By Gwynne Dyer
“We will grant BNOs five years’ limited leave to remain (in the United Kingdom), with the right to work or study,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the UK parliament on July 1. “After five years, they will be able to apply for settled status. After a further twelve month with settled status, they will be able to apply for citizenship.”
The stunning thing about this promise is that it applies to all three million people in Hong Kong – almost half the population – who have British National (Overseas) status by virtue of having been born there before the former British colony was handed back to the People’s Republic of China in 1997.
As Raab said: “all those with BNO status will be eligible, as will their family dependants who are ordinarily resident in Hong Kong. The Home Office will put in place a simple, streamlined application process. There will be no quota on numbers.”
Britain is under no legal obligation to do this. It is a debt of honour, however, as it negotiated the agreement with China that allowed Hong Kong to keep the rule of law, free speech, and freedom of the press for 50 years after the hand-over in 1997.
China has broken that ‘one country, two systems’ deal: Hong Kongers can only expect a thinly disguised Communist dictatorship from now on. And Britain, astonishingly, is acknowledging its debt of honour and offering to pay it.
It’s not just Hong Kong’s freedom that’s over. As Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor, wrote recently: “If China destroys the rule of law in Hong Kong, it will ruin the city’s chances of continuing to be a great international financial hub that mediates about two-thirds of the direct investment in and out of China.”
So Hong Kong’s residents have two good reasons to leave: their freedoms are gone, and the economic future is grim. Many will decide to leave, but where can they go?
For the 300,000 Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, the 100,000 Australian citizens, the 100,000 British citizens and the 85,000 Americans, it’s easy. Most are ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong who knew that you could never trust the Communists, and took out an insurance policy long ago by emigrating to another country and acquiring citizenship.
Most of them even bought houses, but then they moved back to Hong Kong to be with their wider family and make better money. Many will go soon, because the Communist regime may start forbidding people to leave.
For the three million more who have BNO status, it’s a harder choice. They have much less money, and no houses, no contacts, no jobs waiting for them in Britain. It would still be surprising if at least half a million of them don’t take up the British offer.
Just one little problem: the children of people with BNO status who were born after 1997 but are too old to qualify as dependants – the 18 to 23-year-olds – are not currently eligible for BNO status. That includes a majority of the young adults who were active in the protests. But the British government says it is considering their case.
And one little doubt. It is still hard to believe that an ultra-nationalist British government that won the Brexit referendum on a wave of anti-foreign rhetoric, and a Home Office that still stubbornly maintains a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants, will really keep these promises.
It would be nice if they kept their word, but it would also be quite surprising.