Boris Johnson Pledges to Change Hong Kong Immigration Rules if China Passes Law

Boris Johnson raised the stakes in a meeting with China this Wednesday. He pledged to change the current immigration laws and allow millions of Hong Kong residents to seek refuge in the UK if China passes its new national security law.

More than 350,000 Hong Kongese currently hold BN (O) passports while 2.5 million residents are eligible to apply.

According to Mr. Johnson, “Britain would have no choice but to uphold our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong”.

“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,” he added.

Boris Johnson made this offer in a column in the Times of London. While this decision opens the door of opportunities for Hong Kongers, it leaves many questions unanswered about how challenging it would be for these migrants to get British Citizenship.

Explaining it as one of the biggest changes in immigration laws, the prime minister said the residents who already hold a British Overseas Passport and also those who’re eligible, would be granted 12-month renewable visas that would enable them to live and work in Britain.

Also, it would place those migrants on the route to citizenship. Presently, Hong Kong citizens with BN (O)s have the right to spend 6 months in the UK as a visitor.

Chinese Legislature passed a new security law last week. Beijing’s announcement of a current law stunned the Hong Kong residents, who consider it as a death blow to the one country-two laws model.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law

Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997. The country is run by a mini-constitution referred to as the ‘Basic Law’. This constitution is an outcome of the Sino-British Joint Declaration that restricts China to respect Hong Kong’s liberal political policies.

What Does the New Security Law Mean for Hong Kong?

The residents have started protesting against the law. According to Hong Kongers, Hong Kong will become Xinjiang! Stanley will become Qincheng.

Qincheng and Stanley are high-security jails in China and Hong Kong. Qincheng is situated in northwest Beijing and a number of political activists and human rights defenders are imprisoned there.

The ghost of being restricted from foreign travel, forced to remove online content, detained and locked in an unknown location just because of practicing human rights is now looming over the country. China’s new security law would also allow agencies in mainland China to establish branches and enforce laws in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong residents are well aware of what China does to human rights activists and minorities in the mainland. For China, these individuals are extremists, terrorists, and traitors, who conspire with international hostile forces.

Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan human rights defender, is one of the biggest examples. She was detained and imprisoned for 5 years for provoking separatism.

Similarly, Cao Shunliwas, a human rights defender, was arrested by the Chinese police back in 2013. Her crime was organising meetings and campaigning for public participation in outlining the country’s human rights reports.

China’s use of this current law to exclude any form of disagreement is now officially documented and approved. This decision was taken by China’s rubberstamp parliament on 28th May 2020.

Estimates suggest that this law for Hong Kong will be an utter violation of Beijing’s treaty obligations. Also, it will provide a legal cover to the government’s strategy to curb the voice of critics and human rights activists.

According to Boris Johnson, “Many people in Hong Kong fear that their way of life — which China pledged to uphold — is under threat.”

“If China proceeds to justify their fears, then Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away; instead we will honor our obligations and provide an alternative.”

The prime minister also said that this offer applies to those Hong Kongers whose passports have a mark of the British Government, showing their status in the country.

What is the British Overseas Passport?

You’re a British Overseas Citizen, if:

  • you were the citizen of CUKC on 31st December 1982
  • you didn’t acknowledge British Citizenship or a British overseas territories citizenship in 1983

If you were a British overseas citizen because of your link with Hong Kong, you lost that status in 1997. However, your overseas citizenship status is valid if you had no other nationality or if your date of birth is on or after 1st July 1997.

What are Your Rights if you are a British Overseas Passport Holder?

Your rights as a British Overseas Passport holder include:

  • hold a British passport
  • entitled to receive consular guidance and security from diplomatic posts
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However, you’ll still subject to immigration limitations unless you’re a British Citizen. Also, you don’t hold a right to live and work in the UK. Last but not least, you will not be considered a British national by the EU.

Clarifications on British Overseas Passport Holders

After parliamentary debate on British Overseas passport holders on 2nd June 2020, it appears that Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, and Boris Johnson may draw a discretionary line between British National Overseas and BN (O) passport holders.

We highly suggest those with a BN (O) status to apply as soon as possible for a renewal of their British passport. 

Also, make sure to seek free immigration advice from reliable immigration lawyers to know more about your available options.

There has been uncertainty in the statements made by the PM, Home Office, and House of Commons. The fact sheet is given by the Home Office UK that distinguishes between BN (O)s and British Overseas passport holders. The fact sheet includes different statistics for each category.

According to this fact sheet,  “UK government will explore options to allow BN(O)s to apply for leave to stay in the UK, if eligible, for an extendable period of 12 months.” 

However, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs was less clear about the entire situation. At first, he restricts the preparatory measurements to British Overseas passport holders. Then he repeats the broader policy instead of being specific about the current scenario.

The lack of clarity was pretty evident in the speech delivered on 2nd June. There was also uncertainty regarding opening the country to the millions.

As far as those people are concerned who did not register for the BN (O) status in the first place, the foreign secretary’s response was, “With regard to those who did not register for BN (O) status, or acquire a passport initially, Dominic Raab’s response was, “We need to be realistic about the volume of people that we in this country could credibly and responsibly absorb. I do not think we can have this debate without acknowledging that. The fact is, though, that we have a historic set of responsibilities, as I set out earlier, and we will live up to them”.

Boris Johnson, on the other hand, accepts this responsibility for over 2.9 billion Hong Kongers with a British Overseas passport.

Roughly 2.5 billion BN (O)s are entitled to apply for passports, and it appears that anyone with BN (O) can take advantage of the current visa scheme.

On the basis of current immigration changes, those with valid BN (O) passports should be able to enter the country without needing to follow any additional requirements.

However, it’s not clear whether they take a 5-years or 10-years route to citizenship as PM’s proposal only highlights that the change of rules “could” place them on the “route to citizenship”.

How to Apply for a BN (O) Passport?

If you have applied for BN (O) status before 1997, you may want to apply for your passport renewal.

To apply for a passport from Hong Kong, you will have to send:

  • Your original passport
  • If you’re applying online, you’ll need to have your BNO passport number
  • A color photocopy of both sides of your ID card (Hong Kong)
  • A color photocopy of any other passport you hold
  • Any evidence to show your address
  • A digital photograph

UK Will Not Walk Away!

Boris Johnson said that the immigration changes “would amount to one of the biggest changes in our visa system in British history”.

“If it proves necessary, the British government will take this step and take it willingly.”

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

“If China proceeds to justify their fears, then Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away; instead we will honour our obligations and provide an alternative.”

Lord Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, said the support from Boris Johnson was both ethically and politically right.

He also blamed China’s current ruling party of using domineering strategies. According to him, “Sooner or later with a bully you have to stand up to them, otherwise you’ll get knocked about.”

“I think we’re entering a period of realism with China…”

Lord Patten also explained that this is not a personal fight. The protest is against the Chinese Communist system that can’t tolerate Hong Kongers.

China’s Reaction Over the UK’s Interference

The United States and UK both raised the issue of the new law imposed by China in the Security Council. 

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China, in response, has indignantly rejected the idea. According to China, the enforcement of the new security law is China’s internal affair.

Also, Zhang Jun, China’s Ambassador to the United Nations, criticized the United States for the killing of George Floyd.

“It’s our view that, instead of wasting time on this issue, the Council should pay more attention and even take action on issues more relevant to international peace and security.”

“Just to name a few, the impact of the Brexit on international peace and security, the unilateral sanctions imposed by the US and other countries, the excessive use of force against protesters in Minneapolis, the killing of an African American young man and racial discrimination against African Americans. This list can be endless. China stands ready to work with you on these issues,” Zhang added.

China also said that attempts by the US and UK to raise the security law in the Security Council failed. According to Chinese representatives, no formal discussion on this issue was encouraged by other council members.

According to China, Britain has no right to make such an offer to Hong Kongers, who are basically Chinese nationals.

Hundreds of people protested in Honk Kong last Friday, Some of them have lifted placards with slogans like ‘independence for Honk Kong’.

Now it is not clear whether the Chinese government would permit the British Overseas Passport holders to move. Also, what would be Britain’s next step to take them out of Hong Kong?

The new Chinese law in Hong Kong could weaken the Sino-British contract. Also, UK, no longer being part of the EU, is keen to partner with the world’s biggest economies – and China tops that list.

Boris Johnson’s brave and forthright efforts for Hong Kong residents could, however, threaten the country’s economic goals.

While surveys show that there’s massive support for Boris Johnson’s offer to British Overseas passport holders, it is still not clear that how long he would be able to enjoy that support if a huge number of migrants enter the UK at a time when the economy and job market is already suffering due to the Covid-19 crisis.

According to Steve Tsang, Director, SOAS China Institute, London, “London doesn’t want to have a Hong Kong crisis.”

“The last thing London wants is to have three million British overseas passport holders coming to the U.K.,” he added.

Britain has hardly revoked its debate over Brexit. Now, the country has involved itself in another controversy.

Few analysts expect that in response to Mr. Johnson’s generous offer, millions of Hong Kong residents with a British Overseas passport will enter the UK.

The changes in immigration policy might be most helpful for students who’re pursuing a course in the UK on non-permanent study visas. These students were active participants of the pro-democracy protests and concerned about being compelled to go back to Hong Kong after the new security law.

Many people have already rushed to the British embassy to renew their British passports after the new Chinese security law was approved.

Human rights organizations applauded Britain’s step. Just like the US, attitudes in the UK toward Chinese policies have hardened in the past few months.

Boris Johnson refused an appeal by the US president to keep the popular Chinese telecommunication company, Huawei, out of the digital network. Now, experts believe that Mr. Johnson is likely to make an effort to stiffen restrictions on Huawei’s access.

Dominic Raab, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, said that the UK was in touch with other countries to discuss how to handle a possible migration of people from Hong Kong.

Also, he requested China to rethink its strategies, which, according to him, would intimidate Honk Kong’s freedom.


Over the years, human rights activists and critics in Hong Kong have shown immense courage to defend their rights. Be it Umbrella Movement in 2014 or facing brutal police violence last year, they have come out in the tens of thousands to demand justice.

Now a pragmatic threat is staring them in the face. Even with the Coronavirus outbreak, Hong Kongers will once again stand up for their rights. It is, however, yet to see how Mr. Johnson will keep his promise of settling down millions of Hong Kong residents in the UK.

Johnny Thompson

Johnny Thompson is a senior reporter for Generator Research in Los Angeles, reporting on technology, business, finances, and more. He previously worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

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