The UK’s offer to allow 3 million Hong Kong holders of British National (Overseas) passports into the country if China imposes national-security legislation (which the West claims could destroy Hong Kong’s “democratic values”) on the city might be an empty promise. It was, in fact, out of fear of massive immigration from Hong Kong that the BNO category was created to begin with, establishing that residents of the former colony were British subjects without the right of abode in the UK itself.
And even if the British government is sincere about letting such a large number of Hongkongers into the country, domestic opposition could be fierce. With the economy contracting and an unemployment rate not seen since the 1930s Great Depression, the UK can neither afford to support such a large influx, nor would the public stand for it. Against this backdrop, a government allowing massive immigration, particularly from a non-white former colony, could be committing political suicide.
Besides, the national-security law (NSL) might not be an attempt by the Chinese government to renege on the “one country, two systems” stance of allowing Hong Kong to maintain the status quo for 50 years after the 1997 handover with the exception of national defense and foreign affairs. It could indeed be argued that the law is both necessary and long overdue because of the damage that “pro-democracy” protests have inflicted on the former colony.
According to a June 8 South China Morning Post report, for example, a pro-establishment group collected almost 3 million signatures backing the NSL in eight days. According to another SCMP report, more than 60% of businesses, including British-owned HSBC and Standard Chartered, stated that the legislation would have a positive impact on the special administrative region (SAR), although “controversial” or having an adverse effect in the short term because of possible US sanctions.
Furthermore, majority support for the NSL should not be a surprise, because the “pro-democracy” protests were an excuse to disrupt the SAR’s economic, political and social institutions as a way to destabilize China.
Pan-democrat Hong Kong lawmakers blocked a government proposal to reclaim land from the sea to build social housing, exacerbating the housing crisis largely caused by large developers unwilling to build affordable homes. Social activists and ordinary citizens joined the 2014 “umbrella movement” protests to demand adequate social housing and employment opportunities rather than supporting the “pro-democracy” movement.
Moreover, foreign powers were accused of instigating, organizing and funding the protests. Chinadaily.com.cn reported on August 17, 2019, citing US news website MintPress News, that the US State Department-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) gave “significant funding” to some “pro-democracy” groups.
Hong Kong’s secretary of security also accused the US and Taiwan (in a recent SCMP report) of instigating the 2014 “umbrella movement” and 2019 “extradition law” protests, both of which paralyzed the SAR. Blatant attacks on government and private properties, mainland Chinese businesses and tourists sent the economy on a downward trajectory. Attacking people who disagreed with the protesters turned Hong Kong into a social wasteland, pitching family members, friends and co-workers against each other.
Former leaders such as Tung Chee-hwa and Leung Chun-ying accused foreign powers (read: US and UK) of being behind these violent protests. The cost and organizational skill were far beyond what the protesters could muster.
The protests were both devastating and unnecessary. The former colony did not lose any of its “democratic values” after returning to China in 1997. It could indeed be argued that Hong Kong has enjoyed just as much as if not more freedom than under British colonial rule. The central government allowed the protesters to express their views, wave foreign flags and ask the West to help them topple the Chinese and Hong Kong governments.
Under British colonial rule, on the other hand, protests were met with force and other harsh measures. The colonial government passed the Emergency Regulations Ordinance in 1922, allowing it to use force, ban freedom of expression and impose other harsh measures to suppress Chinese seamen’s strike for higher wages.
The colonial government invoked the law again during the 1967 riots against British rule. It banned “left-wing” publications and schools. The police used force to break into protesters’ strongholds and arrested the leaders.
Furthermore, Hong Kong was a cash cow for the UK, which took away locals’ land and leased it back to them. The British government even pilfered Hong Kong’s US$10 billion foreign reserve by permitting only British firms to build the new airport on Lantau Island. In contrast, Beijing invested heavily and sent millions of tourists to the SAR to boost and sustain economic growth and stability.
Indeed, the UK did not want Hong Kong return to China, which explains why then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher insisted on Deng Xiaoping honoring Opium War-era treaties. The wealth that the city afforded the UK was too lucrative to give up.
Perhaps for this reason, the UK might have intentionally incubated the SAR’s economic, political and social chaos. In the 1980s, the colonial government changed Hong Kong’s school curriculum, focusing on British or Western history, values and culture and turning a whole generation of Hong Kong people into “Anglophiles.” They were brainwashed into believing everything British – racially, culturally, etc – was superior to the Chinese.
The Western-biased education made some Hong Kong Chinese delusional, not only thinking that they were superior to their mainland cousins but even denying that they belonged to the Chinese race.
This delusion of superiority caused many in Hong Kong to resent Chinese rule, probably thinking that it was beneath them to be ruled by mainlanders. In this sense, it might be fair to suggest that some Hongkongers willingly make themselves second-class citizens preferring foreign rule.
Given its past, the British government should take responsibility for what is happening in Hong Kong today. For this reason, the British gesture of allowing 3 million Hongkongers holding BNO passports and their families the right to live in the UK is the right thing to do. Besides, many Hongkongers are hard-working and entrepreneurial, so having them in the UK could rejuvenate its sorry economy.
However, for reasons explained above, the UK is not likely to follow through with its gesture.
Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China’s Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.