Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he will give as many as three million Hong Kong residents the chance to seek refuge and a new life in the UK if China presses ahead with plans to impose a new security law on the former British colony.
The premier’s intervention marks an escalation in London’s pressure on Beijing over its proposals for a law that democracy advocates say will erode the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.
“Many people in Hong Kong fear their way of life, which China pledged to uphold, is under threat,” Johnson wrote in an article published in The Times of London newspaper. “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 Chinese government said Johnson’s comments amounted to foreign interference in internal affairs.
The offer of a path to citizenship, first made by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last week, had already provoked a stern response from China. While Johnson’s proposal is unlikely to influence Beijing to change its position, a point British officials accept, it will be broadly popular among his Conservative Party colleagues who are increasingly hostile toward China.
Johnson’s government says a re-set of relations with Beijing will be necessary in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and officials are re-examining whether to go ahead with Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies Co. as a provider of equipment for Britain’s next generation mobile networks.
The prime minister’s intervention is also likely to be welcomed in the US, where President Donald Trump has stepped up his rhetoric against Beijing and pressed Johnson to keep Huawei out of British 5G systems on security grounds.
The international dynamic shifted with China’s proposed security law, which British officials are waiting to study in detail before taking final decisions on policy.
On Tuesday, Raab told MPs he had held talks with the UK’s so-called ‘Five Eyes’ security allies on the potential need to share the burden of migrants if there is a “mass exodus from Hong Kong in the months ahead. He said he believes that prospect is unlikely.
Even so, the UK’s willingness to embrace mass migration from its former colony may test the public appetite for welcoming foreign nationals, especially after the country voted to leave the European Union in part to gain control of its borders.