Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, an advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign, and Senior Analyst for East Asia to the international human organisation CSW.
A year ago today, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Priti Patel did something genuinely courageous, generous and right.
Within hours of the imposition of a draconian National Security Law on Hong Kong that destroyed the city’s promised freedoms and autonomy, the United Kingdom announced a scheme that would enable five million Hong Kongers to come here on a “pathway to citizenship”. It provided a lifeline to many who may need to flee Hong Kong as it is rapidly transformed from one of Asia’s most open cities into a place of Orwellian fear and repression.
The Government deserves credit for this, and the Home Secretary especially. For a government that delivered Brexit on a theme of limiting immigration to throw open the doors to a few million people in their hour of need is remarkable.
Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary declared that the National Security Law, imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese Communist Party regime with no consultation whatsoever, represents a “clear and serious breach” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the international treaty that was supposed to protect Hong Kong’s freedoms for at least fifty years from the handover.
Over the past year, the Foreign Secretary has declared further breaches and says Beijing is in a “state of ongoing non-compliance” with the treaty. A diplomatic understatement.
We have seen Hong Kong’s most respected, moderate, internationally-renowned pro-democracy leaders prosecuted and jailed, simply for expressing their desire for freedom.
The pro-democracy camp has been expelled from the legislature, politicians and activists charged and jailed for holding a primary election and the electoral law changed to exclude pro-democracy candidates.
And last week, in the latest hammer-blow, Hong Kong’s only remaining Chinese language, mass circulation pro-democracy daily newspaper, Apple Daily, was strangled to death, its editor and senior executives arrested and charged with “collusion” with foreigners, its newsroom raided by 500 police officers, its bank accounts frozen and its existence extinguished. Its founder, Jimmy Lai, languishes in jail awaiting trial, and could face life imprisonment.
As we mark the 24th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong – as well as the 100th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party – there is nothing to celebrate. Today is, for freedom-loving people everywhere, a day of mourning. The only thing we can be grateful for is that, at the eleventh hour, Britain did right by Hong Kong.
And thousands of Hong Kongers are taking up the offer. In the first two months after the scheme opened, 34,300 applications were made. From July 2020 until March this year, 292,000 British National Overseas (BNO) passports were issued. The Home Office anticipates between 258,000-322,400 Hong Kongers arriving here over the next five years and up to 150,000 this year alone.
So the Government’s job is not done. Ensuring a proper welcome and integration programme to help Hong Kongers settle here successfully is vital. Ministers are seized of this, with Lord Greenhalgh leading as co-ordinating minister, ensuring a cross-Whitehall approach. In April, the Government announced a £43 million support package and 12 ‘Welcome hubs’ across the country, helping Hong Kongers access housing, employment and educational support. Ministers also dropped their condition of no recourse to public funds, making assistance available for anyone in danger of destitution.
No one expects government to do this alone. Civil society is stepping up, a ‘Welcoming Committee’ has been established and government is eager to listen and collaborate.
All good. But more to do.
Hong Kongers moving here are still subject to international student fees for higher education, which for Russell Group universities average at £20,000. Given that BNO families will already have had to meet visa fees, an immigration health surcharge and provide evidence of ability to support themselves for six months, and that residents from almost all British Overseas Territories are eligible for ‘home fees’, this should be addressed. Hong Kong students who intend to make their life here and contribute to our economy and society should be treated as ‘home’ students.
BNOs leaving Hong Kong may be penalised from doing so by financial institutions. Hong Kong’s Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) is preventing BNOs from withdrawing pension funds, depriving people of life savings. One couple saved around £36,800 in their MPF over twenty years, and yet despite providing proof of their relocation, they have been unable to withdraw their funds. The two biggest MPF providers are HSBC, headquartered in London, and Manulife, headquartered in Canada.
Other financial pressure is also being applied. HSBC froze the bank accounts of a former legislator Ted Hui, now in Australia, and warned that online and mobile banking services may not be authorized for Hong Kongers outside Hong Kong. The UK must put pressure on international financial institutions to cease complicity with the regime’s coercion.
English language teaching will be needed for some, mental health and trauma counselling for others and prevention of both racially-motivated hate crime in communities and politically-motivated intimidation by pro-Beijing elements should be a priority. It will also be essential to ensure that pro-Beijing entities here, who support Beijing’s repression of Hong Kong, do not benefit from public funding.
The biggest single issue yet to be addressed is eligibility. Those born after 1997 who are not dependents of BNO holders don’t qualify. And that leaves many of the most politically active, vulnerable young people in danger. If they stay in Hong Kong they face jail or a bleak future. If they come here, currently their options are limited. Asylum is a bleak route.
Better would be to expand study or work visas that could lead to settlement. Canada and Australia have offered options, and there are efforts in the United States and the European Union to do likewise. If Britain shares the load with other democracies, the numbers involved are small but the lives and futures at stake incalculable. Yesterday, Hong Kong Watch released a briefing, with recommendations, on all these and other challenges. Implemented well, this scheme can be a great success, giving Hong Kongers a lifeline and injecting into the UK a new, dynamic, entrepreneurial, creative, exciting spirit which they embody. But failure to properly welcome and integrate could be costly.
Finally, let us not think the BNO policy is the only step we need to take. It is not a solution. It offers a lifeline, but it does nothing to change the dire situation on the ground.
So on the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th birthday, if we’re really serious about defending our values, we need to give Beijing a special present. We must make the regime pay for its crimes. We need sanctions. To allow the regime to get away with tearing up an international treaty with impunity will only embolden them to continue assaulting freedom. Taiwan is in its sights, and our own freedoms are too. So as well as welcoming Hong Kongers, we must hold the regime that drove them here to account.