– Many people in Hong Kong fear their way of life, which China pledged to uphold, is under threat,’ prime minister says
- Samuel Osborne @SamuelOsborne93, The Independent (UK)
The UK will “provide an alternative” for nearly 3 million Hong Kong citizens if China imposes a national security law over the semi-autonomous territory, Boris Johnson has said.
Writing in a column published online on Wednesday by the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, the prime minister said the law would curtail freedoms in Hong Kong and erode its autonomy.
“Many people in Hong Kong fear their way of life — which China pledged to uphold — is under threat,” he wrote. “If China proceeds to justify their fears, then Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away.”
He said the law would conflict with China’s obligations under its agreement with the United Kingdom when it took back the former British colony in 1997.
“Since the handover in 1997, the key has been the precious concept of ‘one country, two systems’, enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law and underpinned by the Joint Declaration signed by Britain and China,” Mr Johnson wrote.
It comes after China’s parliament approved a decision last week to create laws to curb sedition, secession, terrorism and foreign influence in Hong Kong.
It allowed mainland security and intelligence agencies to be stationed in the city for the first time.
The plan for the legislation followed months of often violent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Mr Johnson’s remarks came after the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, warned China to “take a step back” on Tuesday.
After Mr Johnson’s intervention, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam accused foreign critics of displaying “blatant double standards” over Beijing’s decision.
Following talks with officials in Beijing, Ms Lam said China has the same right as Britain and the US to enact legislation protecting its national security and said foreign criticism and threats of sanctions could not be justified.
She also said China was compelled to take the step at the national level because opposition in Hong Kong’s own legislature and among government critics made it impossible to do so locally.
“I can only say that the international community and some of the foreign governments have been adopting blatant double standards in dealing with this matter and commenting on this matter,” Ms Lam said.
“It is within the legitimate jurisdiction of any country to enact laws to protect and safeguard national security,” Ms Lam said. ”USA is no exception. UK is no exception.
“So why should they object, resist or even condemn and take their sanctions against Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China for taking similar actions?”
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian reiterated China’s stance that the agreement with the UK, known as the Sino-British Joint Declaration, was essentially null and void.
“The UK has had no sovereignty, governance or supervision over Hong Kong since its return [to Chinese rule],” Mr Zhao said at a daily briefing.
“Therefore, the British side has no right to cite the Sino-British Joint Declaration to make irresponsible remarks on Hong Kong affairs and interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
Around 350,000 Hong Kong citizens hold British National Overseas passports, a legacy of the colonial era, and 2.5 million others are eligible to apply for them, Mr Johnson said in his column.
Long lines have formed at DHL courier offices in the city since the announcement as people rush to apply for or renew their BNO passports.
Mr Johnson, echoing earlier statements by Cabinet ministers, said if China imposes a national security law, Britain would allow holders of the BNO passports to remain for 12 months on a renewable basis and would grant them the right to work, placing them on a possible path to UK citizenship.
“This would amount to one of the biggest changes in our visa system in British history,” Mr Johnson wrote, adding, “I hope it will not come to this.”
BNO passport holders currently can stay in the UK for only up to six months.