Hongkongers holding a HKSAR passport are eligible for the British National (Overseas) passport (right). Photo: Asia Times

After British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that British National (Overseas) passport holders will enjoy more rights if China imposes its national security law on the territory, Hong Kong’s democrats were quick to express their views on the matter.

“If China imposes its national security law, the British government will change our immigration rules and allow any holder of these passports from Hong Kong to come to the UK for a renewable period of 12 months and be given further immigration rights, including the right to work, which could place them on a route to citizenship,” Johnson wrote in an article for The Times newspaper and the South China Morning Post.

“Many people in Hong Kong fear their way of life – which China pledged to uphold – is under threat,” he wrote.

Currently about 350,000 people in Hong Kong hold BNO passports, which allow visa-free access to Britain for up to six months. Another 2.5 million people would be eligible to apply for one.

On Monday, people queued up outside a parcel delivery firm in Admiralty as many Hongkongers rushed to renew their BNO passports. Due to the extradition law saga, the number of BNO passport renewal applications surged to 120,826 in 2019, which was about 8.5 times the number in 2018 (14,297).

Hongkongers queue up outside a parcel delivery firm in Admiralty to send BNO passport documents. Photo: RTHK

According to a recent survey compiled by the Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey, 37% of Hong Kong residents said they have considered leaving the city. The center interviewed 815 people over the phone between May 25 and 29 after Beijing said it would impose a national security law in Hong Kong this summer. In a similar survey completed in March, about 24% of the surveyed said they have considered migration. 

A Hong Kong graphic designer named Matthew told RTHK that he wanted to leave the city as soon as possible as he had lost faith in its government after it launched the extradition bill last year. He said the national security law will severely curtail Hongkongers’ rights and freedoms.

Another Hong Kong man surnamed Chong, 25, said he was thinking of emigrating to Taiwan due to what he sees as a deteriorating political situation in the city. He said he was renewing his BNO passport as a back-up plan.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, criticized the UK government for interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs. Zhao said China opposed the UK’s unilateral move to change the status of the BNO passport holders and would reserve its right to fight back.

Commenting on the survey showing that some people planned to leave Hong Kong, Zhao said China is a place where people can freely come and go. 

Brexit factor

The existing BNO passport holders, together with the 2.5 million eligible applicants, have generally welcomed the UK’s move to offer them more rights to live and work in Britain. However, many still have mixed views on the matter.

Emily Lau Wai-hing, chairwoman of the Democratic Party’s international affairs committee, wrote in a letter published in The Times on Thursday that 2.9 million BNO passport holders “continue to feel abandoned,” although the UK said it would allow them to stay the UK for a renewable period of 12 months. Lau said BNO passport holders should be granted residency directly. She said she had asked the then UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984 whether it was morally right to hand over five million Hong Kong residents to the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party. 

Andrew Shuen Pak-man, a former stock market commentator, who moved to the UK several years ago, slammed Lau for trying to use the UK’s “colonial guilt” to ask for more rights for BNO passport holders. Shuen said it took years for the British to leave the European Union and regain full control of their immigration policy. He said this generation of Britons may not believe that they have an obligation to help the people of Hong Kong.

Shuen wrote in an article published by the Apple Daily on Friday that Lau’s tone was inappropriate and could undermine a plan that would save millions of Hongkongers. He said Hongkongers should emphasize that they can help Britain connect with countries outside Europe and that they are not seeking social welfare benefits.

Hong Kong-based political commentator Kit Sze said it would be wrong to give millions of Hongkongers the right to live and work in the UK without political screening. He said a lot of pro-Beijing people, or so-called “blue ribbons,” had supported the police and opposed the pro-democracy protests over the past year.

He said these people would continue to blindly support China after they moved to the UK, just like many of the 50,000 people who were granted British citizenship before 1997.

Middle-class families

Poon Kai-tik, an advertising specialist, said on an online radio program that he had talked to some Hong Kong middle-class families and found that many of them have remained hesitant about leaving the city.

Poon said these white-collar workers, mainly employed in the education and legal sectors, could feel Beijing’s rising political threat against them so they deleted all the posts on their Facebook accounts and started censoring themselves. 

He added that unless they have children, these people will not choose to leave Hong Kong as it is not easy to live in foreign countries. He said they believe they can survive in the “one country, one system” under the national security law. 

Benjamin Au Yeung, a linguistics scholar and comedian, said in an interview that it would be a shame if Hong Kong is mainlandized as the city will remain vibrant only if it retains its freedoms. Au Yeung, who is widely seen as a moderate democrat, said he will stay in a mainlandized Hong Kong as long as the city’s financial system remains stable.  


However, political commentator Yau Ching-yuen warned that people who decide to stay in Hong Kong should not underestimate the political risks they will face. Yau said many people in the mainland have been persecuted for unintentionally offending powerful people or for not being “patriotic” enough. 

On May 29, Leung Chun-ying, former chief executive and current vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, in a Facebook post criticized HSBC for not supporting the national security law while making money from China. His post was followed by a series of criticisms against HSBC by the Chinese media.

On Thursday, Peter Wong Tung-shun, a group general manager of HSBC, said imposing the national security law in Hong Kong was the right move. Standard Chartered also issued a statement expressing its support for the law. 

Although it is generous of the UK government to offer more rights to millions of BNO passport holders, it needs a long-term policy to protect those who can’t leave Hong Kong for various reasons, said Martin Lee Chu-ming, former chairman of the Democratic Party.  

Since the extradition protests erupted in June 2019, 8,981 people have been arrested. About 1,700 of them are facing criminal charges, including illegal assembly, arson, common assault and possession of weapons. About 5,000 of them are under investigation while about 1,500 have been released. 

Of those arrested, 1,970 are college students, about 1,600 are secondary school students, and eight are primary school pupils. Some of these young people are not eligible for BNO passports as they or their parents came to Hong Kong after 1997.