We have been here before – at least, in a manner of speaking. In 1989, the then Conservative Government granted British citizenship to some 250,000 people from Hong Kong. There was a paradox to the decision: Ministers’ intention was not that they should enter Britain under the scheme. Rather, this was that it would encourage them to stay in Hong Kong, by giving them certainty about their future, thus halting a mass exodus.
The gambit was sparked by doubts about whether China would honour the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, under which the two countries agreed terms for the transfer of Hong Kong, and which was due to come into effect in 1997. It worked. Tensions simmered down, and there was no mass take-up of UK passports.
But there has always been a giant questionmark against China’s honouring of the “one country, two systems” provisions within the declaration. It is highly visible now. Two years ago, the country’s Foreign Ministry described the declaration as an “historical document, [which] no longer has any practical significance, and does not have any binding effect on the Chinese central government’s management of the Hong Kong”.
It is unlikely that China will presently send troops into Hong Kong, and formally tear up the commitments enshrined in the join declaration. But the possibility exists, now or in the future: it is currently showing videos of troops massing on Hong Kong’s borders. This is part of its response to pro-democracy protests, which were concentrated originally on opposition to an extradition bill, under which suspects could be sent to China for trial. But the aims of demonstrators spread wider: they demand the free election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and legislature.
In essence, the settlement left by the joint declaration is unstable. For example, Hong Kong has a legislature of which only half the seats are directly elected. And although China has powerful incentives not to tear up the “one country, two systems provisions” – which would do its Belt and Road initiative abroad no good – the people of Hong Kong cannot be sure what the future will hold.
Hence the proposal by Tom Tugendhat and others to grant British citizenship to the 169,000 or so British Nationals Overseas in Hong Kong. Some want a bigger offer: the Adam Smith Institute also proposes to “open up the application process to the 4.5 million Hong Kong nationals”. Some, a smaller one: the Sun wants Britain to admit “the best and brightest in the small territory”. It might be that such a scheme would have the same effect as that of 1989: in other words, to encourage people to stay in Hong Kong rather than leave for the United Kingdom.
Then again, it might not – either now or, far more likely, in future. And the context in Britain has changed since 1989. Some, very largely but not exclusively on the left, support all migration, pretty much. Others would welcome a big influx of hard-working, family-orientated, Hong Kongers: this has an appeal for parts of the right. But even though public concern about immigration seems to have eased off recently, there is reason for caution.
As the Migration Observatory puts it in one of its headline findings: “British views are not favourable towards immigration and a substantial majority would like immigration to be reduced”. Furthermore, Government policy is in flux.
Boris Johnson wants to scrap Theresa May’s unmet pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, and promises Dominic Cummings’s fabled Australian-style points system instead. But it is far from clear what numbers this plan would produce – and numbers, though not everything in immigration debate, are much. And the system faces a daunting challenge in any event.
The Government now says that in the event of a No Deal Brexit – arguably now the most likely outcome – free movement will end immediately, which would certainly be popular with many voters. However, it isn’t apparent what system will be used to distinguish between EU nationals who have applied for the new settlement scheme and those who haven’t, to name only the most obvious of the problems bound up with immediate change.
In 1989, Norman Tebbit led a backbench revolt against the passport plan for Hong Kongers. It was less successful than advance publicity suggested. But there is no guarantee that the outcome would be similar this time round, were the more ambitious of the Hong Kong schemes to be tried.
Ultimately, the problem of how to respond to China over Hong Kong is a sub-set of the problem of how to respond to it more broadly – which points to the wider debate over Huawei, China, our infrastructure and national security. We could and should, as in 1989, offer some passports to Hong Kongers. But, as then, the should and must be strictly limited.
Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that the Joint Declaration is a legally binding treaty, registered at the United Nations. Which means that third parties have an interest in upholding it, however distant. In the case of Donald Trump, this might not be remote at all, given his stance on China.
Boris Johnson is due to see Trump soon – and frequently, given the mutual interest in a trade deal. The former ought to put Hong Kong on the agenda. Admittedly, the President is no fan of more migration to America. But it just might be that there is an Anglosphere offer to be made to Hong Kongers on a bigger scale than Britain could make alone.