China’s foreign ministry has accused former colonial power Britain of interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs after London expanded its BNO passport emigration scheme, which has already spurred tens of thousands of Hongkongers to leave the city.

The latest arrangements will allow adults born after Hong Kong’s Handover to China on July 1, 1997 – who have at least one parent as a BNO passport holder – to settle in the UK. The new measure is expected to begin at the end of November.

File photo: Jimmy Lam/United Social Press.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong said the UK was attempting to transfer its internal conflicts, stirring up political issues to reap economic benefits. More Hongkongers would only become “second-class citizens” under the “emigration trap,” the spokesperson said in a statement on Wednesday.

The British government’s move was a “serious” violation of international law and “the basic principle of international relations,” claimed the spokesperson.

London’s move, in the midst of an exodus of residents from Hong Kong, comes just as Chief Executive John Lee launches programmes to attract talent. Lee has rejected the use of the term “emigration wave” to describe Hong Kong’s declining population. He said the city had long seen people “shuttling in and out,” and that residents leave for a variety of factors, including education and family reasons.

Chief Executive John Lee met the press after announcing his first Policy Address on October 19, 2022. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

Hong Kong has seen its largest mid-year population decline ever, according to official statistics released in August. The population dipped by 1.6 per cent, with around 113,200 Hong Kong residents leaving between mid-2021 and mid-2022.

UK scheme

The UK scheme, which was launched last year as a response to the enactment of the Beijing-imposed national security law, allows holders of British National (Overseas) passports and their dependants to apply for permanent settlement following a five-year stay in Britain, and for citizenship after the sixth year.

BNO passports were issued to Hongkongers born before the Handover as a compromise between Beijing and Britain. They did not previously confer any right to settle permanently in Britain.

The expansion of the BNO visa scheme was announced as the House of Commons was discussing on Tuesday an incident in which a Hong Kong protester was dragged into the Chinese consulate in Manchester and beaten up.

Photo: The Commissioner’s Office of China’s Foreign Ministry in the Hong Kong SAR.

The visa scheme has in the past drawn criticism from the Hong Kong and central governments, with Beijing saying that it no longer recognised BNO passports. According to the Home Office in August, over 130,000 applications had been approved since the scheme was launched in January last year.

Hong Kong’s then-chief executive Carrie Lam said that the UK had deviated from the “consensus on how to handle BNO passports.”

“If someone has now unilaterally deviated from the consensus, it would be a matter of course for the other party to take some action,” Lam said at the time.

The national security law imposed by Beijing in June 2020, criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.

The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

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Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.