The Foreign Relations Consequences of Britain’s Citizenship Offer to Hong Kong

Current Events Jul 22, 2020

As a response to the implementation of Hong Kong’s new national security law, legislation which many have decried as an abolition of the territory’s “one country, two systems” arrangement with the mainland, the United Kingdom has made the people of Hong Kong an extraordinary offer.

All Hong Kong holders of British National Overseas (BNO) passports, and those eligible to apply for one, have been offered five years’ residence in the UK, after which they will be eligible to apply for citizenship. All told, roughly three million Hong Kong citizens, and all their dependents, will be able to emigrate to Britain.

So, does Britain do this out of a perceived moral responsibility for Hong Kong? If so, the moral element is probably a secondary benefit to practical considerations. Historical and cultural ties between the UK and Hong Kong may play well in the western media, but there are sufficient practical reasons for Britain to attempt to ‘poach’ talent from one of China’s richest, most educated and productive cities. Britain needs labor, innovation, capital – just about any edge it can get post-Brexit. Labour shortages, high and low-skilled, have hurt UK businesses in recent years, and the government has been devising strategies to increase immigration from around the world to replace the loss of EU workers post-Brexit. In the global pool of potential workers, Hong Kongers may lack the racial and cultural similarity of Britain’s ex-residents from the Schengen Area to ease integration into British society, but they more than make up for this with their level of education, English skills, affinity for British values, and experience in the highly-advanced post-industrial economy of Hong Kong. These points make the city a very valuable source of potential immigrants indeed. If a significant number of Hong Kongers accept Johnson’s offer, the population increase alone would be a major stimulus to Britain’s aging population and few births, however whether these would rise is doubtful given Hong Kong’s typically East Asian abysmal fertility rate.

However, despite the benefits Britain may reap from an exodus of Hong Kongers to its shores, Johnson’s government neglects to consider some negative externalities.

At the local level, Britain’s offer aids Beijing’s objectives of stamping out secessionism and unrest in Hong Kong. It is possible that a large portion of those in favour of Hong Kong autonomy, that is those who fear arrest and up to lifetime imprisonment under the new law for secessionist activism, will remove themselves to Britain, significantly dampening street protests. Left behind will be the ideologically moderate or even sympathetic to Beijing, and the most die-hard extremists, who will be easily scooped up by the National Security Law’s dragnet. If Britain is sympathetic to the protests, which it views as a rightful rebuke of Beijing for violation of the 1997 treaty guaranteeing the city’s legal autonomy from the PRC, it may be killing the movement with kindness. If, on the other hand, Johnson’s government has calculated that the protest movement is doomed in any case, the citizenship offer for BNO passport holders may simply be an opportunistic attempt to siphon off what they can of Hong Kong’s human capital, even if it seals their political fate more decisively.

Diplomatically, it is an extraordinarily belligerent move on Johnson’s part. Offering citizenship to citizens of another extant, functioning, internationally-recognized state, which is a rising superpower no less, is more typically the policy of competing states of divided nations, i.e. West and East Germany, North and South Korea, rather than Britain and China. The not-so-subtle implication of the offer is that the new state of affairs, in this case the implementation of the National Security Law, is intolerable to the point of demanding foreign intervention and the rescue of Hong Kongers, not simply political dissidents but millions of citizens of the city, from their own (national) government.

The consequence with potential for the most enduring damage to Sino-British relations is the potential “Indiafication” of Britain. Will Britain come to play host to a Hong Kong government in exile, much as India has with the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala? If Britain positions itself as the champion of the people of Hong Kong (or nation of Hong Kong, an idea many of those Britain has invited to its shores hope to realize), London may well find itself the world capital of the Hong Kong diaspora’s anti-PRC, and even nationalist activity. Signs pointing to this outcome are growing: on July 3rd it was reported that Hong Kong pro-democracy activists are planning to create a ‘parliament in exile’ beyond the reach of Beijing. The parliament will “preserve democracy and send a message to China that freedom cannot be crushed,” said activist Simon Cheng, recently granted political asylum in the UK.

Unlike the Central Tibetan Administration exiled in northern India, which lays claim to representation of an ancient national identity across vast territories with a long history of independence, an exiled Hong Kong parliament would claim to represent a single, albeit very large city which has never governed itself independently. It’s unclear what kind of influence a city government in exile could exert in international affairs; however, such a parliament in exile is increasingly likely to position itself as an aspiring national government than a municipal one. Support for Hong Kong independence, though still a minority position, is growing; in March of this year, before the passage of the National Security Law, one in five Hong Kongers supported the idea, while opposition declined to approach 50%. A poll from The Economist last year found that almost no one in Hong Kong under 30 identifies primarily as Chinese, with the ‘Hongkonger’ identity ascendant at its expense. We can expect this nascent Hong Kong nationalism to at the very least have a strong voice in the city’s exiled parliament. Cheng is also confident that more Hong Kong activists like himself will accept Britain’s citizenship offer: “The UK has sent a very good signal, [...] at least hundreds of thousands of people will come.” If just a few hundred thousand of the millions of Hong Kongers eligible for Britain’s proposed path to citizenship emigrate there, the country, which already holds a 145,000 strong Hong Kong diaspora, will quickly find itself host to the largest concentration of Hong Kongers outside China itself. India accepted some 80,000 Tibetan political refugees from Chinese-ruled Tibet in the 1950s, and their custodianship of the Dalai Lama and his government in exile has become one of the most intractable issues in Sino-Indian diplomacy. Britain today is faced with the similar possibility of an exiled government forming within its borders, for which it will be held responsible by Beijing on the international stage.

This outcome would undoubtedly place a permanent shadow over future Sino-British relations, complicating the details of any economic partnership with China which the British Chamber of Commerce identified as a policy priority in its annual position paper published last month.

Britain’s extraordinary offer to the citizens of its former colony may prove a shrewd move to stimulate its economy and broaden its labour force for decades to come. The price tag for these benefits will come in the international political sphere, where the increasingly likely formation ofa Hong Kong parliament in exile in London makes Britain, in the eyes of the CCP, a dangerous ally of the demonstrators now being arrested under the National Security Law.


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