BNO and SAR passports Photo: Asia Times

Should I stay or should I go?

That is the question many of the some 300,000 Hongkongers holding British National (Overseas) passports, as well as another 2.6 million who are eligible to apply for one, are asking themselves.

For people who have spent their whole lives in the former British colony, the decision to relocate to the UK can be a difficult one to make. Some are concerned about their economic prospects in the UK, while others feel guilty about abandoning pro-democracy activists who may face prosecution under China’s feared national security law.

On Wednesday, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced that Hongkongers with BNO status and their dependents would enjoy the right to work or study in Britain for five years. Raab said they would then have the right to apply for settled status and then for citizenship in their sixth year.

He said there would be “no quotas” and described the entire system as “bespoke.”

“We stand for rules and obligations,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parliament just hours after China made its first arrest in Hong Kong under the newly-established National Security Law.

“And we think that is the scientific basis for our international relations and the enactment, and deposition of this national security law constitutes a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” said Johnson.

Meanwhile, in reaction to the national security legislation, the US Congress on Tuesday began to discuss the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, which will allow Hongkongers to migrate to the US.

Many people in the former British colony praised the UK government for displaying a commitment to justice and providing them with “lifeboats,” said Kit Sze, a political commentator and a host of the online radio platform D100. The path to UK citizenship for “five plus one” years also coincidently echoed the hand gesture of “five demands, not one less” used by the Hong Kong protesters, he said.

Vincent and Chrissy, who have previously moved from Hong Kong to the UK, said the latest UK citizenship proposal for BNO passport holders was very generous and much more attractive than the previously proposed 12-month visa extension scheme. Vincent said the UK government had almost opened the door for three million Hong Kong people to become Britain citizens. Chrissy said those interested in moving from Hong Kong to the UK must take advantage of the opportunity soon because it will not last forever.

Another UK-based Hongkonger said he understood that some people may feel guilty about abandoning the pro-democracy activists, who may be arrested and jailed under the national security law. However, he said those who leave Hong Kong first may be able help those who follow them later.

Political commentator Martin Oei said although some of the three million Hongkongers who will benefit from the UK’s BNO scheme could be pro-Beijing or even work for the Hong Kong Police Force, he would not recommend the implementation of a political screening procedure, which would slow down the exodus. He said those who had supported the national security law and the Hong Kong police would be reported and punished.

On Thursday, Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, said Beijing would take “corresponding measures” to stop the UK from granting citizenship to BNO passport holders. Liu said the BNO citizenship proposal would be a violation of agreements between China and the UK.

“We firmly oppose this and reserve the right to take corresponding measures,” he said in a statement posted on the embassy’s website. “The UK has no sovereignty, jurisdiction or right of ‘supervision’ over Hong Kong.”

It is clear that “all Chinese compatriots residing in Hong Kong are Chinese nationals, whether or not they are holders of the British Dependent Territories Citizens passport or the BNO passport,” Liu said. “If the British side makes unilateral changes to the relevant practice, it will breach its own position and pledges as well as international law.”

Liu also called the UK’s criticism of the national security legislation “irresponsible and unwarranted.”

Dominic Raab has admitted there is little Britain can do to “coercively force” China if it tries to block Hongkongers from going to the UK.

According to the Article 31 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of movement within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and freedom of emigration to other countries and regions. They shall have freedom to travel and to enter or leave the Region. Unless restrained by law, holders of valid travel documents shall be free to leave the Region without special authorisation.

While praising the UK for the generous proposals, many Hongkongers are finding the decision to leave is a difficult one to make because of job market uncertainty in the UK.

Immigration consultant Billy Wong, who launched a website called Goodbye HK, Hello UK, said Hong Kong’s white-collar workers would probably secure jobs related to their expertise in the UK but they would have to accept a lower salary and pay higher taxes.

Read: UK offers Hongkongers citizenship

Read: HK democrats weigh in on British passport rights

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.