University of Hong Kong.

But he pointed to the doctrine of separation of powers, the free movement of ideas, the rule of law and independent courts as the foundations of Hong Kong’s success. If one of these pillars was knocked down, the city would inevitably experience an economic aftermath.

“It’s the Chinese Communist regime in Beijing that is screwing Hong Kong, which is making life difficult in Hong Kong… I don’t think it’s unreasonable to point that out,” he said.

In view of a series of unprecedented events in Hong Kong in 2020, such as the promulgation of the security law and the mass resignation of pro-democracy legislators that left almost no opposition voices in the legislature, Patten said he believed handcuffs and chains would inevitably become the symbol of Hong Kong one day.

“The head of the [United Nations rights body] said the other day that she was very concerned about the narrowing of the space for civic activity in Hong Kong, and she is not the only one… we are worrying about Hong Kong, which I said at the outset, is the most wonderful place I’ve lived in,” he said.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.