A Christian human rights activist who specialises in Hong Kong affairs has commended the UK Government for its role in protecting Hong Kong residents.
Around 300,000 people are expected to leave Hong Kong for Britain under a new visa route this weekend. From Sunday, those with British National status can move to the UK and apply for citizenship after five years.
The government agreed to open its borders in response to Beijing's controversial national security law, which was introduced in the former British colony last year.
But on Friday, the Chinese government retaliated and said it will no longer recognise the British National (Overseas) passport (BNO) as a valid travel document or form of identification.
Benedict Rogers, co-founder of Hong Kong Watch, told Premier Christian News: “There was a sense among Hongkongers that Britain, given our history with Hong Kong, has a moral and actually legal responsibility under the terms of the Sion- British Joint Declaration [to Hong Kong residents].
“And there was a sense, until last summer, that Britain had rather walked away from that and was not living up to its obligations to defend Hongkongers. I think the British government has kind of come good on it now with this, admittedly last minute, but very bold and courageous and historic offer.
“I think the relationship between Britain and the people of Hong Kong is enhanced, but clearly between the governments there's a lot of strain at the moment.”
China’s move comes amid a bitter feud with the UK Government over the plan to allow 5.4 million Hong Kong residents a route to residency and eventual citizenship.
Demand soared last year after Beijing imposed the sweeping new national security law following months of pro-democracy protests.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily briefing: "The British side's attempt to turn a large number of Hong Kong people into second-class British citizens has completely changed the nature of the two sides' original understanding of BNO (British National Overseas).
"This move seriously infringes on China's sovereignty, grossly interferes in Hong Kong affairs and China's internal affairs, and seriously violates international law and the basic norms of international relations.
Rogers said China’s announcement has some unsettling consequences for Hongkongers.
“It means if they wanted to visit China, they wouldn't be able to on that [British National Overseas] passport,” he said.
“So essentially, it means that those who have that passport, once they're out of Hong Kong, will not be able to not only visit China, but would not be able to go back to Hong Kong to visit on that passport.
“And it also effectively means that until they eventually secure British citizenship, they're effectively stateless. There'll be in the UK, but they won't really be able to travel to anywhere where China has influence because it doesn't recognise that passport.”
Many Hongkongers carry multiple passports and it is unclear what if anything the Chinese government could do to prevent people entering the UK through the BNO visa plan.
As further protection of personal privacy, a mobile phone app will allow applicants to download their biometric information without having to been seen visiting the British visa office.
Rogers said Hongkongers who choose to move to the UK will do so because they’re “politically active and feel a sense direct danger because of the political situation in Hong Kong”.
He added others may not feel in immediate danger, but “have a sense that Hong Kong has no future, given the political repression, and they want a better future for themselves or for their children”.
The BNO passport was originally a disappointment for Hongkongers when it was first offered ahead of the former British colony's handover to Chinese rule in 1997.
At the time, it offered only the right to visit for six months with no right to work or become a full citizen. Applicants had to have been born before the handover date.
However, pressure grew to expand such privileges as China increasingly cracked down on civil and political life in Hong Kong in what critics say violates China's commitment to maintain the city's separate way of life for 50 years after the handover.
China first declared the 1984 Sino-British Declaration setting out the handover arrangements null and void despite its recognition by the United Nations, then imposed a national security law on the territory after the city's legislature was unable to pass it on its own.
"I am immensely proud that we have brought in this new route for Hong Kong BNOs to live, work and make their home in our country," Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement.
"In doing so we have honoured our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy - values both the UK and Hong Kong hold dear."
Listen to Premier's interview with Benedict Rogers here: